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Another Top Chef Copycat

Just saw this little story about Richard Blais (from Top Chef Season 4) doing a demo of "his fiendish creation" - popcorn balls frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Top Chef Combines Popcorn, Popsicles, and Liquid Nitrogen

Pretty much the exact same dish has been done for some time at Jose Andres' minibar in Washington DC where it's called "Dragon's Breath Popcorn", a ball of crushed and reformed popcorn which you eat and then blow smoke (from the liquid nitrogen) out your nose and mouth - just like in the picture of Blais!

I just had the dish at minibar last week

Now, *maybe* minibar's dish is copying one created by Blais, but for some reason I'm dubious. What's the deal with the Top Chefs cribbing others' creations?

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  1. Blais has been in the business for quite some time. He's no newbie, so why couldn't the creation be his? Just because Andres is better known?

    Not a valid reason, imho.

    and it may be Adria's creation. They both have worked with him.....

    1 Reply
    1. re: ChefJune

      As I noted, it's possible that minibar is copying a dish Blais created, but seems less likely. I've gone to Blais' website, looked at all the pictures in his photo gallery (probably 50+), read all the reviews and press he's linked to there, and there's no mention of the dish. OTOH, the minibar dish has been on their online menu and has been discussed by other posters and elsewhere in various media outlets for several months.

      I also see no sign of it in the El Bulli online catalog (I only reviewed the "snacks" and "dry snacks" categories which seem the most likely candidates) - closest are these two popcorn dishes which are not very similar ->

    2. I think it's not just all Top Chef contestants but a lot of chefs who either steal dishes from other chefs or use other chefs' dishes as inspiration. Why did you say "another Top Chef copycat?" What other dishes/chefs are you referring to?

      6 Replies
      1. re: Miss Needle

        Been pretty extensively discussed that Ilan Hall "borrowed" several of his recipes from Casa Mono (a NY tapas restaurant backed by Mario Batali where he had worked). Here's an example ->

        Marcel Vigneron has also caught some flak for arguably copying a dish from wd50. Here's his (rather supercilious) defense ("I'm far too creative for that"); there are links within to the original story ->

        1. re: Frodnesor

          I think there's a significant difference between using recipes that were not only developed by someone else but *taught to you* by someone else (i.e. using recipes from a restaurant where you worked), and seeing or hearing about a dish and saying "gee, that's a neat idea, I wonder if I can do something like that."

        2. re: Miss Needle

          I think they are refering to Marcel and a dish he copied (I am just blanking out on which one) and published as his. I think chefs "copy" and are inspired by other chefs quite a bit and have been since there were people called chefs. I know now with the whole molecular gastronomy wave hitting there is much talk of "copycat" chefs. I just think it is silly to point out when we have the whole history of cuisine full of "copycats". What's next copyrighting technique?

          1. re: mike1823

            You cannot copyright a recipe or a technique, though Homero Cantu is seeking to patent some of the devices he uses to create some items including one that makes edible paper ->

            No doubt the the history of gastronomy is full of examples of the re-visiting and re-invention of various recipes, techniques, presentations, etc., likely more often than not to the ultimate improvement and betterment of the field. But it seems to me that it's one thing to take inspiration from someone else's dish, and quite another to simply recreate it - and even worse, to pass it off as one's own creation. Again, I'm not sure this is what has happened here, but it appears that way.

            To put it in musical terms, it's one thing to "riff" on someone else's song, or even to sample it, but it's something different to simply re-record it and act as if you wrote it.

            An example that happens to be fresh on my mind since I was just at minibar - they did a dish there called "Bagels and Lox". The presentation is a cone (I assume made from a bagel chip) which is filled with a cream cheese mousse and then topped with salmon roe. Here's a pic:

            This is clearly a take-off of an iconic dish done by Thomas Keller at French Laundry which starts off every meal, salmon cornets, in which a cone is filled w/ red onion creme fraiche and then salmon tartare. Here's a pic of that one:

            Not exactly the same dish, but clearly minibar's is a take-off on the Keller dish. Do they give attribution to Keller on the menu? No, but I suspect if you were to ask where the dish came from, it would be mentioned. I also suspect this wouldn't be the first dish the minibar chefs would use to try to demonstrate their originality.

