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On Protecting Recipes and Wildlife

Tom Colicchio shares his thoughts on intellectual property and Dale's elimination.

By Tom Colicchio

I'm sure I'll be getting scores of viewer comments this week about Mike's win in the Elimination Challenge, so let's address the issue and dispense with it: Let me first remind you that the judges are not privy to anything happening behind the scenes. I can assure you that Padma and Paula Deen first learned that Mike had been looking through Richard's notebook and seen the idea for such a dish when they saw the edited episode. It's not until then that they ever see any other footage -- there's simply no way that they would have known while judging the Quickfire Challenge about the question of who first conceived of the dish that Mike made.

That said, intellectual property laws do not govern dishes. Menu items that appear in one restaurant can be reproduced in another. Even recipes that appear in a published and copyrighted cookbook can be made in any restaurant in the world. In fact, if a chef changed one single ingredient, s/he could even reprint the recipe in his/her own cookbook. Furthermore, Richard had an idea, and ideas are neither copyrightable nor trademark-able in any discipline. I beg to differ with the cheftestants about "Chef Laws." How often have we heard the chefs say that they were making dishes inspired by dishes their grandmothers used to make? In Quickfire Challenges, sometimes the chefs create a new dish on the spot; sometimes they do something inspired by other dishes. Yes, it's bad form to lift a competing chef's concept so baldly, and it is rotten for Richard that Mike did so, but Mike still had to execute the concept well. There's no Intellectual Property law governing such a move, and no Top Chef law against it. It was poor form. From now on, I'm sure Richard will keep his diary under lock and key.

Richard's win of the Elimination Challenge must have helped him move past the Quickfire. This was not an easy challenge, so I hope the chefs liked that they were knocking themselves out for a worthy cause. When the oil spill happened in the Gulf, chef John Folse invited a bunch of chefs from around the country and myself to survey the devastation firsthand, to understand the impact it was having on the Gulf. We were brought out into the middle of the mess by the Coast Guard. We learned about the impact on the environment and on sea life. We met with fishermen as well as with local businesses affected by the spill, since it was not just the fishermen and the packers who were impacted. This was a summer vacation area -- normally, it would have been mobbed, but it was desolate. The spill ruined ice cream stand owners, grocery stores, you name it. There was a misconception about the breadth of the damage. Seventy percent of the Gulf was fine, but people thought that the whole Gulf was affected and wouldn't buy the fish. Fish is not typically tested for contaminants, but after the spill, fish from all areas of the Gulf was tested, and none of the samples from the unaffected areas came back contaminated in any way. It was safe. We wanted to help residents of the areas by supporting them as best we could. Upon my return, I was interviewed about what I'd seen. I didn't want to be hypocritical by saying Gulf seafood was safe and then not buying it myself. I always prefer to buy local, which for me means serving fish from the North Atlantic, but I still made a point of putting Gulf fish on the menu.  We all know the rest of the story: the spill site was eventually capped, but the damage remains to be seen. For example, we don't yet know the effect on Bluefin Tuna. Bluefin Tuna spawn in only two places on earth -- the Gulf is one of them -- and unfortunately, their eggs were being released right as the oil began gushing into their spawning ground. We don't know the full extent of that upon the larvae, but it was not good.  Already under extreme duress from overfishing, the Bluefin is now in grave danger, its outlook for the future seriously compromised.

The episode made very clear why the dishes fell into the top and bottom categories as they did, so I won't rehash them here. What I'll say about Richard's dish, though, is as follows: I am a fan of pairing meat with fish. It works when it's in balance. Here, this was a fish dish, first and foremost: the point of the challenge was to feature and honor the Gulf seafood. Richard chose to pair it with a bit of pork, which was a great choice. Pork is fairly neutral, which is why it makes great BBQ and spare ribs. It has a lot of fat (when it's a good cut and not that lean crap from Smithfields), and thus it carries flavors well, so if you use just a small amount for earthiness in your fish dish, it can do a lot to complement the flavor of the fish. This has been done the world over:  think of clams with chorizo in Spain, or a classic trout, pan-fried with lemon and a bit of bacon. The meat makes for a great garnish by adding a touch of smokiness.  It really works when, as Richard did, a chef uses the right ratio between the meat and the fish. Try it at home, and let me know how it goes.

And, finally, a note about Dale: it's hard now to see any of our chefs leave, and it's too bad that Dale had to go. He's a great chef, and it's really good to see how he's matured. We all appreciate that he was able to hold up a mirror and examine himself in it when he watched Season 1 and saw what he'd projected at that time. It's impressive that he made an effort to change what he saw; his hard work was reflected in what he brought to the current season. His insightful comments in his exit interview further reflected that growth. It was a pleasure to work with Dale this season.  I wish him all the best moving forward from here.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

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