Whose dish is it anyway? When Instagram inspiration verges on plagiarism

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

Whose dish is it anyway? When Instagram inspiration verges on plagiarism

Related tags: Social media, Restaurant, Chefs

The rise of Instagram has meant it’s never been easier for chefs to get inspiration from their peers across the world. But at what point does it turn into plagiarism? And who, if anyone, has ownership of a dish anyway?

In 1994, the now chef-owner of Torquay’s Michelin-starred Elephant restaurant, Simon Hulstone, was a young stagiaire at London’s The Connaught hotel. Hulstone was keen to sharpen his pastry skills under French ‘maître chef’ and Escoffier disciple Michel Bourdin, a Michelin star holder since 1975. There was just one problem: Bourdin’s pastry chef refused to give Hulstone any complete recipes.

“She’d give me them minus a few ingredients, which she’d weigh separately. I was like, seriously?! She said, ‘I can give you ingredients, but not the amounts. We can’t give you recipes’,” recalls Hulstone.

In the 90s, creative originality was not foremost in chefs’ minds. For almost a century, French haute cuisine emphasised an established repertoire of dishes, which chefs mastered through repetition. Food evolved at a glacial pace. As famous for a version of ‘Pigs Trotters Pierre Koffmann’ as his oyster tagliatelle with caviar (itself a fusion of two Le Gavroche and Le Manoir dishes), Marco Pierre White declared in the US edition of his autobiography, The Devil In The Kitchen that: “We live in a world of refinement… not invention.”

Yet as Hulstone’s experience shows, even then, chefs wanted to keep their killer recipes secret. All chefs take ‘inspiration’ from each other (inspiration a coy industry euphemism for copying), but nonetheless it creates tension. 

Today, that tension is acute. That exchange of ideas is more political. First nouvelle cuisine, then molecular gastronomy put a new primacy on invention. Working in the shadow of Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi, chefs increasingly want their food to be seen as groundbreaking. Being first has cachet now. It pays dividends in hard cash.

Easy access of dishes

Ironically, chefs became ‘inventors’ at exactly the point it became ridiculously easy to steal techniques and ideas. Pre-broadband, chefs had to travel to restaurants for research, pay for a meal and, laughs Hulstone, there was a certain dignity to the process. “Everyone steals. That’s what we eat out for. In some aspect, we’ve bought that recipe. I’ve paid you £150 and taken inspiration, which I’ll draw on.”

Now, in contrast, as chef Sat Bains puts it: “In 20 minutes, I can visit 12 top chefs on Instagram.” That free, easy access has turned cooking into a creative Wild West, where fresh ideas are immediately copied by young chefs eager to cook the latest hip dishes (look at how many imitators Cornerstone’s crumpets have inspired). Chefs have never been more open about the granular detail of their dish development, nor more aggrieved when chefs copy them.

In the absence of legal protection [see bottom of article], our most creative chefs are beginning to restrict what they share. Restaurant ​magazine has been told that chefs will now publish useable recipes which, nonetheless, miss out vital steps or ingredients that make their original dish stand out. The ‘real’ recipes are only shared with close industry allies.

Cornerstone's crumpets have inspired some imitators

Some chefs shrug off imitation of their star dishes as transparently poorer facsimiles. You may mimic Jöro’s layered onion in dashi dish from an Instagram photo (“That’s definitely inspired a few people,” says chef-owner Luke French), but can you cook it as well as Jöro does? As chef Alex Gauthier told The Guardian​ in 2006: “It is the ability to know when a jus is reduced, when the fish is cooked to perfection. You can taste the difference between chefs.”

But, in this age of restaurant hype, of must-eat dishes, in this battle of ideas, that execution is often moot. In order to attract curious diners, leading chefs want to be seen as offering distinctive dishes, not those available everywhere. For certain restaurants, originality is not just creatively satisfying. It is their brand value. It is marketing. 