            I'll admit there's a fine line between "homage" and "ripoff" but I think that line becomes harder to distinguish when someone takes a fairly unique dish (and look, nitrogen-frozen popcorn is not exactly chicken parmesan) and uses it as a spotlight for their own creative talents, when that exact dish is already being done elsewhere.

            1. re: Frodnesor

              <You cannot copyright a recipe or a technique, though Homero Cantu is seeking to patent some of the devices he uses to create some items including one that makes edible paper ->
              http://www.motorestaurant.com/flash/r...> That is a different thing. He has devices, not just words... Devices can be patented, not copyrighted.

              1. re: ChefJune

                <That is a different thing. He has devices, not just words... Devices can be patented, not copyrighted.>
                Which is exactly what I said - though actually "just words" can be copyrighted, so long as they're an original expression and not just a listing of methods or ingredients (which is why a cookbook can be copyrighted, but a recipe cannot).

        3. Here's my uneducated reply to the whole mess, as I have no experience with molecular gastronomy, only cooking.

          I never want to use the term 'limited' with it comes to creativity, and cooking. I think the the realm for that is boundless, but the tools that are currently being used (that I know of) like the anti-griddle, and the chemicals, seaweed derivitives, and liquid nitrogen, etc etc...are going to use very simlar methods over and over---making the dishes look similar, if not identical, possibly?

          For example, the first person the make a stuffed chicken breast, and bread it, and than someone else stuffed it with a different filling...was that a copycat, or really a variation? Are we calling it a copycat, merely because we are so ignorant of the process?

          I know hung at one point was criticised for using sous-vide too often in cooking, but his defense was it's a cooking method, just like satueing or frying, We've never said...That chef overuses poaching entirely too much...

          I'm of the camp that the tools are still in a development process, the genre is growing, and the variations on the dishes are VERY different. But all chefs more than likely take their inspiration somewhere.

          Now Ilan...is just a hack. ;)

          1. Dishes cannot be copyrighted.

            Add to that, there is NOTHING new under the sun. Probably even the molecular dishes that seem so innovative. Everything has been done before. And anyone who is trying to document all that, probably has too much time on their hands. ;>)

            Clearly there is nothing wrong, ethically or professionally, with using dishes "created" elsewhere for Top Chef, or Ilan would have been disqualified instead of being named the winner. Everyone knew he was cooking his dishes from Casa Mono. But he did them very well, obviously!

            1 Reply
            1. re: ChefJune

              (1) As for "nothing new under the sun" - quite to the contrary, I suspect there are a multitude of dishes or components of dishes that have been created by Adria and many of the other pioneers in this area that do not have historical antecedents (and at the same time there are many that deliberately borrow from traditional dishes as well). I don't buy the "everything's been done before" story - I can pretty much guarantee you there's no nitrogen-frozen popcorn in Larousse Gastronomique.

              (2) I tremble in fear when we are using a reality show's standards to determine what is ethical or professional. But my point really isn't ethics or professionalism though it overlaps into both - it's really about creativity. Yes, chefs copy each other all the time. But when you're pitching yourself as a creative, experimental chef, and you make a big media splash with a dish (and this story appeared in a multitude of media outlets simultaneously, so it's the result of a concerted PR effort), is a dish that's been copied from someone else really the best example?

