Taking someone else’s idea and passing it off as your own isn’t rocket science, but you probably don’t know you’re doing it anyway, says Neil Rankin
Several thousand years ago I was working on opening a barbecue meat trailer on London’s South Bank. It was opening day and I’d only had two days to prepare. I had also made the decision to go out and get pissed in the Pink Chihuahua the night before and roll in at 4am.
To add to this misery, I came into the restaurant to find that one of our smokers had broken down around the time of my 15th margarita and I now had only 50% of the pulled pork stock I needed.
I raided the fridge for anything I could use instead, but all I had was two gastro trays of macaroni cheese that I had overcooked the day before and decided to reserve for staff food.
Despite my hangover clearly blunting my intelligence, it did ignite my desire for the dirtiest food imaginable, so my mind quickly came up with a plan. I cut the fridge-cold macaroni cheese out using a round pastry cutter, coated it in panko, deep-fried it and topped it with a small amount of pulled pork in a bun. The ‘trailer trash’ bun was born and it outsold the pure pulled pork bun 20/1 and I made it through lunch service with the stock I had. I was hailed a genius, then I napped.
Three weeks later, I was alerted to an identical bun appearing on a menu in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Then it appeared in a barbecue place in Hoxton, then in a large chain restaurant, then in a burger restaurant in Chicago and finally in a multinational chain in Dubai.
A number of fellow chefs have complained about being ripped off in a similar vain. From egg and crisp sandwiches to chicken fingers or coloured burger buns and, most notably, Dominique Ansel moaning about people ripping off his cronut thing.
I can sympathise. It’s a thing that happens and it can be annoying, but I also don’t think it’s always that clear-cut – or that it’s always deliberate.
For starters, lots of people can copy you without intending to. People see things on the internet or on menus that they don’t always take in. Like a Derren Brown trick, you can subliminally repeat something you’ve seen and call it your own.
Second, its highly unlikely that yours is an original idea. I definitely didn’t invent deep-fried mac and cheese and Ansel didn’t invent deep-fried yeasty puff pastry. The cronut is a genius idea, but not ‘locating the Higgs Boson’ type of genius. It’s likely that someone, somewhere, has done that before, multiple times, in multiple cultures, but maybe with a pinch less narcissism.
The things that are copied are good ideas. Someone invented pizza, someone invented dan dan noodles, someone invented blue cheese and someone invented bread and butter pudding. All these things are better for being copied and sent out into the world, rather than being tied to someone and their narrow-minded copywriter claims. What if a Seattle band had protected grunge or DJ Kool Herc had been able to copyright hip hop?
People need to get over themselves and understand that they’re just part of a big creative machine. If you get the chance to be a big cog in that machine, then that’s the goal you should be aiming for. Instead of getting upset by the good ideas you’ve had that people have copied, try to get upset and angry thinking about all the other ideas you’ve had that nobody gave a shit about. The reason nobody copied them was probably because they were all a bit crap, which is much more upsetting to imagine and also a much more common part of your repertoire.
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