Gourmet Rip-Offs: Tracing Trends From Chefs to Chains

By Kelly Dobkin  |  January 21, 2014

Much like the world of fashion, the food industry has its own trickle-down from haute couture to the $10 bargain bin knock-off: One chef popularizes a truly great dish that is copied to death by everyone else, eventually making its way down to the chain restaurant level. That's exactly how Sriracha and kale caesar salads became mainstream culinary icons.  Here, we pull a culinary Malcolm Gladwell - and explore the real roots of America's trendiest chain restaurant dishes. In some cases, finding one true inventor of a popular dish is hard, so we give props to a few different chefs. Let us know in the comments if we missed a key player.  

  • Artisanal Ricotta Meatball Sliders at Macaroni Grill

    The classic meatball sub has been around for ages but "Artisanal Ricotta Meatball" sandwiches? This could only come from a collision of several trends. The Macaroni Grill does a "ricotta meatball" that's served on a buttery roll with spicy arrabiata sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan.

    Chef ripped off: Joey Campanaro

    Joey Campanaro made gourmet meatball sliders "a thing" in the late aughts by putting them on the menu at his trendy Little Owl restaurant in NYC's West Village. Made with a combo of ground veal, pork and beef, fennel, panko breadcrumbs and pecorino Romano cheese, they remain on the menu to this day, possibly inspiring the meatball craze of the last several years (see: The Meatball Shop, and others). 

    Try the original: The Little Owl, NYC

  • Thai Pork Tacos at TGI Fridays

    Now that Asian-inspired tacos have made the rounds just about everywhere, it’s no surprise they’d wind up at TGIF Friday’s. The eatery's “Taste and Share” menu, where said tacos are located, is meant to simulate small-plates/tapas-style eating. Aside from the sriracha in the aïoli, their take on a “Thai Pork” seems hardly Thai at all, with hoisin sauce and “ginger lime slaw.”

    Chef ripped off: Roy Choi
    Roy Choi's fleet of Kogi Trucks in LA - combining the flavors of Korean cuisine and Mexican cuisine - turned Asian tacos into a national phenomenon, spawning a slew of Korean taco peddlers from coast to coast. This attempt at some kind of “Thai” taco is no doubt a bastardized descendent of Choi’s original creation.

    Try the original: Kogi Truck, LA 

  • Italiano Burger at Olive Garden

    Olive Garden added an “Italiano Burger” to its menu in 2013, which led to a slew of blog taste tests (for irony's sake) and plenty of additional media coverage. The otherwise pedestrian beef burger is smothered in mozzarella, proscuitto, Roma tomatoes and arugula with a garlic aïoli and served on an Italian roll. 

    Chefs ripped off: Michael White, Giada De Laurentiis?

    We suspect two cases of theft here. First of all, Michael White made a splash in NYC when he launched his “White Label Burger” at his fancy midtown Italian spot, Ai Fiori, in 2011. The burger contained a custom blend of Pat LaFrieda beef (chuck, brisket, short rib and aged rib-eye), Nueske’s bacon and a Wisconsin white American cheese. While the burger itself isn’t actually Italian in any way, White's offering made it more acceptable for other high-end Italian restaurants to follow suit.

    The other chef ripped off is TV's Giada De Laurentiis, known for making Italian-ish tweaks on all sorts of American comfort food. She has no fewer than three recipes for “Italian” burgers on the Food Network site, one of which is conspicuously similar to Olive Garden’s take.

    Try the originals: Ai Fiori, NYC. Giada's restaurant in Vegas won't be open for a few months (no word either whether there will be an Italian burger there.)

  • Triple Chocolate Meltdown at Applebee's

    The ubiquitous "molten chocolate cake" is a simple chocolate cake with a melty fudge center, available on just about every dessert menu across America, including Applebee's. 

    Chef ripped off: Jean-Georges Vongerichten?

