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Leather Storrs: Hijacking Recipes in the Food Community

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Last week I was hijacked! The meat of my article- toasting two slices of bread in one hole of the toaster -showed up on the Huffington Post the next day… written by someone else.

Sure, original thought is not nearly as common as people would like to believe and of course I’m not the first person to put two slices of bread together in a toaster, but the coincidence was unsettling. And it got me thinking about innovation and ownership within the food community.

Ownership of recipes has always been a sticky issue. Jaded chefs will tweak an existing formula infinitesimally and label it their own. This practice, derided by most of us, is nevertheless an accepted facet of the industry. Another technique, best employed by James Beard, is to attribute credit while simultaneously owning a recipe by virtue of printing it under your own by-line. Beard’s books are filled with folksy anecdotes of Mrs. Bentley’s buttermilk biscuits or Dr. Charrington’s standing rib roast. I suspect Dr. Charrington received no royalties.

Beard, however, was less than charitable with his own formulas and was swift in exacting revenge. My first cooking teacher was a man named Richard Nelson who had been an assistant of Beards for many years. He published only one book and like Beard, his focus was Americana. In his collection of recipes he included dishes he had done with Beard and did not (according to the big man) properly acknowledge the inspiration. Beard disowned him and spoke frequently and publicly about Nelson’s treachery. While not ruined, Nelson retreated from the public eye and only started teaching again in earnest after Beard’s death.

It wasn’t long into my professional career that I experienced another form of culinary thievery. At my first cooking job, I came up with a dopey polenta roulade that I was proud of. The chef, detailing the special to the staff, neglected to give me credit. That was a powerful lesson. I towed the line and did my job, but I never attempted to contribute again. In my kitchen, I try very hard not to make that mistake. Giving credit is free and cooks don’t make much money so it seems obvious that rewarding innovation and contribution with attention and praise is good business. Besides, invested employees who feel respected stick around and tend to be more content. 

Cooking, like anything worth doing, is about perfecting your craft and continuing to learn. I tell young cooks to “build their bag of tricks,” by which I mean steal everything you can from every chef for whom you work! Only by collating and processing the various recipes, techniques and secrets you learn through your travels can you hope to develop your own style. 

In support of sharing and learning in the kitchen I have always been an open book. I love to teach and I’ll happily give recipes to anyone, cook or customer. I should probably extend that policy to my writing. And I suppose I’d say the same thing to the Huff Post as I do to the recipients of our recipes: Here you go, but you won’t do it like us.

Leather Storrs is an Oregon native who has served 20 years in professional kitchens. He owns a piece of two area restaurants: Noble Rot and Nobleoni at Oregon College of Art and Craft, where he yells and waves arms. He quietly admits to having been a newspaper critic in Austin, Texas and Portland.    


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