              Having done a bit more googling, I can see at least a couple other prior uses of nitrogen-frozen popcorn ->
              By Homero Cantu as a garnish to a soup (note this was published in 2005) ->
              From some CH comments on McCrady's in Charleston (2007) ->

              So, let me modify the suggestion that he was copying minibar specifically to say that I think it's goofy to be getting PR for "creating" or "inventing" a dish that's been done by others before you in basically the exact same format and for the exact same effect. And let me qualify that as well by saying that while Blais himself may not be making the claim of "inventing" the dish, that's invariably how the media picks it up, which is unquestionably tied to the positioning of oneself as a creative experimental chef, e.g. ->

            2. Chefs copy all the time from each other. Not just chefs, cooks, cookbook authors, you name it.

              The rule of thumb is if you change one ingredient or alter one measurement you can "ethically" claim a dish to be yours. My personal rule of thumb is there should be three changes before calling anything your own.

              And then it also comes down to how there is not an inifinite number of combinations in the world. Like musical notes, only so many, and eventually there is going to be overlap.

              Next, add in to this the case of "simultaneous discovery". If only two people come up with the same exact dish in a single day two different places in the world, independent from each other, that's few in number. It might not be two, might be hundreds or thousands.

              And in this particular case toss in the limits and experiments of molecular gastrononmy and where trying new things out people will go the same places .... *plus*, as someone has already mentioned, both have trained under Adria, the master ....

              ..... and all I have to say is phooey! Copy *this*, already.

              2 Replies
              1. re: HarryK

                <The rule of thumb is if you change one ingredient or alter one measurement you can "ethically" claim a dish to be yours.>

                Don't know where you got the "one ingredient" thing. I've been in the business for 26 years, and it has always been THREE, and/or significant method changes.

                1. re: ChefJune

                  I got my one from hearing cooks and chefs on television say that. Rachael did once. Bourdain conversing with someone on one of his shows they said that. (You never know, they might have been sarcastic though, sometimes hard to tell with Anthony.) Heard it a few other times elsewhere on TV.

                  Think Flay twice said it. Again they laugh when they say "think I'll do this and steal it". Though Flay said that once and it appeared on a restaurant menu of his a month later, though who knows if he made more than a single change Saw one old episode of Boy Meets Grill where he said his sous chef did something unique and Bobby made his own my changing the technique from half classical method and half his sous chef's method.

                  Again, always disagreed with the one item method. Glad "my" three rule is also the industry's "three" rule, Chef June. But as to where I got it, yep have heard it many times on television from five or six different sources.

              2. A key thing for me, in this kind of situation, is that Blais isn't quoted as saying that he invented the dish or came up with it with no input or influence from any other chef. The writer is crediting him with inventing the dish, but Blais himself didn't, apparently, say anything about it. If asked, he might well talk about how he had a dish like it at X restaurant, or heard about it from a chef in DC or what have you. In my experience, chefs often talk about taking an idea from another dish and are quick to point out a source of inspiration.

                8 Replies
                1. re: ccbweb

                  Here's the actual press release ->
                  and here's a quote ->
                  "Richard Blais, best known as one of the three finalists on Bravo's Top Chef: Chicago has combined delicious Garrett Popcorn with his own brand of quirky kitchen science to create an interactive summertime snack experience."
                  Isn't a reasonable reading of that sentence that Blais created the dish?

                  True, he is not quoted as saying that he invented the dish, but isn't that the intended implication, particularly when you're talking about a chef whose stock in trade is his creativity? Again, to be fair, it would appear that Garrett Popcorn Shops was the source of the press release and not Blais - but it's not like it happened in a vacuum.

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    Sure that's a reasonable reading of the sentence. But its also a literally accurate sentence. Personally, I think that in order to cover this kind of thing chefs would have to pretty much footnote everything they do. I'm comfortable with the belief that Andres, Achatz, Dufresne, Blais and others are all sharing ideas, taking ideas, pulling inspiration and modifying concepts from each other all the time. They're not necessarily going to give the history of each thing they're doing (especially, as you note, when it isn't their press release to begin with).

                    1. re: ccbweb

                      I'm fairly involved in food, food culture, and like to read about MG.

                      I've never heard about this dish before.

