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Jul 15, 2008 06:45 AM

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 ->
    > 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 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.