You can’t cook in a vacuum. Sous vide cooking aside, I mean “vacuum” in a metaphorical sense. You can’t cook without inspiration.
Writers, musicians and chefs—to name a few—may find themselves walking the fine line between paying homage and copying. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern which is in play at any given time—even for the one creating the prose, music or food.
With regard to food, many culinary dishes are simply classics—with no individual creator. The same goes for a myriad flavor and textural combinations as well. Tomato and oregano, crisp and tender, beef and black pepper, spicy and sweet, cilantro and lime—just to name a few, and the full list is miles long.
Such traditional and natural pairings are part of the culinary “public domain.” Cooks worldwide are free to stock their arsenals with any and all of them without shame or the threat of reproach.
But, not every aspect of food creation is so easily navigated. This is especially true when you finally get your own restaurant.
When I started cooking professionally, I didn’t want my own place. I watched brilliant chefs driven to madness. I witnessed wunderkind line cooks smoke, snort, and drink—away their priorities and opportunities. I saw numerous relationships crumble under the weight of the professional kitchen.
And when I say “I didn’t want my own place,” it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about it. I was 100%, without a doubt, determined never to have my own place.
Without the entrepreneurial aspiration, I wasn’t pressured to develop my own food. I frequently cooked for friends or family, often recreating dishes from my current or previous restaurants. The food was good, but it wasn’t mine. It was just a copy of someone else’s. You can’t pay homage when you don’t have your own style as a contrasting element.
Fast forward part one: in 2009 I concluded that having my own restaurant was unavoidable. I wasn’t going to stop cooking professionally, and I didn’t want to work the rest of my life in someone else’s restaurant, however great a restaurant it might be.
Fast forward part two: February 26, 2011. At this point, I have SoCo and am prepping for a 12-person, 5-course private dinner party. The dessert that night was supposed to be beignets with cinnamon syrup and a green apple curd.
I wanted to serve a fried-dough dessert. But I did not want to serve my most recent chef’s “doughnuts” with lemon curd and powdered sugar. Hers was a delicious and clever dessert, but I had no interest in imitating my former mentor.
When I say I “had no interest in imitating my former mentor,” I mean that my thoroughly evaluated, primary objective was specifically not to copy her dish.
This is a very bad primary objective by virtue of it being the primary objective. When your highest aim is articulated in the negative, you’re poised for failure. Additionally, if you’re cooking without great food being your primary objective, you—and those you’re feeding—are headed for disappointment.
I might as well have conceived of my beignet dish with anchovy syrup and turd curd.
The green apple curd wasn’t working. The color was off. The flavor was weak, and the consistency was too thick. Also, I only had an hour before service.
I had a key lime curd in the freezer. It had been paired with a blackberry crisp and salted Chantilly for a previous dinner. The flavor and texture were perfect and could have been used as-is. However, I was determined to send this dessert down in flames.
In a last-ditch attempt to avoid serving anything that even remotely resembled my former chef’s dessert, I mixed my sorry-ass apple curd into the key lime. “Take that!” I shouted, shaking my fist in the air.
The resulting flavor was a clear and resounding lemon and the color was bright yellow. I had accidentally made lemon curd. This dessert was fighting with me and winning. It was like Chinese finger cuffs. The more I struggled, the worse things got.
Further insult to my campaign: the cinnamon syrup didn’t work with the accidental lemon curd, not to mention the syrup soggied the beignets.
I was sabotaging my dinner, the diners’ experiences—and ultimately undermining my fledgling business. This realization struck me as the guests began arriving. I prayed for a flash of brilliance to help me salvage my final course.
But salvage it as what dish? Beignets with what? I searched the pantry and fridge for anything I could quickly transform into a stellar dessert pairing. Roasted beets? Almonds? Bleu cheese? I considered panicking.
The first four courses were almost exactly what I wanted them to be. More importantly, they were better than what my guests had expected. They were having a great Saturday night, thanks in part to my food.
My final course, however, threatened to obliterate the evening like a 20-megaton bomb of soul-crushing mediocrity.
I pressed forward as if I knew what I was doing. About a hundred golden-brown, hot beignets rested on a paper towel-lined sheet tray. I dressed 12 dessert plates, arranged and dressed the beignets and took the plates to the table.
My guests started in on the dessert and a hush fell over the dining room. I began to worry. Then came the first “oooh” followed by an “mmmm.” Excited conversation returned to the table and within minutes every dessert plate was thoroughly cleaned.
That’s because I served “doughnuts” with lemon curd and powdered sugar. Only at the last minute did I come to my senses. Was my dessert a facsimile of my former chef’s dessert? No. Was it very similar? Very.
Beyond my worried of gastronomic plagiarism, the dessert was a properly executed and the diners enjoyed it. Nobody asked what happened to the cinnamon syrup and green apple curd. The dessert was a success despite my best efforts.
One of the greatest things about human culinary history is that we’ve recorded so much of it. We don’t have to start from scratch—even when cooking from scratch. We can confidently draw on the discoveries and innovations of generations of cooks through millennia of human history.
Similarly, we can draw on what we’ve learned from our mentors—even if this means—on occasion—presenting dishes we proudly served from our mentors’ kitchens.
After the diners departed, I sat down at our 12-foot-long farmhouse table with a glass of wine and plate of beignets with accidental lemon curd.
I hadn’t copied a great dish. I had shared a great dish that I’m passionate about and with which I’m intimately familiar. With several menus of my own food having met some success, I could grant myself at least a little room to pay homage.
Will I serve the dish again? Yes—but proudly and deliberately.
Will I try again to change the dish? Having learned an important lesson here, I can solemnly swear that I will try my darndest not to.