                      98% of the people this will reach, also, will never have heard of it before to. I'm sure it will have the desired effect, regardless of who concieved it. For all we know, that journalist spent a day in the kitchen with Blais and he made ten dishes. The photographer only took the one shot for the AP, so this one is the one we're talking about.

                      It's like arguing who 'invented' choc. covered potato chips.

                      1. re: sommrluv

                        I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, I didn't invent popcorn. I didn't invent the caramel, or the wooden skewers they are served on.

                        Many chefs have dipped popcorn, and marshmallows, and everything else in LN2.

                        I "copied" something that science teachers have been using in classrooms for years, well before any of you knew who Adria was.

                        I'm introducing a modern technique to a brand new demographic, people who are just walking down the street on 5th avenue.

                        If frozen popcorn is an introduction to creative cooking, and some of these people who get their first MG experience for free, then start making reservations at any creative kitchen, or start learning about it, or become interested, then thats the goal.

                        and it's an event a a popcorn shoppe, I'm not selling it, it's free !


                        1. re: richard blais

                          fwiw i agree with you. you don't need to "invent" a foodstuff or a technique in order to introduce it to an audience that is unfamiliar with it. in fact, when you're introducing a brand new food/technique, it's generally much better to keep it simple and fun, using a tried & true technique that's had a good response elsewhere.

                          i don't think that anybody would have a problem, if you were, say, passing out free samples of cheese or truffles on 5th avenue.

                          it's when you're preparing something. . . *now* there's apparently a problem. . . 1) i don't get why this would be so-- 2) especially if it's for a free event, not at your own establishment, & the product is given away for free. as you say "I'm not selling it,"-- so i don't think the product has any "Blais branding," or "Adria branding," there is more branding from garrett's than anything else imho.

                          mainly i'm posting a response to you because the crickets were getting deafening.

                          1. re: richard blais

                            rB - that's a completely legitimate and reasonable response, and my initial reaction was probably way too harsh. I understand now that you didn't control the press release, and even less so the way that the media describes it - my bad. But I think the difficulties come when something is presented as if someone "invented" or "created" a dish, when it has been done before. No doubt this will happen quite often as the mainstream media generally don't have any sense of context for this stuff, but still, it can raise the hackles when you read that someone "created" something that you just ate in someone else's restaurant a couple weeks earlier.

                            I completely agree that if the PR and the event create more of an audience for this kind of creative cooking (both yours and others'), that's a good thing - and I wish you the best of luck,

                            1. re: Frodnesor

                              Good points, all.

                              Hopefully it's him, and not someone using the internet as fun. :)

                              Watch frodnesor backpedal in his awe! LOL. J/K

                              As I said in my earlier post, is it possible we as fans are so ignorant of the process, we are quick to see something similar done in technique and point fingers? It's a concern.

                              The science reference reminds me of a biology class where we disected squid, than breaded, deep fried, and ate them....Great class!!

                              1. re: sommrluv

                                I actually think that the more you know about the processes, the more likely you are to recognize that something which might be touted as "novel" may not be so novel after all.

                                The concern I have is that folks who may not be familiar (and this includes the media who report on such things) see something for the first time and hail it as an "invention" or "creation" when in fact it's something that others have already done, whether in the same format or some variation on it.

                                Our biology lab wasn't nearly as well stocked as yours or rb's - we had neither liquid nitrogen nor deep-fryers.

                  2. Recipes can't be copyrighted according to the patent office so everyone is free to copy anyone else's recipe.

                    I don't see how anyone could ever create a meal if they had to reference every source for every technique, ingredient and process they use.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: RBCal

                      I'm not sure that is correct - my understanding was that the ingredient list is not copyrighted, but the instructions are, though one may paraphrase them, as opposed to reproducing them word for word. I don't think there is an issue with using the recipes to cook from them. A patent is a different issue, I think.


                      "Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds, or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, when a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection."

                      1. re: MMRuth

                        MMRuth, you are correct.

                        All cookbooks are copyright... but you are free to copy the ingredient list, anytime you want!!! ;>O