Friday, June 18, 2010

goes around ... comes around - milkshake edition

Richard Blais, former Top Chef contestant and present proprietor of Flip Burger Boutique, with locations in Atlanta and Birmingham (no relation to the Flip Burger Bar just opened in North Miami - and just wait till he gets wind of that) is all up in arms that a burger joint in Denver is serving a milkshake that he thinks bears a more than passing resemblance to one served at Flip Burger. He's so upset his hair is standing on end!

The details: Flip Burger's menu features several liquid nitrogen-chilled shakes, including one with Nutella and burnt marshmallow. A place in Denver called H Burger (Blais didn't name it, though Eater quickly figured it out) lists on its cocktail menu a liquid nitrogen-chilled "Nutella Marshmallow" shake with vanilla vodka, hazelnut liquor, nutella, and vanilla ice cream topped with roasted marshmallows. Though Blais' column noted the similarities between the two - that is, Nutella and burnt marshmallows, liquid nitrogen, and a similar presentation ("right down to the pint glass and red straw," which, I've got to say, doesn't exactly sound as novel or unique as, say, the peacock used at Alinea) - he omitted that H Burger's, unlike Flip Burger's, is an alcoholic libation.

Anyhoo, Blais thinks H Burger is ripping off his steez: "On the street, you don't copy someone else's style." He's so mad "it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive-thru drive by." Of course, Blais is smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that recipes can't be copyrighted or patented. He's also smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that he didn't invent either the ingredients or the techniques involved in his particular concoction:
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, or its use in food preparation. Shit, chemistry teachers have been making LN2 ice cream in classrooms for 30 years, at least. I didn't create marshmallows. Or Nutella. Or milk shakes. Or straws and pint glasses for that matter.
So what's he all bent out of shape over? Perhaps it's a matter of credit or attribution. He says:
I have been so sensitive to the topic, that if I find a dish of mine is similar in spirit to one I've seen, I'll denote it a "remix." Maybe it's in my blood. I don't think Wylie Dufresne is going to find me on a corner and put a cap in my ass. But that's how I approach it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes you can't remember exactly how you got there or who helped, but I believe you know if you're completely ripping someone off.
All right. So Chef Blais thinks his milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and damn right it's better than yours. But this all gave me a strange sense of deja vu. And then I remembered why. A couple years ago, I came across press blurbs about Blais' "creation" of something he called a "Popcornsicle," a ball of popcorn frozen with liquid nitrogen and served on a stick. The press blitz came complete with photos of the chef blowing liquid nitrogen smoke from his nose and mouth as he ate one. Well, other than the stick, Chef Blais' "creation" just happened to be identical to an item that was regularly served at José Andrés' minibar, where it's called "Dragon's Breath Popcorn," and where I'd just happened to have eaten a week earlier. And I said so. That prompted a discussion on Chowhound about the nature of "copying" when it comes to cooking. Back then I noted:

(continued ...)

No doubt the history of gastronomy is full of examples of the re-visiting and re-invention of various recipes, techniques, presentations, etc., likely more often than not to the ultimate improvement and betterment of the field. But it seems to me that it's one thing to take inspiration from someone else's dish, and quite another to simply recreate it - and even worse, to pass it off as one's own creation. Again, I'm not sure this is what has happened here, but it appears that way.

To put it in musical terms, it's one thing to "riff" on someone else's song, or even to sample it, but it's something different to simply re-record it and act as if you wrote it. I'll admit there's a fine line between "homage" and "ripoff" but I think that line becomes harder to distinguish when someone takes a fairly unique dish (and look, nitrogen-frozen popcorn is not exactly chicken parmesan) and uses it as a spotlight for their own creative talents, when that exact dish is already being done elsewhere.
Eventually, Chef Blais himself responded:
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, I didn't invent popcorn. I didn't invent the caramel, or the wooden skewers they are served on. Many chefs have dipped popcorn, and marshmallows, and everything else in LN2. I "copied" something that science teachers have been using in classrooms for years, well before any of you knew who Adria was. I'm introducing a modern technique to a brand new demographic, people who are just walking down the street on 5th Avenue.
Sound familiar? Of course that "Popcornsicle" he "created" wasn't described as a "remix" of anyone else's dish. Though in fairness, Blais is not completely blowing smoke here: when he's done a variation of Thomas Keller's iconic "Oysters and Pearls" dish, he has indeed styled it as a "remix" (which is also how the New York Times described it and several other spin-offs in a short piece on how a dish spreads through the culinary culture). No doubt, issues of "invention" or "creation" and "attribution" or "copying" are particularly complicated when it comes to cooking. So maybe Chef Blais should put the smoking gun down.

UPDATE: Chef Ian Kleinman, who consulted with H Burger, responds to Chef Blais.

UPDATE #2: A further reply from Richard Blais via twitter: "My point was simply that creativity is a struggle and grey area. I'm a fan of Kleinman, and sharing ideas! Beef squashed." Nothing quite says "it's a grey area" like "it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive through drive-by." But in any event, I'm glad everything is all lovey-dovey now. So long as "beef squashed" isn't a new milkshake flavor.

*Note: photo via

1 comment:

  1. well, those milkshakes at FLIP Atl are outta f'king control good.
    When we got sponsored from kryogenifix for the gastroPod I was at a loss for proper utilization.

    We ended up doin' the Nitro shakes cuz it was damn easy and had all the mis en place handy. Lest, our first flavor was Horchata (rice pudding).