    There's debate over who the real creator of molten chocolate cake was. Jean-Georges Vongerichten claims to have invented the dessert in New York City in 1987, but he's been disputed by pastry chef/chocolatier Jacques Torres, who said the dish already existed in France (French chef Michel Bras is also cited as a molten chocolate innovator). In Vongerichten's version, the dish was an apparent mistaken discovery, like many other great culinary inventions, as he pulled chocolate cake from the oven early and found the center to be moist and runny. 

    Try the original: Jean-Georges, NYC

  • Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Pizza at California Pizza Kitchen

    While the entire concept of CPK is basically one big Wolfgang Puck rip-off (the inventor of so-called California pizza), a new seasonal menu item is particularly curious: bacon and Brussels sprouts pizza. Only available during the cold-weather months, the pizza is topped with caramelized onions, Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon, Romano and goat cheese, and hand-separated, charred Brussels sprouts.

    Chef ripped off: Mario Batali

    Despite being a classic American vegetable/ingredient, the Brussels sprout trend has grown bigger and bigger since the late '90s when Batali first served Brussels sprouts and pancetta as a side dish at his NYC restaurant, Babbo. A short trend piece in the New York Times called out Babbo's sprouts (among others) in 1999, and a recipe for Brussels sprouts and pancetta appeared a few years later in the Babbo cookbook. Today, they are still on the menu as a side at the classic Greenwich Village trattoria. Eventually, many other notable chefs starting serving some form of the Brussels-and-bacon combo. Years later, David Chang put his own Korean spin on sprouts with bacon and kimchi.

    Try the original: Babbo, NYC

  • Santorini Farro Salad at The Cheesecake Factory

    The Italian staple grain farro is still lesser-known throughout most of America, but it's clearly catching on as it's available at the Cheesecake Factory as part of a "Santorini Farro Salad" consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, red onion, feta cheese, tzatziki and vinaigrette.

    Chef ripped off: Anna Klinger, al di la

    It's debatable as to who actually popularized the farro salad, but the Brooklyn eatery has had one on the menu since the aughts, and the recipe was published in the New York Times in 2010, originally with rutabaga and ricotta salata as star ingredients. Today, you can still find it on the menu (which changes daily) in some form - most likely with roasted beets, greens, goat cheese and toasted pistachios.

    Try the original: al di la, Brooklyn, NY

  • Mixology-inspired cocktail menus at P.F. Chang's, elsewhere

    The trend of dipping into Prohibition-era cocktails can be seen just about everywhere these days, but chain restaurants are even starting to pick up the trail by offering homogenized versions of classic drinks. At P.F. Chang's, you'll find a Chinese 88, an Asian take on the French 75, a mix of champagne, gin and lemon juice that was popular during the 1930s.

    Mixologists ripped off: Dale DeGroff, Sasha Petraske?

    There are a few bartenders responsible for bringing Prohibition-era cocktails and spirits back into popularity. Dale DeGroff was probably the first American bartender to popularize classic cocktails during his run at The Rainbow Room in the late '80s. Sasha Petraske was another major influence with his bar Milk & Honey, which opened in 2000. Other classic cocktail pioneers followed suit, including Audrey Saunders with The Pegu Club in 2005, and the trend just snowballed from there. Eventually, the "speakeasy" or hidden bar became a trend that spread to several major cities. 

    Try the original: Milk & Honey, NYC, in its new Flatiron digs

  • Crisp Romaine & Baby Kale Caesar at Seasons 52

    The kale salad will probably be ubiquitous until the end of time, including at chain eatery Seasons 52, who does their version of a kale Caesar with shaved Parmesan cheese, toasted garlic ciabatta croutons and romaine lettuce (in addition to kale leaves). But where was the first place the kale salad really blew up?

    Chef ripped off: Hadley Schmitt, Northern Spy Food Co., NYC

    It's hard to pinpoint how exactly kale took off as the viral food trend it's now become, but it's clear that Northern Spy in NYC was one of the first to turn the nutrient-packed superfood into a must-order dish. The recipe appeared in the New York Times in 2010 and remains on the menu today with cheddar cheese, butternut squash, almonds and pecorino. 

    Try the original: Northern Spy Food Co, NYC

    Pictured: Northern Spy's kale salad