Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pickled Chai Grapes // The Issue with Authenticity (Weeks 23 & 24)

This week, we received word that a new shop opened just a few blocks away that boasts a menu strikingly reminiscent of our own. While I do believe in the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, these past few days, no matter how I tried to busy myself, and no matter how many sun salutations I completed to try to clear my head, a single question occupied all my mental space: had these guys ever been inside our shop, or were the similarities mere coincidence in the purest form?

In a world where Pinterest reigns supreme, where ideas are often replicated, duplicated and adapted, it seems more and more difficult to determine where inspiration ends and copyright infringement begins. 

In many ways, the culinary world is no different. Cooking, like all good art forms, seems to be inspired by the "art" that came before it. That classic paella your friend serves every winter? It is likely not an "original" recipe, but rather is inspired by her grandmother's recipe (and her grandmother's recipe and so on). Those excellent brownies your husband makes every year for your child's birthday? They're  likely the byproduct of his childhood neighbor, who made a similar dessert for him when he was a kid. 

This sort of replication and inspiration is what makes cooking great. It is what makes every dish a journey through history and culture and personal relationships. It is what makes your grandmother's chicken taste better than any other chicken on the planet and what makes your mother's macaroni and cheese instantly remedy whatever ails you. It is what makes food about more than just food, but about the stories that inspired it. 

So why was this new shop, the one with a menu and vibe just like ours, taking over my thoughts? Perhaps I was reading too deeply into the situation. Perhaps, just like us, these guys had a unique story about the origin of their concept (ours began back when the chef was working in a failing fine dining kitchen and searching for ways to cut back on food costs when the thought of braised meats and fine dining-inspired sauces struck him like a cartoon lightbulb in the head). Or perhaps they were looking for inspiration and stumbled upon our food at one of our markets (hey -- every new business owner needs to find inspiration someplace). But my cynical side couldn't help but wonder if their story was less innocent than that. Was it possible that we were straight up being duped by a few guys trying to claim our unique ideas as their own?  

I've always been a big believer in karma and try to live based on the knowledge that the universe gives back to us whatever we put into it. And so, despite my frustrations, I sincerely wish these new guys the best. Owning a business, while awesome at times, also sucks a lot of the time, and so the last thing any new business owner needs is someone sending them bad vibes or ill wishes. Plus, New York is certainly big enough for all of us to live and sell our product happily. 

In a strange way, business owners need to be grateful for their competitors. They remind us that our concept -- the one we've been building and reinventing these past few years -- is something worth duplicating. In that way, this whole situation seems like less of a "copyright" issue and more of a "mentoring" issue: some up and coming business owner needed a model to aspire to, and so it's genuinely flattering that he chose ours. It is also a reminder that, no matter how good of a day we have, and how loyal our customers are, it is vital that we constantly stay on top of our game, to value our customers in the same way we did on our opening day and to keep pushing forward and evolving so our concept doesn't become stale. 

In the spirit of inspiration, this recipe for Pickled Chai Grapes is lovingly adapted from one of our favorite cookbooks from the past year, Smoke & Pickles. When the chef brought this book home several months back, I spent many days skimming its pages and being inspired by the simple yet unique recipes (the strawberry ketchup recipe, as well as the yellow squash soup with cured strawberries are some of my personal favorites). After soaking for several days in a simple, sugary brine, the sliced grapes become firm and nicely absorb the spicy nuances found in a single bag of chai. The final pickles are reminiscent of a fruit compote in many ways, and while they work well with savory meats, they are just as qualified to serve as a sweet topping for otherwise simple desserts. While the original recipe called for champagne vinegar, I preferred to swap it with white wine vinegar (I also opted out of including a cinnamon stick in the jar, which I found to be a little bit too spicy for my tastes). I hope this recipe will inspire your own kitchen creations. Enjoy.     

Pickled Chai Grapes
adapted from Smoke & Pickles

- 2 cups red seedless grapes
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 chai tea bag

Remove the grapes from their stems and thoroughly rinse. Slice each grape in half and then add the grapes to a clean glass jar. Set aside. 

In a medium saucepan, add the vinegar, water, sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to slightly cool, about 2-3 minutes. Pour the brine into the glass jar, being sure to cover the grapes with liquid. Add the tea bag to the jar. Allow the brine to cool completely, and then seal the jar and store it in the refrigerator. In one day, remove the tea bag from the jar. When sealed and stored in the refrigerator, the grapes will keep for about 2 weeks. 


  1. Cafe POA delivers Simple Menu App for Restaurants, Hotels and Food stores. Simple integration with Social Media, existing POS e.g. Aloha as well as Payment Systems to increase sales, improve quality, enhance customer engagement and increase revenue.

  2. I just found out your blog... it's beautiful and an amazing inspiration! Compimenti!! :D

  3. Lovely post, Angela, and it sounds like you've got a good outlook on the business and the competition. I'm so glad that I found your site (via Saveur - congratulations!), and look forward to visiting often!

  4. Hi Amy! Thanks for your kind words! I'm so glad you found my little corner of the web. I just clicked through to your site and when I arrived realized, "hey…wait a minute! I've been on this site a bunch of times before!" Small world :) Thanks for dropping by.

  5. Hi Angela, my husband pointed me to your website after reading about it in Saveur. This is a beautiful blog and now part of my feed. It is so funny because I actually blogged about Mayhem and Stout on my blog, awhile ago. I think my husband eats there three times a week. His colleagues have talked about an intervention.

  6. Hi Sydney,
    Thanks so much for your note. I'm so glad that you and your husband stumbled across my site! I just clicked through to your blog. What a small world! I remember reading that when you published it! Thanks so much for that! I'm so glad to hear that your husband and his colleagues like what we're doing. Feel free to pop in sometime and say hello! Thanks again :)

  7. I just found this blog and I'm so excited! Thanks for sharing your insights to issues that really speak to the challenges of our profession in the 21st century.