Cooking Backward

An amateur chef living in Vegas has made a hugely successful career out of reverse-engineering recipes from Applebee’s, Starbucks, and other national chains and processed-food manufacturers, the Kansas City Star reports, in a piece picked up this week by the San Jose Mercury News. Todd Wilbur, 43, approaches his job—cracking the secrets of foods like Boston Market’s meatloaf or Duncan Hines’s yellow cake mix—with a true chowhound’s obsessiveness. As the article explains,

First he eats a dish at the restaurant and photographs it with his cell phone. He might ask the server about the dish’s ingredients. Then he orders the dish for carryout, requesting that garnishes or sauces be packaged separately.

Back home at his kitchen ‘lab,’ Wilbur begins the dissection by putting sauces through a sieve and rinsing them, which makes it easier to identify the chopped-up chunks that remain. He chills food for clues to the fat used in cooking. He scours the Internet and cookbooks for similar recipes that might serve as a starting point. Then the trial-and-error begins.

Dear God, why am I not Todd Wilbur? Not only does his job sound incredible (um, except for the whole Applebees/Starbucks/Duncan Hines part), but he’s had single days when he’s sold nearly 80,000 cookbooks on the QVC channel (plenty of titles on the bestseller list only move around 2,000 copies a week, according to one publishing insider). And Wilbur’s site gets a respectable 10 million page views every month. He chalks up his success to the fact that “Americans … eat out so much that some restaurant dishes are like old family favorites.”

OK, actually that last part is a little disconcerting, given the kinds of restaurants he’s talking about. But Wilbur is certainly doing these IHOP-ophiles a favor by creating healthier, more delicious versions of the real thing and encouraging people to make ridiculously easy stuff like pancake mix and fettuccine Alfredo instead of buying it.

I’m into some of the sweets recipes he has on the site now, but if he does end up doing a “fine-dining” edition, I’ll be all over those savories, too. Anyone here ever tried reverse-engineering a fave dish?

See more articles
Share this article: