Can you copyright a recipe? No …

I do a lot of research when I bake or cook anything.  I look at many different recipes, try a few, adapt them to make the more to my taste.  I once came across a well-known professional cake bakers page and they had shared a recipe for a sponge cake and stated quite clearly that it was copyrighted and couldn’t be baked for commercial purposes.

This got me thinking – how can anyone copyright a recipe?  I mean who first invented the combination of flour, eggs, sugar and butter to create a cake?  Did Ireland invent Sodabread and if so should I pay someone royalties?!

I found a fantastic article in The Guardian that explains it in more detail.  Essentially you cannot copyright a recipe and top chef’s all over the world freely admit that they seek inspiration and get their ideas from each other.   To recreate a recipe from a written/published recipe is not a crime and happens all the time.

I get that.  It’s fine to seek inspiration from other chefs.  Everyone does it.  I agree with The Guardian that it may be a culinary faux pas just to copy a recipe and not make at least an attempt to adapt it, but it just shows a lack of imagination more than anything else.

The new Guardian

The new Guardian (Photo credit: OwenBlacker)

Published in The Guardian Fri 24th March 2006

Can you copyright a dish?

The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Wednesday March 29 2006

We said in the report below that it was not possible to patent a recipe in the UK or US. In fact it is possible, although it would have to be substantially different from anything that had been done before.

That’s the question raging in the food world this week after a chef in Australia was accused of copying the signature dish of a New York restaurant. Paul Lewis reports

Some say that the humble pizza was created in Italy’s Campania region in 1889, either by a Napolese baker named Raffaele Esposito or an unnamed Italian who worked from an underground bunker. Others point out that archaeologists discovered pizzeria petrified in Pompeii’s volcanic rock, which would date the recipe back to AD79. There’s another theory that pizza-like dough was first chomped by the Greeks. But it could equally have been the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, or the marching Persian soldiers of Darius the Great circa 500BC.

Either way, does it really matter whose idea it was to mix flour and water, add some vegetables and cook it on a hot stone? Can a recipe – as some of the world’s top restaurateurs and food experts are now asking – ever be considered intellectual property?

An altogether more complex dish has prompted this debate on the online food forum, eGullet, this week. The recipe, in brief: prawns are pureed using an enzyme called transglutiminase, extruded into a noodle, cooked, and served with smoked yoghurt, paprika and nori. Not the sort of meal that two chefs separated by 10,355 miles are likely to invent at the same time.

Still, identical versions of this dish did appear simultaneously on the websites of two cutting-edge restaurants – Melbourne’s Interlude, run by a 31-year-old British chef, Robin Wickens, a former student of Raymond Blanc; and Wylie Dufresne, head chef/owner of WD-50, a restaurant in New York’s trendy Lower East Side. The former, it quickly transpired, had copied the latter, without crediting the innovator. Interlude also appeared to have produced direct replicas of recipes from several other restaurants, leading to one eGullet poster to warn Wickens to prepare to be labelled a “fraud”.

Wickens told the Guardian that the near-identical dishes were a result of a research trip to WD-50 and said that, “At no time did I try and claim that I invented any of the dishes that I had experienced in the US and recreated at Interlude.”

“It might be a bloody cheek. But so what?” says restaurant reviewer Egon Ronay. “It goes on all the time. Chefs travel the world looking for dishes and try to imitate them in their own menus. That’s how good cooking spreads – it’s what food is all about. Frankly, in my view, it doesn’t matter a damn.”

Dufresne is reluctant to criticise Wickens, who recently sent him a letter of apology. Whatever his justification, Wickens has opened a pandora’s box. As an eGullet editorial put it: “We believe the Interlude controversy is not a simple matter of a lone Australian restaurant copying a few dishes from halfway around the world. Rather, it’s one of the most significant issues facing the global culinary community today.”

But can you copyright a recipe? Could Heston Blumenthal register his roast spiced cod with castelluccio lentils? Or St John’s Fergus Henderson his roast bone marrow with parsley salad? No, says Alex Papakyriacou, of intellectual property law firm Briffa. “Case law suggests that reproducing a written recipe in the preparation of a dish is not copyright infringement. The same goes for recipes that have been communicated aurally or by a chef deciphering the ingredients and method involved in the preparation of a recipe by sampling a dish prepared to it.”

Nor is it possible to patent a recipe, either in the UK or US, because the organic development of food will never constitute an “inventive step”. In short: you will never know definitively where your pizza or prawn noodle originated.

But if there is no legal basis crediting a dish, is there a moral incentive? “Only if it’s a signature dish by one of the very few truly original chefs in the world,” says Richard Corrigan, the chef owner of two of London’s top restaurants, Lindsay House and Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill. “Everyone has been robbed in the middle of London, it’s normal. But it doesn’t bother me; I’m sometimes tickled. Every restaurant in London is after my bread recipe, for example, and it’s not easy to keep it a secret.”

Rowley Leigh, head chef at Kensington Place for 18 years, says that unless recipes are copied verbatim without credit in a rival’s cook book – a crime which, he says, he was once a victim of – chefs should be flattered when their peers use their ideas.

“My most copied recipe is griddled scallops with pea pure and mint vinagarette, which I have seen hundreds of times since, usually adapted a bit.The truth is we’re all magpies stealing ideas. But that doesn’t mean copying. There’s a difference.” Chefs who, like Wickens, make carbon copies of other people’s menus are not guilty of much more than “poverty of imagination,” reckons Leigh.

A truly magnificent dish, says Alexis Gauthier, head chef at London’s Roussillon restaurant, can never be stolen by a rival chef. “Ultimately, it all happens in the mouth. If there’s something that cannot be replicated it is the ability of a chef to know when the jus is reduced enough, when the fish is cooked to perfection. You can taste the difference between chefs. If there is a chef with an over-bloated ego who thinks that a recipe is their creation, well, that’s pure bullshit.”

But top chefs admit in private that in an intensely competitive market, filching a recipe without even attempting to deviate from its original form is, at the very least, a culinary faux pas.

It’s a fact acknowledged by Wickens: “I guess I did something bad and have to pay the punishment – but it happens a lot more regularly than people realise.”

But Dufresne is forgiving – perhaps understandably so. His controversial prawn noodle dish, he admits, can actually be traced back to the kitchen of Britain’s Heston Blumenthal, who runs the Fat Duck restaurant.

“A lot of the interesting things we use [at WD-50] have been learned from exposure to [Blumenthal’s] kitchen,” says Dufresne. “But it’s almost impossible for me to imagine me doing something that’s misconstrued as one of his dishes.” The difference, he says, is in the application; Blumenthal has never used the enzyme-into-noodle technique with prawns.

“We all plagiarise all the time. All we can do is stand on the shoulders of the people before us. It’s a grey area. None of us is completely innocent.”

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About Claire Sullivan

Bake - Slice - Eat - Enjoy! An Irish girl living in Norfolk, sharing everything I know about baking and everything I learn along the way. The beautiful County of Norfolk is full of wonderful gems, from cafes's to salons and I can't wait to share them with you. https://bakewithclaire.wordpress.com
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One Response to Can you copyright a recipe? No …

  1. I was wondering the same thing myself. Thanks for posting the article.

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