You are almost ready to be entrusted with the secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup. And then you will fulfill your destiny and take over the restaurant just as I took it over from my father who took it over from his father who won it from a friend in a game of mahjong.

Mr Ping to his son, Po in Kung Fu Panda (2008), DreamWorks

We are today all familiar with the concept of the signature dish, or ‘secret ingredient soup’, by which an individual chef or restaurant may be defined.

Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakuda’s confit of ocean trout with konbu and fennel is considered one of the most iconic dishes in the world. Thus, a signature dish is much more than a plated product; it is imbued with the personality of the individual chef – as definitive as an author’s voice or an artist’s style.

Over time, it may come to identify a particular establishment such as the Waldorf salad, originally created at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in the 1890s.

So what is the design process behind creating a signature dish? In reality, it is created over time or develops through circumstance and the creativity of the chef.

For example, Tetsuya’s famous dish is said to have started life as a salmon dish but developed into a dish of ocean trout (with several re-writes of the recipe) as a result of salmon not being available year-round back in the 1990s.

Brisbane chef Philip Johnson of e’cco Bistro describes signature dishes as happy accidents. His signature dish of mushrooms on toast evolved from something in London, with his own creative twist: using olive toast and adding truffle oil and parmesan. It has remained on the menu at his restaurant for fifteen years.

The popularity of a signature dish promotes bookings and, hence, forms a valuable asset for a restaurant.

So how is a signature dish protected?

Assuming most signature dishes are committed to material form (eg a recipe), copyright protects the specific expression of the recipe created by the chef (ie the words as expressed by the author).

This means no one can reproduce, publish, translate, distribute or communicate (make available online) your specific expression of the recipe (or a substantial part of it) without your permission.

However, no one needs permission to use the information contained in a recipe (ie to follow the recipe). This is because copyright does not protect the information (eg ideas, lists of ingredients, methods or techniques for making a dish), only the specific way
in which the information is expressed.

“Were the law otherwise, everybody who made a rabbit pie in accordance with the recipe of Mrs Beeton’s cookery book would infringe the literary copyright in that book” – Cuisenaire v South West Imports Limited [1969] S.C.R. 208 (Supreme Court of Canada).

Likewise, if someone watches you preparing a dish and writes down the ingredients and instructions (method) in their own words, this does not infringe copyright in the recipe.

For the same reason, there is nothing to prevent ‘reverse engineering’ of a completed dish to identify flavours and ingredients, or to stop other chefs or cooks from drawing inspiration from an idea underlying a recipe. However, giving credit to the source of inspiration is common among many chefs – and good practice.

With popular interest in celebrity chefs and the resurgence of interest in home cooking, cookbook sales have surged nine per cent, according to Nielson figures published in August 2010, despite declining book sales plaguing the rest of the book publishing industry.

It seems that many celebrity chefs are not afraid to share the recipes for their signature dishes with the public. A quick search on Google can locate a number of recipes for Tetsuya’s ocean trout. His recipe is also published in various books and is the source of inspiration for other chefs, cooks and writers.

Yet the waiting list for a booking at his famous restaurant remains strong and the signature dish remains a popular first choice among diners. Similarly, diners are willing to pay for a mushroom on toast dish that its own creator has stated could easily be made at home.

Clearly a signature dish is more than the underlying recipe or the sum of its ingredient parts, and restaurants are not relying purely on copyright to protect the commercial success of their signature dishes.

A signature dish articulates the skill, experience and creativity of the chef (restaurant). As such, it represents the brand of the chef and his or her restaurant and forms a key brand asset for a restaurant.

Signature dishes can be as important a part of a restaurant’s (and chef’s) brand as the decor, the menu and the quality of the service. An iconic signature dish can serve to distinguish a chef/restaurant as much as the restaurant’s name.

The strength of the restaurant’s brand (built around a signature dish or dishes) attracts patrons and has led to the cult of the celebrity chef. This has also led to extension of the chef/restaurant brand to merchandise such as branded food products (eg sauces, butters, branded wines, olive oils), cookware and clothing.

Thus, brand protection is important to continuing commercial success and to driving interest in a chef/restaurant – it attracts diners who want to try the chef’s version of a signature dish – even if they could make the dish themselves. The commercial value is captured and protected through protection and exploitation of the brand, not just the copyright.

To quote again from Kung Fu Panda, once Po has earned the privilege of learning the secret ingredient, his father Mr Ping reveals that “The secret ingredient is … nothing!”

Po: Wait, wait … it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?

Mr Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.

Kung Fu Panda (2008), DreamWorks

Similarly, there is no ‘secret ingredient’ to many signature dishes: it is the chef who transforms the dish into something special. The brand of the chef is part of the magic. 

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