Nancy KruseKruse Company president Nancy Kruse asks whether chefs should be able to legally protect their culinary creations.

It has always been the case that restaurants are easy pickings for customers bent on larceny, the ones who make off with costly mementos of their visit. We’re not just talking sugar packets here: Restaurateurs regularly report the loss of everything from fine glassware and silver to artwork and even furniture. And the back of the house can harbor sticky-fingered miscreants, too, in the form of employees who pilfer food and supplies.

While this bad behavior is aggravating, arguably stronger emotions may be stirred by a restaurant competitor who steals recipes. This kind of violation cuts to the core of an operation’s identity and has given rise to some heated rhetoric. Earlier this year, the New York Post ran a story about what it dubbed “copycat cuisine” and detailed the legal battles enjoined by chefs who feel that their dishes have been ripped off.

Restaurant recipes can’t be copyrighted, though other elements of the operation, called trade dress, can lawfully be protected, like logos, signage and interior décor. There are regular skirmishes over infringement whenever the resemblance between two operations becomes too close for comfort. But chefs don’t enjoy such protection and find themselves crying foul when a dish of their invention turns up on someone else’s menu.

Or at least some cry foul. Others shrug off the imitation as flattery, as did noted chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin in New York City after a complex and sophisticated dish that bore marked resemblance to one of his own making surfaced on a rival bill of fare. In fact, Ripert himself admits to borrowing ideas from others, notably chef Ferran Adrià of Spain. Adrià, founder of legendary Spanish restaurant elBulli, believes that chefs should freely share recipes and ideas. He plans to put that belief into practice with his proposed Bullipedia, a digital search engine for kitchen pros that will promote idea sharing “from everyone for everyone.” It’s a concept that’s open-minded and open-hearted, but it gives me pause.

The law protects works of literature, and musicians regularly file suit over melodies that too closely echo their own. But chefs have little recourse when someone pirates their culinary creations. In the chain context especially, it can take years of trial and error on the part of both the operator and the supplier to bring a new product to market. Their chagrin at being knocked off is understandable.

On the other hand, the restaurant world has gotten pretty darn small, with participants tracking the same trends, responding to the same inputs and influences, and using the same ingredients. Seen in that light, it’s understandable that the same item would turn up in two different venues with absolutely no malice. And, as important as a signature item may be to the patron, it’s only one element of his or her overall dining experience, which may owe just as much to factors like service, ambiance or the bar program.

Still I’m left a little conflicted, Bret. Should chefs and recipe developers have the right to protect their recipes? Or do you agree with Eric Ripert, that from the gastronomic point of view, everyone is taking their inspiration from their best-in-class peers? In a restaurant industry where there really are no culinary secrets, is menu plagiarism just the cost of doing business?