Can you actually steal a recipe? The answer is legally (and ethically) complicated

Everyone from Martha Stewart to a current "Top Chef" contestant has been accused of plagiarizing a recipe

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 12, 2024 5:15AM (EDT)

Examining recipe ingredients (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Examining recipe ingredients (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Secret recipes have always held a certain allure in American culture. Their existence has helped mythologize companies, from Coca-Cola — which kept its secret formula in a vault at the Trust Company Bank in Atlanta for 86 years before eventually moving it to the the World of Coca‑Cola in 2011 — to KFC’s “11 herbs and spices,” a marketing concept once praised by Wendy’s founder David Thomas because, as he put it, "everybody wants in on a secret.” That’s probably why for every story of a secret recipe catapulting a cook or company to fame, there’s a story about one getting stolen.

For instance, a few weeks ago on this season of “Top Chef,” competitor Danny Garcia was accused of copying a recipe created by his former boss, Blanca head chef Victoria Blamey — a dish she had previously credited in part to him. Eater New York investigated the accusation, which centered on scallop chou farci, a dish served at the now-closed Tribeca restaurant, Mena, where Blamey managed Garcia. After Garcia won an elimination challenge with the dish, which host Kristen Kish declared “luscious,” Blamey took to Instagram to decry the choice. 

“To have someone copy the exact same dish and win Top Chef is not only a lack of moral and professionalism but a sad demonstration how this person has no creative guts of his own,” she wrote. “Surprise that @bravotopchef doesn’t do their research better.” 

To further complicate the narrative, Eater’s Melissa McCart found a 2022 Resy interview in which Blamey had specifically mentioned collaborating with Garcia on Mena’s version of scallop chou farci. The situation is muddy — but so is the broader question of whether or not a recipe (and what kinds) can be stolen. 

From a legal perspective, the question of whether one can sue for recipe theft often hinges on the nuances of intellectual property law, which encompasses copyright, patent, trademark and trade secrets. Trade secrets typically constitute corporate “insider knowledge,” like the Coca-Cola formula, and their protection can be enforced through non-disclosure agreements that are signed by employees, manufacturers and distributors. 

A patent could be sought to protect a method for preparing a dish, though the creator would have to prove novelty (not to mention the recipe would be published in full if the patent was approved, thus defeating the purpose if full secrecy was the goal), while a trademark would be used to protect names and logos associated with a food product. Finally, recipes themselves typically aren’t protected by copyright, but their expression in written form can be, meaning that if a recipe is copied verbatim, or nearly so, it may constitute copyright infringement. However, merely listing ingredients is likely not enough to obtain copyright protection. 

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That’s perhaps why accusations of recipe plagiarism are so rampant, especially after the explosion of digital food blogs and recipe sites; everyone from Martha Stewart —who was accused in the CNN documentary series “The Many Lives of Martha Stewart” of stealing an employee’s cranberry nut torte — to “Cravings” author Chrissy Teigan have been accused of lifting other cook’s dishes without credit. 

In 2022, Teigan was accused by a Twitter user, whom Page Six speculated may have simply been a troll, of copying a recipe from a man named “Chef Mike” who had once cooked for Teigan and her family.“I have never stolen a recipe from anyone and I actively talk about the restaurants I love,” Tiegan said in response at the time. “[I]magine the ego to think someone is copying you when they haven't heard of you?"

That same year, baker Jordan Rondel, who owns The Caker, a line of high-end boxed cake mixes, accused Teigan of copying elements of her company’s design in her Cravings by Chrissy Teigen boxed cake line. 

“Chrissy Teigen released her own line of elevated baking mixes (pictured here alongside mine) right after we collaborated on a cake mix together,” Rondel wrote on Instagram. “I’ve taken a week to try to process everything and could say a lot more here, but I just want to acknowledge the support from everyone who has messaged me or commented online to stick up for The Caker. Thank you from the bottom of my exhausted heart. I have no issue with anyone releasing baking mixes, but I think you guys are right that this particular situation isn’t chill, especially because we’re just a small [sister-run] business.“ 

As Bon Appetit reported at the time, while there were some serious differences in the ingredients used in the products, there were notable similarities between the two lines in terms of the packaging. “Is it a straight rip-off?” they wrote. “Who can say for sure, but there’s certainly enough overlap in the overall aesthetics to raise some shady eyebrows.” 

The ethics of recipe-stealing are just as murky as the legal implications, which is apparent in the many, many Reddit posts debating the etiquette of recreating someone else’s recipe. Take, for instance, the post titled “AITA for ‘stealing my friend’s family recipe?” The post writer describes cooking for a dinner party with her friend, Sam. 

“One time when I was helping, Sam decided to make her family's secret recipe,” they wrote. “It's a chicken casserole. She said that she only made it once or twice a year, always around the holidays, because it was special.” 

"Word somehow worked its way back to Sam and she was pissed. She called me, yelling about how I'd ‘stolen’ her family's secret recipe."

The writer really liked the dish, spent some time recreating it at home and eventually served it at their own family function. 

“Everyone loved it, and my sister asked me about the recipe,” they wrote. “I told her where I learned it and gave her the recipe. Word somehow worked its way back to Sam and she was pissed. She called me, yelling about how I'd ‘stolen’ her family's secret recipe. I told her it's just chicken casserole and not worth screaming at me for, but she just called me a word that rhymes with bunt and then disinvited me from all future dinner parties.” 

The comment section was pretty starkly divided among people who felt like the writer was in the right — “It’s just  chicken casserole,” like the original post said — and people who felt like a grave culinary sin had been committed. Largely, that’s been how the response to the scallop chou farci debacle on “Top Chef” has been divided, too. 

“Regardless [of] who did what in the original dish, I think it was a pretty bad move by Danny to copy exactly a signature dish without acknowledging Victoria Blamey or restaurant Mena,” one user wrote in a Reddit thread about the drama. “Yes, chefs copy others’ recipes all the time, but this is not like steak and potatoes or truffle fries. This is also not a random dish in the menu of his old workplace: this is a signature dish that Blamey was especially proud of, talks about it all the time, and brings with her to every restaurant she’s the chef.” 

Another simply wrote: “I hope her food isn't this salty and bitter.” 

As for Garcia’s side of the story, the curious among us will have to wait a few more weeks to see if he chooses to speak out; contestants are barred from talking about the season in progress. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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