Saturday, April 18, 2009

goes around ... comes around

I've always been intrigued by how food ideas and trends work their way through menus and restaurants. Often the phenomenon is at its most acute in a place like San Francisco, which is a serious foodie town but is also, in many ways, still a fairly small town. I recall one visit several years ago when every place we went had a beet salad with goat cheese (yes, that one seems to have some staying power). On our last visit a couple years ago, it was in-house charcuterie.

It's not all that uncommon to see basically the same dish done at different restaurants. Sometimes - often - that can be the result of spontaneous independent creation, but it's also often the result of conscious or unconscious influence. Because there is little intellectual property protection for a recipe or a plating presentation, there's little a chef could do about it even if they wanted to, though culinary plagiarism has been a topic of robust discussion. You can call it, respectfully, "homage" or "inspiration," or pejoratively, "copying" or "plagiarizing," and the distinctions are sometimes difficult to assess. The perception (and, I suppose the reality) can depend on a lot of things: how original was the dish in the first place? how willing is the chef to acknowledge the influence of others? what's the relationship, if any, between the two chefs?

But that's not really my point here, rather I just find it interesting to watch how food trends work their way through the restaurant biz. This particular reverie was prompted by a Ruth Reichl twitter about a dinner at Animal, a much-talked-up new Los Angeles restaurant. Animal, opened less than a year ago, is the product of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who were featured in a short-running Food Network show called "2 Dudes Catering." Little did I know, until looking at the Animal website, that Shook and Dotolo had South Florida roots, having gone to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and gotten their start at The Strand restaurant with Michelle Bernstein as head chef.

But the South Florida connection that I saw was their menu - in particular, a couple of the dishes mentioned by Reichl. Pork belly with kim chee and peanuts? Fried hominy with lime? Sound familiar to any of you Miami folks?

For those not in the know, these just happen to be a couple of the mainstay items at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. Now, it's not like Michael Schwartz would ever claim to be the first person to have combined these ingredients. Nor, for that matter, is he in any position to complain about someone riffing on the same tune that he's been playing. After all, another of the mainstays on his menu, the wood-oven roasted whole chicken (served with plumped raisins, toasted pine nuts and baby arugula) is, as I noted some time ago, pretty much the same recipe that Zuni Cafe in S.F. is famous for.[*] More recently, I had a porchetta de testa that appeared to be made using the same recipe that Chris Cosentino of Incanto had done in a video for Gourmet.

So I doubt that Chef Schwartz would ever make a stink about it. And let me be clear, I'm not accusing anyone of "copying" anyone else. But it is curious how a restaurant on one coast should be getting kudos for dishes that sound mighty similar to the dishes that were earning another restaurant on the other coast kudos a year earlier, no? Could just be that everyone loves them some pork belly and kim chee, and some crispy hominy with lime. I know I do.

[*] I had the good fortune of trying the MGF&D whole roasted chicken within a month of a trip to S.F. and trying the famous Zuni Cafe chicken. My verdict - the MGF&D version was even better than the original.

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