It happens the whole world over: whenever a chef or a restaurant creates an immensely popular dish, people become enthralled with how it was done. And if it’s a somewhat ordinary dish done exceptionally well, then people often become convinced there’s a secret ingredient or a secret recipe.
Now, it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to have become known for a particular menu item that they prepare in a uniquely desirable manner. However, it is extremely rare that in such an instance, the recipe is kept under lock and key, known only to its creator. The reality of a working restaurant is that in order to be successful and operational, more than one person needs to be involved in the production of any given thing on its menu. This means a recipe cannot be kept a strict secret. There are places that might produce a famed item, and the cooks/chefs are required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) at the time of their hire, prohibiting them from divulging details of any recipe they encounter while working there. That being said, I have gotten highly coveted recipes for well-known dishes from people who worked at the restaurants famous for them, in blatantly violation of the NDA’s they themselves had signed — and I don’t think it ever resulted in disciplinary action.
The fact of the matter is that most professional chefs know that there’s no realistic possibility that they’re going to come up with a recipe for something that has never been done before, and therefor have no right to claim propriety over it. Not to mention, as soon as you add a gram more of one ingredient, or a drop less of another, it technically becomes a different recipe.
Anyone who has been cooking professionally for long enough can do a pretty good job of recreating just about any recipe they’re inclined to (at least in theory), just by sampling it. But often times, what makes a recipe so elusive, and difficult for another cook (especially a home cook) to duplicate, isn’t unearthing a mysterious ingredient, or even in figuring out the whole recipe. Instead, it usually has to do with one of the following four elements:
Without having done any official research on the matter, I’d guess that in at least 70% of the cases of a food being regarded as the best of something, it’s ultimately the result of a particular ingredient that is unique either to the area or to the restaurant itself.
To ensure the uniqueness of their fries, McDonald’s engineered its own species of potato to be grown just for them. I once worked at a restaurant where we got our diver scallops shipped in from a particular private diver in the Northeast. There are some instances where a particular dish or preparation is impossible to duplicate, simply because its ingredients are impossible for anyone else to procure.
Some chefs even start, grow and keep their own large garden (or small farm) to provide their restaurant with as much exclusive raw product as possible. Thomas Keller did this in Yountville, CA across the street from The French Laundry, and Dan Barber’s Blue Hill in NYC gets all their produce from the farm he inherited from his grandmother, since dubbed “Blue Hill Farm”. Try as I might, I’ll never be able to duplicate that amazing tomato sauce I had in Madrid, because I don’t have access to those exceptional Spanish tomatoes here in the States.
Professional kitchens are full of tools and appliances that are simply not on-hand in most home kitchens — or in many cases, not even available to the home chef. Whether it’s a blast-chiller, a thermo-mix, or a commercial-grade deep fryer, some recipes are attainable only to those with access to that equipment.
While Colonel Sanders might be known for his “secret blend of eleven herbs and spices”, what really allowed KFC to grow to the household name that it became, was his invention of what amounts to a pressure fryer that cuts the cooking time of fried chicken down by about 65%. That’s what he sold to restaurants that picked up his flag. The recipe was just an afterthought marketing shtick.
The “equipment” paradox isn’t always limited to commercial-level technology: In my home town of Chicago, Lou Malnati’s is one of the original deep-dish pizza joints. While they’ve franchised and opened over fifty locations across the country, many local deep-dish connoisseurs say the original location is still the best. While all locations are surely using the same company-wide recipes, only the original location is using the same cast-iron pans they’ve been using for over 40 years, the additional seasoning of which cannot be accounted for with newer, less experienced pans — like the ones the newer branches are surely using.
Many recipes that professional chefs use are predicated on the number of people they are planning to serve a given dish, and in many cases, scale cannot be adequately accounted for to make a much smaller batch of that recipe.
You may have loved the gazpacho you had at your favorite restaurant the other night, and you may have been shocked when the chef actually acquiesced to your request for the recipe (this also frequently happened at a restaurant I used to work at). But once you looked at it, you saw that it called for twenty tomatoes, ten cucumbers, a whole head of garlic, and the yield would be three gallons! (and going back to the first bit, all of those ingredients came to that restaurant from private farmers that only sold their best product to them)
Or there was the time that my aunt came to have brunch at a restaurant I was working at, and proclaimed our scrambled eggs to be the best she’d ever had (and she lived in Paris for a few years!). What was the secret? We cracked and pre-scramble whole eggs, and season them with salt, pepper and cream, but these are hardly uncommon techniques. But our menu also had an egg white scramble on it. For that dish, we also hand-cracked and separated whole eggs for the pre-seasoned/scrambled whites, which left us with all those surplus yolks. Those extra yolks were subsequently incorporated into the pre-made scrambled egg mix. So a given order of our scrambled (whole) eggs had about 30% more yolk than a regular egg does, imparting more of the full, rich flavor that yolks are responsible for. This wasn’t a secret — it was just something that the sheer quantity of our operation allowed us to do.
Even if a recipe is simple and ingredients are ample, there are some things that are just hard to make. Pizza dough usually has no more than four or five ingredients to it, but I still struggle any time I try to roll and toss dough into a flat circle, and then get it onto a pizza peel, and then onto a hot stone in my oven. I don’t think anyone totally nails rolling sushi the first time they make it. And I only got as good as I am at casing sausages from having stuffed (literally) thousands of feet of it at a previous job — but most people find it very difficult to do well without loads of practice. There are certain preparations that require a very specific human skill, and can only be duplicated by someone with those dexterital skills and abilities. If cooking were as easy as following a recipe, it would be called ‘baking’.
In conclusion, very few recipes are actually a secret, and even fewer contain a secret ingredient. There’s a reason that many of the best restaurants in the world offer cookbooks with exact recipes for some of their most iconic dishes. It’s because they know that 99% of people simply can’t duplicate them, due to some combination of the factors I’ve just laid out. And the people who are in a position where they can duplicate them are probably professional cooks themselves, and wouldn’t copy (and sell) another restaurant’s recipe, simply out of respect for its originator and/or a sense of professional integrity.
All of this is saying nothing of the fact that even with a very carefully laid out recipe, in order to execute it the way it’s intended, you still need to be able to demonstrate particular cooking prowess — sort of akin to the old saying: “the secret ingredient is love”.