Open Source Kitchens


July 7, 2005


Browse in Intellectual Property

Some go to dine, others to eat. I’m an eater. I get edgy in establishments in which a meal costs more than the price of a haircut — a Chinatown haircut, — and where I have to worry about which is the proper fork. The celebrity chef thing is lost on me. The writing is just awful, too. Take the inflated prose of rock reportage a la Rolling Stone, gussy it up with Fine Arts 13 affect and society gossip, and you pretty much have the genre. Forget eating. It makes you want to barf.

A recent example is the cover story in the current New York Magazine, called, alarmingly, “The Obsessive Pursuit of the Perfect Meal: Can Jean-Georges Get His Groove Back?” (The bit of contrapuntal slang in the subhead is a giveaway. Downtown is uptown now.) It’s by Jay McInerny, who seems to do a lot of this these days. Basically, it’s about a guy by the name of Jean-Georges who was a big man with a skillet once, hung up his apron early, and now is trying a comeback.

I can’t make myself read the whole thing. But here’s a sample, from early on:

“It’s probably safe to say that the past two decades, no single chef has had more influence on the way New Yorkers dine out — or on the way other chefs cook and restaurants look. ‘He invented America’s answer to nouvelle cuisine,’ says Mario Batali, who knows something about starting culinary trends.”

I guess I wouldn’t want nouvelle cuisine to go unanswered, though my own approach was to ignore it. But that implied royal “we” is another tell. I was a New Yorker in the early ’90s and did a fair amount of eating out. I doubt Jean-Georges’ influence touched any of my favorite places, weighty as it might have been. Of course, I don’t know exactly what that influence was. But I think I would have sensed something amiss with my Singapore rice noodles, a little the way tenants in a rent controlled building start suspecting something when they see realtors casing out the place.

So “New Yorkers” are different from you and me, even if we are New Yorkers too, or used to be. Yet one thing does unite their places and ours. Whether you dine or eat, and whether the places you like were designed by someone named Marques or by a brother-in-law from Jersey who has a table saw and a pick-up truck, the offerings of which you partake are part of the great culinary commons. There is no intellectual property, no lawyers waiting to pounce. Any Tom, Dick or Vongerichten (another celeb chef in McInerney’s telling) can order a meal, take notes, and then go back to his or her own place and try to produce a copy.

In the reigning economic view this is — pardon me — a recipe for disaster. If people can copy your culinary creations then who is going to bother to lift a whisk? This is the thinking that justifies the continual expansion of the copyright and patent laws. It’s the reason Americans are being hauled into court for the oxymoronically antisocial act of sharing their music. Creativity requires monopoly, in the official view. Invention will die if inventors don’t have exclusive rights to what they create, no matter what it is.

Word seems not to have gotten out to the restaurateurs of New York, and elsewhere. It is hard to think of a realm of business that is more teeming with creativity than is that of cooking and serving food — unless it is the fashion industry which operates by the same free-for-all rules. No one has a trademark on pizza or Pad Thai. Yet practically every day, someone opens a new restaurant with the conviction that they can make them a little better than the place in the next block does. They compete on the basis of quality, not on the ability of their lawyers to stake trademark claims in Washington from which they then can extract what economists call “monopoly rents.”

In China, this is the traditional mode of artistic expression. Artists spent most of their lives copying the masters. Copying was not ripping off; it was homage. The best artists were the best copyists. The so-called “piracy” so rampant in China today is not solely the product of a larcenous populace, as finger-wagging economists assert. It’s the way the Chinese always have done things, where art and culture are concerned. Property is a social creation, as Jefferson among others saw. It is whatever a people says it is, and different peoples have seen it differently.

There is a notable exception where intellectual property and restaurants are concerned, and it’s the one that proves the rule. Fast food is an extension of the property regime, and not coincidentally, it operates entirely on a command and control model. Your local McDonalds or Burger King franchise has practically zero authority to innovate. The slightest change in the burger has to come down from a central bureaucracy. It took McDonald’s more than a year to develop a salad for its menu, something Louie’s Diner can accomplish in less than an hour.

Partly this is the control-freak mentality that dominates these corporate bureaucracies. Partly too it’s the need to maintain the trademark. Play around with the recipe for a Big Mac and pretty soon it no longer is a Big Mac. We are told that intellectual property rights increase creativity and freedom. But with food the opposite is the case. Property can be a straitjacket. Freedom flourishes where the property police are most absent.

What’s true of food and fashion isn’t true of everything, to the same degree at least. Writers need some measure of copyright protection in order to make a living. (They don’t need lifetime plus seventy years, which is the current standard. The old one of 56 years was more than enough.) Genuine inventors need patents to recover their development costs and generate some income. Jefferson acknowledged as much in the copyright and patent clause of the Constitution.

But Jefferson was wary in the extreme and we should be as well. Freedom should be our default mode. Monopoly should have to argue its case sector by sector; and then should be kept on a very tight leash. If you want proof, I can tell you about a place in Petaluma that has great Pad Thai.