In order to retain that USP, top chefs are having to dig deep. For instance, at his two Michelin-starred Nottingham restaurant Bains creates dishes (Sherwood Forest; his Lenton Lane-take-on-Rocky Road; NG7 2SA), that tell a unique story about his restaurant and its environment.

Another ‘genius’ option, says Bains, as the new Noma has done, is to make your food so complex it defies imitation: “Years ago, I met Daniel Patterson at Coi in San Francisco. He
does this dish which includes a beet rose: individual, tiny discs of beetroot in a rose shape. Each one takes 20 minutes. He said, ‘when fuckers want to copy it they can’t, because it takes too fucking long’.”

A very public issue

Where once such copycat chefs might have been the subject of bitchy industry gossip, rows about plagiarism can now easily spill over into ugly, public arguments. This clearly makes chefs nervous. Silo’s Douglas McMaster recently pre-apologised, not for copying a dish but because he had styled an Instagram image in a similar way to those posted by Copenhagen’s Geist: “I did a stage with Bo Bech. I found him really inspiring. The images looked really similar to his signature style, using a light box, so I felt it polite to acknowledge it.”

At one time, Sat Bains would happily call out what he deemed to be imitations of his work at Restaurant Sat Bains [RSB], even down to the cutlery blocks at Adam’s in Birmingham, where ex-RSB man Tom Shepherd is head chef (asked to comment, owner Adam Stokes had “nothing to add”). But now Bains is keeping quiet: “The last four months I’ve stopped. I want to enjoy my cooking. Ultimately, I’ve got to get to where I’m focusing on what I’m doing, not everyone else.”

It is not lost on Bains that what he sees as jovial online banter, other chefs and the public can see as serious. He describes his comments about Adam’s as being tongue-in-cheek. “We didn’t invent [cutlery blocks] and if people eat here and look at the idea, fine. Tom’s a top lad. We’re very proud of him.”

Restaurant Sat Bains' potato with caviar

Similarly, Bains’ online spat with Mana’s chef-owner Simon Martin, about the similarity of the Manchester restaurant’s potato with caviar to the RSB version, was a storm in a teacup. “All I put was, ‘looks familiar’. There was no beef. It got out of context on social media so I stepped out. I sent [Martin] a message and said, ‘good luck’. I’m not a senior chef pushing young guys down, that’s not what I’m interested in.”

Martin recalls the incident. “Yes, absolutely, I took some inspiration from his dish,” he says. But illustrating how tangled the historic origins of dishes are, he is also keen to point out that RSB didn’t invent potatoes served with crème fraiche and caviar (a point Bains freely concedes), and that Mana’s potato was prepared differently by cooking it in charcoal and dressing it with juniper crème fraiche, kelp butter and kelp oil. “It looked similar,” concedes Martin, “[but] it wasn’t identical.”

That controversy arose last year during a strange incident for the then newly-opened Mana when someone (Martin won’t say who, but privately he persuaded them to desist), opened an Instagram account called What Is Mana Copying This Week. The account highlighted that a handful of Mana’s opening dishes resembled dishes served at Noma, where Martin had previously worked.

The reason was simple: Martin could not start work in his kitchen until later than planned and, in an emergency, had to fall back on a few Noma ideas, he says. “We didn’t have time to develop our own stuff. That’s all people need to know. Now we’re producing a menu which is extremely original, and things we can very much call our own.”

That borrowing was not ideal, but needs must. “We had a lot of pressure on us and, at the end of the day, I sacrificed my life for Noma. If I wasn’t allowed to come away, open my own restaurant and have a couple of references to that huge part of my life, I’d say, ‘what the fuck was the point in working there?’ I’ve messaged René since and he’s never [mentioned] it. He wouldn’t. He’s constantly progressing. If I use something they were doing two years ago, I don’t think he gives a shit.”

In fact, Mana is still using Noma’s scallop fudge dressing: “I worked on that serving for over a year. I believe I made it better. It’s close to my heart and if I can take one thing away, I’m going to keep cooking that.”

