Is Food Ever Intellectual Property?

The Marcel-Vigneron-rips-off-Wylie-Dufresne saga has gotten a lot more philosophically interesting than anything that happened during the last season of Top Chef, when Marcel was a contestant. As the Gurgling Cod rightly notes, the Cyber Egg dish that Marcel demonstrated for Wired’s online feature wasn’t plagiarism (as my hastily written headline would have it): Marcel didn’t actually try to pass the Egg off as his own invention. He didn’t explicitly note that it was (in all likelihood) an imitation of one of his hero Dufresne’s signature dishes, but that just makes him a biter, not an intellectual criminal.

Moreover, as Wired writer Mark McClusky points out in his blog response to the Grub Street story, “It’s hard to draw a clear line when it comes to the creative ownership of food.” Every time a cook makes a “traditional” dish (eggs Benedict, say), she is indebted to the original creator (whoever that may be). But she usually also changes something, consciously or not (I don’t have any English muffins around, but what would happen if I used this delicious cornbread?).

Things get much trickier when it comes to molecular gastronomy, though. As McClusky writes of the Marcel incident:

Perhaps part of the sense of intellectual theft comes from the relative obscurity of the techniques involved in molecular gastronomy. All cooks are presumed to be able to saute, roast, steam and poach. But working with agar and sodium alginate and isomalt is still pretty cutting edge stuff. People like Dufresne and Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz are literally creating new techniques all the time, and the reliance on these techniques make similar dishes seem all the more like copying.

I think he hits it on the head here: A Cyber Egg is no eggs Benedict, at least not yet. (Dufresne, by the way, seems to want to be eggs Benedict.) Copying any molecular dish without crediting the original creator feels unethical at this point because the original hasn’t been lost—the pioneering chef is still alive, often still making that same dish and making a living in part by selling it. Why shouldn’t the idea of Creative Commons apply here? And if the offending former cheftestant just got the recipe by asking Dufresne (apparently he’s open source that way), double shame on Marcel for not giving the guy some credit.

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