This ‘Anti-Cookbook’ Celebrates Stealing Recipes
Jonathan Meades, former restaurant critic and author of The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, says that anyone who claims to have invented a dish is delusional. But does anyone actually do that?
Book jacket artwork courtesy Unbound.
"There is nothing original about any dish. I find the pretensions of chefs and the cookery book industry kind of grotesque. It's not dangerous, no one is harmed, but it's ludicrous and funny. They have spats about who invented a particular dish."
I'm speaking with Jonathan Meades, former restaurant critic for The Times. He's pretty pissed off.
Meades continues: "No one invented that dish. It's like saying, 'I've done this round thing and I'm going to call it the wheel.' And any dish that attempts to be original tends to be an absolute dog. People have known throughout history that avocados and marmalade are a bad idea, so why try it?"
Despite his impassioned views on the very idea of writing and collating recipes, Meades has just published a cookbook: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen: A Lifetime of Culinary Thefts. But, as you might have guessed, this is not a cookbook in the traditional sense.
Writing in The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, Meades proudly explains that the recipes, which range from French classics to his grandmother's tripe and onions, are all ripped off, stolen, and wholly unoriginal. The introduction states: "The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is an anti-cookbook, a recipe book that is also an explicit paen to the avoidance of culinary originality (should such a thing exist), to the daylight robbery of recipes, to hijacking techniques and methods, to the notion that in the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new."
Full disclosure: I walked into my interview with Meades, who usually lives in Marseille, not really getting the point of his book. How many chefs do you know who claim to have invented their dishes? Are recipe authors really out to trick us that their spag Bol—a dish made a million times over in kitchen across the world—is something they alone dreamed up? And isn't it widely accepted—even celebrated—by food writers and home cooks alike that the food we make is a mesh of influences; inspired by the dishes given to us in childhood, amazing meals we've had at restaurants, and whatever's left in the fridge?
Meades, on the other hand, seems to believe that authors and chefs brush these influences under the carpet and pass their slightly altered dishes off as originals. Despite the title of the book, he argues that by fessing up about where dishes are "stolen" from through anecdotes and mini essays that prelude the recipes, he's the only one not plagiarising.
In his publisher's airy office near Old Street station, Meades says with a shrug: "I hope it's a practical book but it's also a sort of deflective polemic against the idea of originality."
I'd never have guessed.
He continues: "There's this idea that art should be original and craft, which cooking is, should be the same. What has happened since the cult of the chef took over in Britain is that chefs think they're artists and are constantly trying to create new things. These ludicrous marriage of ingredients, of foams, of sprays, all this junk. It started in upscale restaurants in Spain and then in Britain with Heston Blumenthal."
"Making delicious food is the job of a restaurants and inventing new, arcane dishes shouldn't be their job."
Meades concedes, however, that "not having lived in London for ten years, I'm not too sure about what is going on now."
I make the comment that while fine dining with foams and gels still has a presence in today's dining scene, many of the "new" dishes made by young chefs come from cuisines that haven't yet been explored by British diners. Of course laap isaan and bariis isku-karis aren't new—they've been eaten respectively in Thailand and Somalia for centuries—but the chefs introducing us to these dishes don't pretend otherwise.
Meades repeats that he's not as au fait with the London restaurant scene as he once was and admits that I'm probably right. And after a quick diversion on the merits (well, mostly demerits in Meades' opinion—produce abroad is vastly superior) of using local ingredients, he confusingly laments British chefs' obsession with looking to other cuisines for inspiration.
"The British have perhaps hankered after the exotic a bit too much. I would have thought that between chefs Fergus Henderson and Gary Rhodes, they would have created a big change and there were would be a great emphasis on doing British cooking," says Meades. "English cooks have long been susceptible to the lure of the other because, I think, after the World War II, there was a collective lack of confidence in British dishes."
He continues: "It meant that there was a denial of the potential excellence of our indigenous dishes. For example, I found a book of my mother's called Recipes of Wiltshire Farmer Wives. There's something called a savoury supper dish and it's gratin dauphinoise—it's cream, milk, and potatoes. The person who submitted this volume of recipes probably never heard of gratin dauphinoise. There are other dishes like a boiled beef dish which is basically pot au feu."
I can't help but suggest that Meades may have fallen foul of his own criticism. Flicking through The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, I notice that most recipes are French or from elsewhere around the Med—not Britain.
"I've never cooked traditional British dishes," he says bluntly.
"I learnt to cook from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and doing it with absolute literality. I mean, following every step of every recipe that I wanted to learn," Meades continues. "From a very young age, I liked French cooking. French cooking tasted good, it was as simple as that. It had a kind of sparkle which English cooking seldom had."
Meades' lifelong love affair with French dishes is evident in the "confessions" written before each recipe, which reveal the victim of the culinary theft. There's the poulet à l'oignon (chicken and onions) from a friend's restaurant in Bordeaux, his father's shepherd's pie (but titled " parmentier"), and Pierre Koffmann's garbure (a peasant soup from the south west of France).
But Meades doesn't own up to the original source of all of the recipes.
"It's very eclectic and also slightly promiscuous in the way that I've picked these things up," he says. "And I can't remember where I stole a lot of it from."
"There's a recipe for elephant gratin after the person called Elephant, who ate the entire gratin. I thought it came from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but when I looked at the book, it wasn't there," he explains. "So, I rang up my ex-girlfriend with whom I used to cook it. She suggested it was like Jansson's temptation but it wasn't because there's no cream and minimal anchovies in elephant gratin."
Meades adds: "I think it's something we made up."
He pauses as another kind of elephant appears in the room. I ask Meades whether he just admitted to inventing a dish and creating something original?
He laughs. "Obviously I don't want to admit to having made up a dish. I'll be accused of gross hypocrisy … "
On that note, I think it's time for me to leave.