Thursday, April 30, 2009

Intellectual Property

Park Kitchen was recently contacted by a lawyer inquiring about legislating the creativity of cooking, to protect the intellectual property of chefs. As laughable as this may seem, it already exists at many levels regarding processes and labeling, but the idea of extending the law to include recipes seems like a litigious nightmare. Who will be the lucky person to own the rights to hollandaise, and how long will it take to encompass the rights to making butter or bacon? Once the process begins, how long will it take to include the protection of ingredients?

I am about to take a vacation to the Great Lakes area and experience the culinary creations of the creative chefs cooking there. Chicago is one of America's capitals of molecular gastronomy, in which chef's take food sciences and apply them to fanciful restaurant creations. Some of these processes are protected by law, such as Homaro Cantu's edible paper at Moto. The chef has used food based inks and printed them on starch based papers, so that you can eat the menu. Chef Cantu also requires his cooks to sign a confidentiality contract to protect his ideas.

This kind of protection through secrecy is moving from a traditional to a more legislated phenomenon. In the old days, the means by which a chef created his masterpiece was part of the wonder, sometimes speculated or imitated by contemporaries. This trend toward intellectual property has already taken a dark turn in the U.S. Patent Office, and should serve as a warning to what is possible. Consider the 1980 case "Diamond vs. Chakrabarty," in which a scientist working for General Electric submitted a patent on a bacterial microbe that could act as a detergent to help clean up oil spills. Of course, at that time, living things could not be patented, but the decision was reversed, and has opened the flood gates of patenting every living function on the planet. Today's companies can capture the rights to life ranging from human genomes to genetically modified plant seed, the raw ingredients of life! Chicken bones are patented as a treatment for arthritis! Where do we draw the line between the intellectual property of God and man?


  1. For some great background on the history of agriculture in the US, including patenting and the case of Mr. Chakrabarty, check out this clip: http://tr.im/futureoffood

  2. Hello David, Jasper here, we met in Toronto a few weeks ago at Lucien.

    I've pondered the same issue myself a few years ago when I heard that Italy was giving certain restaurants in the world this "seal of authentication" so to speak, designating that certain restaurants serve "authentic" Italian dishes. I don't want to say that "there is only ingredients and their combinations, there is no cuisine." That's a pretty dated belief to think that cultural differences are non-differences. But can I really say something as simple as dressing greens with vinegar and oil "belong" to a certain ethnic group?

    Cuisine has never been a clear cut concept. The whole issue of patenting (and to a large extent, law itself) is just trying to taxonomize what is resistant of this form of essentialistic taxonomizing. It's like trying to define "art", we've never had a satisfying definition of it.

    Now we extend that to cuisine, and try to maintain that certain combinations of ingredients are unique to a certain person or ethnic group.

    Personally I am quite ambivalent over the situation. On one hand I find this ridiculous, on the other I believe chefs deserve the monatary benefits that other "artisans" have.

    As I begin to imagine the landscape of cooking if every dish is patented and every chef has to pay a fee to make an egg yolk based emulsion, the already astronomical prices of fine dining would be through the roof. These patents would be so hefty only major franchises and chains would be able to afford them. Independent restaurants won't stand a chance. Sort of an apocalyptic sci-fi of cuisine.

  3. Jasper, I remember our conversations in Toronto about morality in food. I'd like to think that such a future is unthinkable, but I also never would have expected the present to be as it is, with patents on plant seeds, on chicken feet, on human genomes. It's hard to say where capitalism will take us.