About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, April 03, 2006
Cast The First Stone
Melbourne chef Robin Wickens has made the papers for all the wrong reasons. He has copied signature dishes from a handful of American chefs and put them on his menu. eGullet got hold of it and their discussion board has been running red hot, mostly with righteous indignation mixed with a few legal opinions.

Just how bad is what he did?

If we were talking art or literature it would be very bad indeed, so bad he would find himself facing the law. But we are talking cooking here and chefs have been borrowing from each other to a lesser or greater extent since Apicius was a boy. Indeed, it is a convention amongst chefs, and not one could honestly tell you he or she has never cooked another's recipes. Rick Stein summed it up pretty well when he was talking about how chefs 'acquire' recipes and pretty much said "....we rip them off really." He actually went to the trouble to put on one of his shows the creator of saffron potatoes, a dish that Rick had put on at his restaurant and this guy was banging on about provenance, not getting the fact that this was his chance to set history straight.

Signature dishes are being knocked off all the time. I can remember eating at Jacques Reymond's restaurant here in Australia twenty odd years ago, and ordering pig's trotters stuffed with morels and sweetbreads, which was the signature dish of Pierre Koffman at La Tant Claire. Was I troubled by this? Not at all, I wanted to try the dish, but I didn't want to fly to London to have to do it. Another person not troubled by this is Marco Pierre White. In his cookbook White Heat, he gives a recipe for this same dish, naming it Pig's Trotters Pierre Koffman, but if you didn't know who Pierre Koffman was, you would naturally believe it was Marco's dish. Very clever.

Steven Shaw, aka the fat guy, at eGullet tries to make the point about attributing, giving the example of the molten chocolate pudding as a dish that has passed into common knowledge therefore not requiring attribution, but the signature dishes, featured by Robin Wickens, because they are cutting edge, need to be attributed. The problem with this is, who decides what and when to attribute? When is the exact point something becomes common knowledge? Does the maker of the shrimp noodles give a nod to the ancient Chinese noodle makers upon whose idea he built? Where does it all end?

I think a few people should get a grip. Chefs borrowing, stealing or ripping off is a convention and a very long standing one, there is no need to become precious about it. It is the means by which cookery moves forward. Personally I like the idea that I can have a taste of a signature dish here in my home town. By all accounts Robin Wickens didn't claim the recipes as his own, he just cooked and served them.

It's time a few people got off his back.
  posted at 11:50 am

At 8:48 am, Blogger Reb said...

Couldn't agree more - well said. Obviously food critics have never read Walter Benjamin's (1937) 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' or they wouldn't be getting so thingy about it.

At 10:00 am, Blogger neil said...

Thanks Reb, haven't read the book but will look out for it at the library. This issue really got me going, if all chefs start attributing on their menus, it will be midnight before anyone can order. And the good folk at EGullet should have a good look at themselves over plagiarism, doesn't eGullet look a lot like eBay? Imitation or flattery?

At 8:01 am, Blogger Reb said...

As with almost everything, you can dld from the internet - it's an essay rather than a book. Try http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

for a copy. What gets me is that the whole idea of original 'art' and what that entails (and I think recipes and haute cuisine fall into that category) has been tossed around for almost a century. Somehow the foodies haven't quite caught up. Let's face it, if the Romans hadn't copied Greek Bronze statues they would have had to start from scratch! I might do an article for Gastronomica on it (http://www.gastronomica.org/ if you haven't seen this 'food for thought' journal!).

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