I never went to culinary school. Nor did I apprentice under a legendary master pastry chef or perform extended stages among the grand gastronomic temples of Europe. But I am not self-taught either; rather, my education was “self-guided,” in that I chose what information I absorbed and the sources it came from. I had the opportunity to work alongside a few important mentors—patient, trusting souls who fostered me and gave me room to breathe, to create the box outside of which I was eventually granted permission to step.
In that sense, I was lucky. The traditional master-apprentice system conjures up a dark world of secret recipes and hidden techniques, of hard-earned lessons enforced by the occasional whack of a frying pan. The results of such training often perpetuate a cloak of secrecy, whether out of competitiveness or pride.
Paranoia, selfishness and secrecy regarding recipes are largely relics of the past—but not entirely. In an effort to preserve the authenticity of their dishes, the culture of some ethnic cuisines maintains a proprietary paranoia in guarding certain recipes and traditions, especially from outsiders. I will admit that pastry chefs also fiercely protect their methods and techniques on occasion. I’ve seen it firsthand: chefs who even keep recipes from their own staff! I often see a slight, more subtle form of sabotage, when chefs share their recipes with magazines, food Web sites and book authors for the publicity they themselves garner, but will deliberately leave out the crucial ingredient or method that makes that recipe distinctive.
I see the industry through a different lens. I learned from the generous spirit of others, directly through their time and inspiration and as role models who set an example of excellence. I cook, to appropriate a phrase, on the shoulders of giants who came before me. I truly believe that chefs are inherently generous in nature. We feed, nurture and soothe. Our clients are not customers, but guests; we see our dining rooms as an extension of our own homes. We celebrate conviviality and community through food. There’s a reason it’s called the hospitality business, right? So why should we guard our intellectual, creative and technical ideas from one another?
I was reminded of this recently while attending a rare discussion with Ferran Adrià of Spain’s famed El Bulli. I numbered among a few dozen invited guests to see the renowned chef for the launch of Colman Andrews’ biography, Ferran. Adrià’s work is inspiring on many levels, not least of which being the transparency of how he works. Not since Escoffier’s codification of French cuisine a century ago has any chef undertaken such comprehensive documentation of his repertoire. Adrià broached the topic of recipe secrecy himself, saying, with all the animated intensity he’s known for, that “secrets are stupid. I just don’t get it.”
Mind you, it’s not purely out of altruism that Adrià has detailed the inner workings of nearly every dish he’s served over a quarter century. He wants to make sure people get it right, to control his own legacy. If there is a flipside to the coin, it’s plagiarism. But Adrià is a staunch believer that “creativity means not copying.” Though perhaps the highest form of flattery, carbon copies of dishes do nothing to advance the culinary arts. What does further the craft is building upon the work of our forebears—and our chef peers—and expressing their ideas through our own personality and point of view. And in doing so, it must be said, giving credit where it is due.
Michael Laiskonis is executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin in New York, and won the James Beard award as Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007.