What is worth more? The signature or the signature dish? A perfectly realized recipe or the hand that made it?
The history of fine art is littered with copycats. Skilled technicians who don the robes of the master and flick brushes in their unmistakable style. Dig deep enough and you can find art scholars stand in famous museums and debunk paintings hanging in the gallery.
Rembrandt and Reubens are two giants whose works regularly fall under such inspection. Such is the way when prolific painters rely on apprentices. These “schools” execute the majority of the work. Then the master comes around to put in the final touch. Sometimes it can be as simple as a remake of how the hand was painted.
When we look at signature dishes from the greats are we not in the same place? Line cooks under tutelage of the celebrity executing his master recipe. Blowing up the charcoal sketch to the larger canvas.
Let’s assume that you hand your friend the recipe for your signature dish. That one thing that sums up your skill and creativity. That plate or pie or roast for which the people cry: “Make it for the potluck. We simply must have it!”
What if you handed over the directions to that secret sauce. Exposed the magic ingredients. What if you did all that and your friend nailed it? Is it still YOUR signature dish?
Mom is famous for carrot cake. It’s served in a rectangular pan with cream cheese frosting. Pretty much the style of 70’s. It contains no raisins. Or walnuts. In fact it’s rather plain. Moist spice cake with carrots. Lots of carrots. Almost more carrots than cake.
How did this become her signature dish? Well, her four boys helped. We never liked nuts or raisins. Why not add more carrots to fill the void? Why not add even more to bring out natural sweetness.
Mom has been cooking this cake for more than 40 years. The recipe is on a 3×5 index card in tin box lying in plain sight. The card lies next to the cheesecake pie, marshmallow yams, and chocolate torte cake. The one with the cookie crust and Cool Whip topping. All are part of Mom’s repertoire.
Mom went to best culinary academy: the school of hard knots. She clipped articles from magazines and tried the recipes on the back of the box.
She chased variety to please her family. She experimented and tuned the better ones until they became her own. That’s right. The patent attorneys at Betty Crocker should be busy mounting a campaign. She’s an intellectual property thief.
If you ask Food and Wine, Wolfgang Puck’s signature dish is Pork Schnitzel. Seriously?! That’s pretty much the fried chicken of the Alpine region. Oh, I see. It’s signature because of the Kurobuta pork. Or maybe the addition of an herb or the substitution for Panko over plain bread crumbs.
This is not a rant against Chef Puck. He’s a master. This is a rant about signatures.
When we explored steal like an artist, not like a pirate, we talked about what it means to make something your own. About imparting a piece of yourself. It’s about having enough care to refine. To make something meaningful. It’s about connection through creativity.
A signature dish is the result of love for the food and love for the people who enjoy it. It’s why we go through effort. A closed loop system. Maker to eater. Gourmet to gourmand.
Brandon Chuang tells us about what love of fried chicken can do to a cook. And next time you find yourself in St. Louis, seek out Josh Galliano and his tea-brined, buttermilk soaked, fried chicken.
In the meantime, let yourself marinate in this: Grandmothers posing with their signature dishes. Thanks Twisted Sifter for bringing this to our attention.
And with the holidays upon us, get busy in the kitchen. Family is coming. Friends are showing up. Time to sign some dishes.