Legal Trouble

Grant Achatz and the Case of the Mysterious Canapé

Chef Actatz's masterpiece.
Chef Actatz’s masterpiece.

One thing’s for certain — if Nick Kokonas ever needs a private investigator, he can save his money and just tweet it. When the Alinea/Next partner discovered an unauthorized recipe bearing (sort of) Grant Achatz’s name on a site paid for by Kellogg’s, bloggers and tweeters including Eater and Chicagoist sprang into action to get to the bottom of it. Here’s the case as it unfolded: Kokonas found, and tweeted, a recipe for smearing whipped sweet potatoes and raisins on a cracker, on a site called, which is owned by Kellogg’s and “brought to you by” a lineup of their snack brands including Cheez-It, Town House crackers, Keebler, Nutri-Grain, and others. The recipe, curiously, is attributed to one “Chef Grant Actatz [sic],” though needless to say, this fifties-style canapé hardly resembles something you would expect from the kitchen at Alinea (unless, as several joked, there was a Wisconsin 1958 theme on the way at Next). Subsequent investigation turned up two other pertinent facts: an earlier citation for the recipe all the way back in 2006 in a small-town newspaper, and a second recipe (no link; they’re both gone now) at the Snackpicks site for curry ham and cheese toppers, this time spelling Achatz’s name correctly. Theories abounded: Did Kellogg’s stick Achatz’s name on a recipe he had nothing to do with? Did they deliberately misspell Achatz as “Actatz” to evade search engine detection while convincing some gullible customers that sweet potatoes on a storebought cracker was Alinea-level cuisine? Well, presented with all the evidence, we retired last night to the hothouse in which we collect rare orchids and put our little grey cells to work. Now join us as we gather all the suspects in the library and solve the mystery.

The first question — did misspell “Actatz” to evade search engines while exploiting Achatz’s name? — seems unlikely given the second recipe in which his name was spelled correctly. Add to that the fact that at least one recipe is at least six years old and we begin to look elsewhere besides the initial suspect,

If the recipes are legitimate — which we doubt given their lack of resemblance to Achatz’s food, but even Kokonas admits he can’t be positive that they didn’t give some recipe to somebody six years ago — then there is conceivably a legitimate path for these recipes to have ended up on a site like this. Chefs cooperate with magazines and newspapers all the time; Achatz, for instance, submitted this soup (which we have in fact made; it’s excellent) to Food & Wine. Two things separate it from the sweet-potato goo on a cracker, though: Food & Wine’s credibility as a source and the fact that it’s an obviously professional, good-quality recipe. Nevertheless it could arguably be legitimate for a magazine to allow an advertiser to license content like this and run a “Grant Achatz” recipe on their site.

That said, we can say that when we were at Leo Burnett and a big chunk of the Kellogg’s account was just a floor or two away, there was no way in hell that Burnett’s hyperzealous legal department would have considered the mere fact of the magazine saying it was okay to use the recipe sufficient for one of their clients to trade on Achatz’s name and reputation. For someone of Achatz’s stature and celebrity, they would have regarded the use of his recipe as a tacit endorsement of the Keebler product, and insisted on documentation saying he allowed his name to appear in conjunction with their brand. (Nevertheless, it’s not unknown for major brands to blur this line; a beer company might run an upcoming concerts ad, say, dropping the names of famous rock acts with whom they have no relationship otherwise.)

But it’s a different world now, and brands like Kellogg’s work with many more marketing partners of many different experience levels, especially for online work, than they did in our Don Draper–esque youth. Here’s what we think really happened: In 2006, some public relations firm for Kellogg’s generated this pseudo-news article featuring recipes attributed to celebrated chefs around the country. Perhaps Achatz actually muttered this recipe over the phone; perhaps some lazy copywriter faked it, figuring no one would ever see it when it ran in a few small-town newspapers. Either way, it went with Achatz’s name into some database of recipes at Kellogg’s. Years later some online marketing firm found it there and put it on the site, comparatively innocently — bungling the spelling in one of two cases, but using what they considered to be legitimate recipes from an approved client source. (In our day that wouldn’t have been enough due diligence for an ad agency’s legal department, but as we say, it’s a different, sloppier world now.)

In any case, as long as we’re theorizing from the outside, we’re going to make a prediction about what will happen next. It will involve Kellogg’s, a public apology … and a donation to the University of Chicago Cancer Center.

Grant Achatz and the Case of the Mysterious Canapé