Signature dishes. It’s enough to make a gourmand’s hands tremble in anticipation. Signature dishes are the kind of food that stories are told about. Every restaurant that has ever been called “famous” or “great” is noted for its signature dishes. Fierce business competition among eating establishments makes offering these dishes a necessity. A restaurant that boasts fifteen chefs will usually offer a signature dish created or developed by each one. “Developed” because many such recipes don’t happen overnight, but evolve through a lengthy process of alteration, ingredient substitution, experimentation and refinement. That said, where do the original pieces of paper – the first versions of the recipes that benefit from all of this tweaking come from?
Is there really nothing new under the sun? In truth, most of the signature recipes used in restaurants are adaptations of older versions of the kinds of recipes that are often the provenance of families. This is almost always the case when a restaurant is a family business. Once a restaurant achieves some reputation, it is also not unusual for friends to offer their family’s heirloom recipes to the restaurateur for consideration, counting it a delight and an honor to see their grandmother’s shortcake immortalized by inclusion on a praiseworthy restaurant’s menu.
“Family” recipes that later become restaurant recipes lurk in drawers, mixed in with other papers; often they are jotted down on the end papers of cookbooks, their graphite-penciled or even eyebrow-penciled script becoming nearly illegible over time. Their owners open cabinets and these recipes float to the floors of their kitchens, sepia-tinted snatches of paper that tell them how to make the same rich shortbread their ancestors made in Scotland two hundred years ago or finally revealing the secret of a great aunt’s pickled rosebuds.
Some recipes, family and otherwise, make their way into the hands of restaurateurs as behests. This occurs when the recipe’s owner refuses to allow anyone else but himself to make the dish during his lifetime, a not uncommon attitude in small American towns during the early 1900’s. At that time when the world was becoming more modern and more accessible through the invention of radio, telephone, film, and later television, many women who through economic circumstance and location of birth had been denied more than a simple education found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being seen as somehow less. Many of these women excelled at cooking in self-defense and would have cut off their arms before giving you their biscuit, cornbread, or cobbler recipes. Those recipes became who they were, the one area in their lives where they received notice. Sadly, the instructions for many of their fine dishes accompanied them to the grave, leaving children and grandchildren to wonder forever how those wonderful biscuits or relishes were made.
Other restaurant recipes were passed down orally, not to be written except under special circumstances, although over time the list of reasons for not making a written copy of a restaurant recipe has grown smaller and smaller. Somewhere, sometime, recipe thievery might have been an issue, but the current hunger for originality in everything would make copying someone else’s restaurant recipe counterproductive. What restaurants seek today are signature dishes that are different from those made by other restaurants. Nor do restaurants seem reluctant to share the mechanics of making those dishes with the public. Highly regarded and well-reviewed eating establishments such as Chez Panisse, The Silver Palate, Galatoire’s and Georgia’s Blue Willow Inn have gathered many of their signature dishes into publications that anyone can buy. Nowadays it is almost expected that a restaurant of good reputation will come up with a cookbook.
Sometimes restaurant recipes have come from the memory of watching someone else cook; sometimes they are basic recipes urged into more vivid life by deductive cooking – something taken away rather than added. More than several restaurant recipes have been created under pressure when a “failed” dish and the imminent necessity of serving a crowd has made a chef rely upon his imagination to rework the disaster into a masterpiece. Some restaurant recipes are born from musing and can be said to come “out of the clear blue sky”.
Often the sale price of a restaurant or bakery business includes the recipes for the food it sold. Restaurant recipes have even been the result of misinformation and of misreading. No doubt at least one has been “channeled” from the Great Beyond. One, for a fact, was offered as payment for a night’s lodging and a meal during the Great Depression.
Speculation about the original source of restaurant recipes is fraught with mystery. Behind those impersonal lists of ingredients and directions, we can sense the presence of panting flights in the night across war torn landscapes or the serendipitous discovery of an old green journal left behind in a hospital-stored suitcase by someone who died in the great flu epidemic of 1918. Wherever restaurant recipes come from, they are part of the airy substance our culinary dreams are made of and when prepared with sufficient care and attention, they almost always taste very, very good.