Dumpster diving, psychics, chumming it up with Colonel Sanders’s former secretary—it’s all in a day’s work for Todd Wilbur, the world’s most famous recipe hacker.
The hacking began in 1986 after he received a copy of the infamous chain letter that claimed to have the recipe for Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies. Wilbur wasn’t impressed with the end result of the recipe so, with no training or cooking background (“Well, I had made cookies before,” he says), he developed one of his own.
Since then, he has published 10 “clone” cookbooks with his versions of recipes from The Cheesecake Factory, McDonald’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, IHOP and other big chains. His TV show, Top Secret Recipe, ran last year on CMT and saw a panel of seasoned judges trying to distinguish his clones from the originals. Wilbur spoke to up! from his home in Las Vegas about why and how he does what he does.
Why clone recipes?
I saw how the Mrs. Fields recipe spread and how people like secret recipes. I got the chain letter and tweaked it. Then I thought, that was fun. What if I start cloning other stuff? How about a Big Mac? How about a Snickers bar?
How do restaurants react to your clones?
The companies get exposure in the books and on the show and that encourages them to be cooperative and give us some tidbits here and there. It’s been pretty tough, even with that information. I hope they see I’m not out to hurt the companies. I’m only doing what I do because I love the stuff they make. It’s the sincerest form of flattery. I’m creating my own versions, I respect copyrights. I’m not working at a Red Lobster and stealing their recipe from their cookbook. I try very hard to not break any laws.
What is craziest thing you’ve done to clone a recipe?
For the Dippin’ Dots episode [of Top Secret Recipe] that aired last year, I had to acquire liquid nitrogen and I figured a good place to get that would be from a dermatologist who uses it to freeze warts. So I said I had a lot of warts below the waist and I was going to treat them myself. The doctor wouldn’t let me do that. I ended up having to take my pants off and I happened to not be wearing underwear that day.
What has cloning taught you about cooking?
It’s taught me a lot about tweaking. You can always go back in and make it better. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but you might have found something that made the recipe just slightly better.
Todd Wilbur’s favourite Las Vegas eateries
Q&A: Martin Picard from Au Pied de Cochon
The rebel chef and owner of famed Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon is obsessive in the kitchen. He’s traipsed the Quebec countryside hunting and foraging for authentic ingredients in his Food Network show The Wild Chef. He mastered pork and fois gras before focusing on maple. His second book, Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, is part maple encyclopedia and part recipe book, with experimental dishes developed at the sugar shack he purchased in 2008. The shack has 4,000 maple taps and a restaurant where reservations for the February to May season book within hours.