Copycats: A few months ago, I spoke with Robert Stempkowski, manager of Richardson's, a longtime Valley New Mexican restaurant favorite at 1582 East Bethany Home.
He was upset that some of Richardson's signature dishes were showing up on the menus of several new restaurants in town, allegedly brought over by former employees.
One of the places he pointed to was Zinfandel (see this week's Cafe review).
Zinfandel's chef Rob Toll did spend three years at Richardson's. And yes, several menu items at Zinfandel do bear an exceptionally close resemblance to Richardson's models. Both places offer nachos, Southwestern skewers and bacon-wrapped shrimp as appetizers. Among the main dishes, Zinfandel's pork tenderloin and chicken Chimayo entrees are virtually photocopies of what you find at Richardson's. Stempkowski scornfully noted that Zinfandel even appropriated the name "Chicken Chimayo" from Richardson's for its version of rolled chicken breast stuffed with spinach and Asiago cheese.
Stempkowski also directed me to the menus of Carlsbad Tavern and Madison's. There are some striking similarities. Like Richardson's, Carlsbad Tavern featured Stroganoff Pasta, beef and noodles covered with a green chile sour cream sauce. (However, it was recently taken off the menu.) But the menu still lists Garlic Shrimp Pasta, teamed with tomato and avocado in a garlic cream sauce, just like Richardson's prepares it. And Richardson's chicken Chimayo shows up here in the same form under the alias Artesia Chicken.
Madison's, meanwhile, offers an appetizer of Santa Fe skewers, which almost duplicates Richardson's Southwestern skewers. It also serves a green chile potato side dish, for which Richardson's is well-known.
But Tom Hamilton, Zinfandel's proprietor, can't understand what the fuss is about. "Why is Richardson's bothering me?" he asks.
He finds nothing odd about "adapting" some of Richardson's menu. "My chef didn't work at Denny's, so it's not an influence," he says. Richardson's was. And Hamilton doesn't disguise his admiration for Richardson's fare. "It's terrific," he enthuses, calling the proprietor a "real innovator." And, he notes, "innovators get copied."
Judith M. Koss, manager and part-owner of Carlsbad Tavern, and James Smith, the restaurant's chef, also spent time at Richardson's. Koss lavishly praises the restaurant, and says its proprietor is "an originator" who insists on "high standards of quality."
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But she doesn't understand Richardson's "off the wall" reaction to her menu. "You can't patent New Mexican cuisine," she argues.
She's right about that. You can't legally protect any type of cuisine, or any dish, from appearing in competitors' dining rooms. For years, courts have turned away restaurateurs' attempts to copyright their inspirations.
Why don't chefs get the same protection as writers, composers, painters and other artists? Judges have ruled that food serves primarily an edible function, not an aesthetic one. Chicken Chimayo may be a creative dish, but it's not art. Perhaps Richardson's is justified in being annoyed. But the imitations should make it feel flattered as well.