In 1994 I made my first trip to Paris, a four-day gastronomic whirlwind. I wanted to include museums (Art History was my minor in university) and because of the compressed itinerary settled on seeing works by the Impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay. I climbed the stairs to one of the top floors of the museum, rounded a corner, and there in front of me was Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. It was so much larger than I’d imagined it in all those darkened classrooms in Canada. As I moved closer to it, tears sprang to my eyes. For a period of time, standing in front of it, crying was my only response. I experienced the exquisite and poignant feeling of being slain by gratitude, astonished that favour would find me there.
What if Manet, after creating this masterpiece, had been reluctant to share? Imagine if fine art students in the ensuing 150 years had no access to such a glorious painting? Imagine the number of young painters who have sat for hours in front of this work painstakingly copying it in order to hone their skills? Has a painter ever re-created it with such accuracy as to eclipse the original? If you’ve stood in front of it you know that any reproduction is for naught. It’s impossible for anyone other than Manet to convey this unique and exquisite imprint. That alone shields the work, acting as a kind of natural copyright. It’s original and the most natural response is to inspire originality. I have found the exact outcome when casting well beyond the painterly world.
In the spring of 2000 I spent 6 weeks as a stagiaire in the kitchen at London’s River Cafe. The restaurant was packed with talent – April Bloomfield, Arthur Potts Dawson, Theo Randall, Ben O’Donoghue (Jamie had just left and was releasing his first cookbook). All of those cooks have gone on to great things. None of them has replicated the River Cafe. There’s nothing like Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. The gastronomic union of those two women is entirely and untouchably unique. They imparted the pure pleasure that comes from expressing who and what they were with abandon.
I was there too, not because I wanted to return to Canada and re-create their restaurant. Just like the young painter, I knew that replication was a tool for honing skills, not for establishing substantial commerce. I was there because I wanted to know them and they shared with me proportionally, meaning abundantly. They did what they have done for so many other young cooks – they inspired me.
In light of all this, I find the denial of a recipe hard to swallow. This particular rejection compelled me to construct an informal survey of chefs and cooks in my social media circle. With only a few exceptions the resounding response was for sharing. Many pointed to sharing as being an essential aspect of a recipe. My friend Dean Elieff put it in a way that made me chuckle (which is best in my books) when he stated: “….you can give me all the lumber in the world and step-by-step instructions but you ain't getting a house.” The sentiment was the same for plenty of other chefs, some celebrated. Jeremiah Tower replied on Twitter: “Always share - a recipe is only what you think is the outline of a dish at any moment. In a month it could be different.” Nigel Slater tweeted: “Always. It's what I do!” Others pointed out that the desire to hoard was a most unattractive attribute. It’s usually fear or ego or a combination of the two that imparts this particular countenance.
Of those who were hesitant to share they were without exception cookbook writers. I suspect this is an area where experiences of infringement on originality are high (or perhaps there is some hyper-sensitivity here). I’ve never heard of a cookbook writer whose career has been destroyed by a copycat but I’m open to correction. The most rigorous protective measures of any creator will not deter an opportunist. But unique expression is a great leveler for those who try to falsely claim it. The coat of success is not bespoke but ill fitting, never freely or comfortably worn. Experience also demonstrates that the charlatan is the exception, not the rule. More people desire to create uniquely than draft off others. It did cross my mind, when the request for the recipe was rejected, that it was not the chefs’ to share.
If a chefs’ life work could be so easily transcribed why do chefs like Thomas Keller craft recipes so rigourously? Is this not a losing proposition? Why don’t they create more obscure outcomes? Why don’t they balk at the real or imagined harm that could result in revealing their hand? I trained in a certain era and have eaten enough Salmon Tartare Cornets but never felt Thomas Keller’s mastery had been surmounted or that I knew the experience of the French Laundry. Like posters in the museum gift shop, recipes point to the experience – I’ve been to that museum, seen that painting, visited that place, or own that cookbook. Like the reproduction that fronts this piece, they are stand-ins or place holders for the original.
I will finally disclose that when denied, my first response was primitive – one ego responding to another. I had an overwhelming (but thankfully fleeting) desire to put my 25 years of professional cooking skill to work in cracking the code. I wanted to prove that the secrets could be revealed and that a kind of paint by numbers recipe could be composed. Reason came with the knowledge that failure to share produces a cul de sac in the creative process. Sharing is a part of the process of creating. To forestall that process has consequences. Creating and fearlessly sharing an original work takes confidence. Not sharing is little more than an act informed by insecurity.