A sense of ownership

This raises an interesting philosophical question: do head chefs in any sense ‘own’ dishes collectively developed by highly-skilled teams? Broadly, most chefs seem to agree that if you work at a venue for a few years, you have earned the right to use elements of that cooking in your later work. But it helps if you leave on good terms. “If they’ve fallen out, then it gets nasty,” observes Hulstone.

Clearly, there are few hard and fast rules in this constant dialogue of ideas. But where should you draw the line in copying, or being inspired by, dishes? And when, out of professional courtesy, should you openly give accreditation? It is definitely bad form to steal hot dishes from new restaurants. In this Instagram era, such dishes are a significant draw. That is devalued if imitations proliferate. “It doesn’t bother me any more. Fuck it, it’s nice that Jöro’s inspiring other chefs. But early on, we were more touchy and protective because we were such a new restaurant,” says French.

Riffing on signature dishes, key menu items or techniques from established restaurants is less controversial, but it is polite to namecheck them, in the media, as staff introduce dishes or on menus. Tom Kerridge references Claude Bosi’s mushroom risotto and Daniel Clifford’s crispy egg on the menu at Kerridge’s Bar & Grill.

Chef Dominique Ansel secured a registered trademark for his Cronut

Many diners will not know who Bosi or Clifford are, but to Bains: “It’s respectful. If you’re doing a dish loosely based on something you’ve eaten, give a nod. It shows massive confidence to admit you’ve been inspired by, say, the mushroom egg carbonara at Geist. The flipside is, if you copied a dish and got plaudits in the press, how would you live with yourself?”

Ideally, rather than lazily copying dishes, all chefs should be aiming to put their stamp on what inspires them. French has namechecked colleagues on his menu, but insists: “I’ve never directly copied a dish.”

Before any chef accuses another of copying a dish, incidentally, it is wise to remember that similar dishes can come about via completely different routes. In a 2017 review of Carter’s of Moseley, critic Andy Hayler wrote that its chicken liver muesli “bore more than a passing resemblance” to RSB’s duck liver muesli. But says a spokesperson for Carter’s: “Brad Carter has never eaten at Restaurant Sat Bains and was not aware he produced a dish similar to his until six years after putting it on the menu.”

The statement continues: “At the sharp end of the industry, many chefs will share a similar thought process and draw inspiration from similar places [and] philosophies. We notice it when dishes similar to Brad’s pop up, whether directly inspired by Carter’s or a coincidence due to a natural evolution of ideas.”

Online, chefs and diners can all too easily jump to angry conclusions. “I’ve had a guy send me really nasty messages on Instagram saying I’d copied someone else’s food, and he’s sent me my photo of the dish,” laughs a bewildered Hulstone.

Perhaps everyone needs to step back and relax. Every chef borrows ideas and that process is centuries old. Namecheck those influences, respect your rivals by not directly copying dishes, be distinctive if you can, but remember: there is almost nothing genuinely original in restaurant food. All chefs are imitators, whether they admit it or not.

Can you copyright a new dish?

Chefs like to lay claim to having created certain dishes, but is it possible for them to copyright a dish to stop their peers from reproducing it?

The short answer is no, according to Paul Herbert, a partner at London-based law firm Goodman Derrick LLP. “Recipes are an example of how the interlocking principles of our intellectual property laws leave gaps,” he says.

“A recipe constitutes a literary work for copyright purposes but that only protects the written recipe from being republished, not manifestations of that recipe. Nor would a dish qualify as an artistic work, being intrinsically ephemeral.”

While a copyright refers to the expression of an idea, such as an artistic work, patents are applied to an invention, meaning that these are also unlikely to be applicable when it comes to recipes or dishes, adds Herbert. “Patents are most unlikely to apply: the recipe would have to be substantially novel, and be capable of industrial processing. Lastly, we have a concept of design law, but that only protects the shape of products.

“The only ‘crumb’ is if the dish could be given an original name (eg Cronut), it might be possible to obtain a trademark, which, while not preventing copying of the recipe, could provide a monopoly over use of that name.”

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the June issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.

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