Kitchen Subterfuge and Recipe Hoarding

A dozen years ago, a friend who was an accomplished cook scored a major acquisition at a local estate auction. She submitted the winning bid for nearly 100 venerable cookbooks authored by big-name chefs.  Her dream, she confided to me, was to remodel her kitchen to incorporate bookcases for her burgeoning cookbook collection.  Floor-to-ceiling shelves would be built adjacent to her kitchen appliances, with a rolling ladder to access these tomes when needed.

Her vision of a dual cookbook library/kitchen resonated with me. Sadly, she did not live long enough to realize her dream cooking space. But collecting recipes remains a time-honored tradition, and today there are numerous sources online for food prep inspiration, plus different apps to store them.

But not everyone is willing to share the secrets of their signature dishes, I’ve learned.

I recently participated in a great tapas cooking class at the Boston Public Market. The chef’s arduous course preparations were stellar.  But having to share a single recipe sheet with multiple students, all independently trying to duplicate the same steps simultaneously, was a challenge.  Moreover, by the end of the session, that recipe sheet was splattered with spills, rendering it mostly indecipherable.


So I asked the chef if she would email those recipes to us after the class. She assured us that she would, but her follow-up email never arrived.

A similar thing happened two years ago, when I attended a lamb roasting class led by a chef at a different commercial kitchen. In this case, the chef had laid out all of the ingredients in precise measurements, and gave us verbal instructions throughout each step of the food prep process.  Nothing was written down and the rapid fire of her step-by-step instructions precluded any note-taking.

When the class ended, I asked if she would share the recipes for the dishes we had just completed.  Again, it seemed a reasonable request, given that we had paid an ample fee to participate.   She, too, promised to email them but failed to do so, despite repeated follow-up requests.

Why are some professional cooks so reluctant to share their secrets, while other chefs publish entire cookbooks detailing their recipes?   Is simply demonstrating the overall technique, without any precise details, sufficient?  After all,  every cook invariably fine-tunes re-used recipes over time.

It reminds me of a conversion with a friend in Florida while I was her weekend houseguest. One morning she baked an incredible set of fluffy, tender biscuits.  I begged for the recipe.

Be careful when asking a southern cook for her recipes,  my friend warned me with a grin. A key ingredient will most likely be omitted from the version you receive.  “After all, it’s our way to make sure your food never turns out quite as good as ours.”