On February 19, 2013, the Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Intellectual Property Law Society hosted its annual Gastro IP symposium, which featured a panel discussion including, among others, Nick Kokonas. And after
badgering emailing the outgoing and incoming IPLS presidents over the past several months, the video is finally online.
Kokonas offered some interesting comments within the context of the panel’s discussion of the application of intellectual property law to restaurants and dining. For example, he explained the brain trust hasn’t been too concerned others will copy Chef Grant Achatz. In fact, the mothership even started with what Kokonas characterized as an open source approach:
Early on in 2004, we basically decided to put our business plan online. My general feeling was good luck copying it. It requires a tremendous amount of labor, and it’s very different than a company like DuPont. If anything, being open source for us allows people to share what we do across the Internet, allows them to become passionate about what we do, to try it at home and to see it’s not impossible but it’s not simple either.
(It would interesting to look at the business plan today, almost a decade later. Some day, perhaps on some other blog.)
Expanding on this theme, Kokonas later remarked:
You can go home and cook a black truffle explosion. I can teach you how to do it. I’ve made it. It’s possible. It tastes really, really good, even though you made it at home. But what you didn’t get it is everything else all around it. I gave a talk not so long ago at TEDx called “designing experience.” And what you can’t believe perhaps is that the food is a necessary but not sufficient condition to having a great restaurant. And we have great food and great chefs in our restaurants but we also train our staff constantly. Every day at four o’clock, there’s a meeting, and we know exactly who is walking through the door and what their preferences are. And it’s all about the entire dining experience. It’s part of what you are paying for. It’s a huge part of what you are paying for, beyond the food. So, as I always say, that information is out there. I’ll give you any recipe you want, and you can go home and cook it, spend the eight hours it takes to make one of those little bites. And it will be a relatively unfufilling experience for you. You can try to build a restaurant that has all those other things to go along with it, but you’re going to have to work really hard and get up really early in the morning to do it and to compete with us.
Accordingly, even when there’s shameless copying without attribution, Kokonas said the brain trust prefers to handle it without resorting to formal legal means:
There have been times have people have crossed essentially what I consider an ethical line, not necessarily a legal one, though that too sometimes probably. And at those times we have tried to enforce our rights even though we haven’t patented something or trademarked it necessarily. But we could talk about that a bit later. But we have had a couple of unique cases like that where we’ve won with the help of the internet rather than in a court of law.
Kokonas also mentioned an anecdote that was new to Ahab, namely that the brain trust had been approached a group in London wanting to do a “greatest hits” menu featuring dishes from el Bulli, Mugartiz, Alinea, and others. The group offered to pay $4 per dish per diner, totaling $1600 or more per night, simply for the brain trust’s approval, but they declined:
Because (a) there was no way they could possibly make money and pay out that much money to the chefs and they would never last even though they were very well-financed and (b) they would cut corners and people would think that’s us. So, I guess from a monetary standpoint it’s a stupid decision but at the same time your brand and everything that we’re doing moving forward relies on that. And there’s a core integrity issue too. Part of what we do is make money and part of what we do… we try to give people great pleasure. It’s fun and delicious. So part of what we’re doing is not the monetary. The money is wonderful side aspect of doing something really well. I would argue that’s true of absolutely everything.
Which is interesting given that Aviary’s sibling adjacent did its own el Bulli “greatest hits” menu early in its run.
Every one knows the fine story of Perseus and Andromeda; how the lovely Andromeda, the daughter of a king, was tied to a rock on the sea-coast, and as Leviathan was in the very act of carrying her off, Perseus, the prince of whalemen, intrepidly advancing, harpooned the monster, and delivered and married the maid.