When Sheryl Kirby's favourite apple omelette disappeared from the menu of her usual brunch haunt, she didn't waste time mourning.
"I went home and started frying up apples," the Toronto food blogger says.
Several days and several dozen eggs later, she created a striking facsimile of her beloved omelette with the perfect proportions of eggs, apples, cinnamon and a dash of Calvados. Now she doesn't have to change out of her pyjamas to enjoy her favourite restaurant breakfast.
Cloning isn't just for mad scientists any more. Armed with only their palates and a flair for culinary experimentation, home cooks such as Ms. Kirby are swapping copycat recipes online and buying cookbooks filled with "clones" of dishes from such restaurants as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.
"It's totally fun," says Ms. Kirby, editor of TasteTO.com, whose culinary sleuthing ranges from high-end gourmet dishes, such as an amazing risotto she ate at a restaurant in San Francisco, to humble fare such as donairs. (Homesick for her native Halifax, she created two do-it-yourself versions of the Haligonian favourite: meat and vegetarian.) Kitchen cloners unite on Stephanie Manley's website, CopyKat.com, where they share and review recipes for such delicacies as Subway's sweet onion sauce and Starbucks's vanilla scones.
Ms. Manley, who lives in Houston, traces her hobby to her roots - her family lived in the country, so restaurant meals were rare treats to be savoured and, when possible, duplicated at home.
After studying organic chemistry and working as a short-order cook during university, she decided to combine those skills to recreate her favourite restaurant treat, Olive Garden's alfredo sauce. The results went on her website, which has grown in the past decade to include 60,000 registered members, including a vocal Canadian contingent. ("They keep asking for stuff from Tim Hortons," she says.)
Why the fascination with duplicating restaurant recipes, down to the last sprinkle of Parmesan or swirl of butter? After all, isn't home cooking supposed to be healthier, or at least homier?
Ms. Manley says one of the lures is reliability. You know what to expect from her alfredo sauce, and if you follow the directions you'll get it. It's the same promise of consistency that keeps people coming back to chain restaurants such as Olive Garden, Applebee's or Swiss Chalet - they want the tried and true.
Others love the thrill of the hunt, and the frisson of discovering an elusive formula.
"I like secrets and puzzles. I used to collect magic tricks, not because I wanted to be a magician, but because I wanted to know how they did it," says Todd Wilbur, who has created a cottage industry out of cloning popular recipes from Snickers to Kentucky Fried Chicken's extra-crispy chicken. "It's really fun when you figure something out and it tastes just like the real thing."
Mr. Wilbur's series of Top Secret Recipes books have sold over four million copies, and the website he runs from his home in Las Vegas gets about 12 million page views a month.
His latest book includes a version of Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits, which are so addictive they really ought to be regulated as controlled substances. The secret, Mr. Wilbur says, is cutting cold butter into Bisquick, which already includes shortening. (A test of the recipe yielded light, flaky, garlicky biscuits dripping with butter that were quickly scarfed down by a Globe and Mail reporter, her hungry spouse and her stealthy dog.) Mr. Wilbur squeezes pancakes to determine their fat content, and strains sauces at home to identify little chunky bits. And, in a pinch, he's not above being sneaky. When The Oprah Winfrey Show asked him to clone TGI Friday's Jack Daniel's grill glaze in a day, he pleaded allergies and got a sympathetic waitress to write down all the ingredients. Hey, all's fair in love and food.
Ironically, health concerns are another reason why people clone restaurant recipes. Chain restaurants aren't known for their healthy fare - or at least, the dishes that people actually like to eat can be pretty heavy.
But make that fettuccine alfredo at home and you can substitute half and half for the heavy cream, reduce the butter and tweak the ingredients to your personal taste.
"You have control, and you don't have to make a reservation," Mr. Wilbur says.
Copycat recipes also appeal to frugal gourmets. Ms. Kirby's apple omelette costs about 70 cents, she estimates, compared with $7.99 at Eggspectations in Toronto. In his book, Mr. Wilbur compares costs: $8.49 (U.S.) for the Outback Steakhouse's grilled shrimp "on the barbie," $5.12 for his version; $4.99 for Applebee's white chocolate and walnut blondie, $2.05 for his copy.
How do restaurants feel about these mimics? Ms. Manley has been slapped with a few "cease-and-desist" orders, but the chains seem to be mollified when she changes the names of recipes online to make clear she's not offering the official version. The Cracker Barrel chain's only complaint about her version of its chicken casserole was that it wanted her to use the full name of its restaurant: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.
Perhaps figuring that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, corporations have embraced Mr. Wilbur's attempts to copy their recipes. KFC (which still maintains that no one has figured out Colonel Sanders' secret blend of 11 herbs and spices) sponsored one of his book tours, and Applebee's enthusiastically participated in the Oprah episode - though the waitress he duped was less than thrilled.
"It's not competition for them; they're in the convenience-food business," he said. "They loved the publicity."
In the end, copycat chefs say their hobby is empowering; culinary appropriation and interpretation rather than mindless duplication of corporate food. Mr. Wilbur says he hopes his cookbooks inspire novices to try making dinner. Ms. Manley says she always makes healthier versions of the recipes she copies. And Ms. Kirby says the best part about cloning recipes is realizing you can improve on the original. "It's kind of cool because sometimes you come up with something better," she says.
Thus her new favourite breakfast: an apple omelette … with cheddar cheese.
Copycat recipes aren't just for the Swiss Chalet crowd. Gourmets are chowing down on clones, too - with help from personal chefs who replicate high-end restaurant dishes in their clients' kitchens.
Robyn Goorevitch, owner of Dining In Chez Vous in Toronto, recreates seven-course tasting menus from swanky restaurants. "It allows people who worry about having to fight the traffic … or find parking, to enjoy the same food," she says.
Cynthia Mock hired Ms. Goorevitch to make a black cod she enjoyed at Rain, a Toronto restaurant, for a dinner party. The result, Ms. Mock says, cost less than the restaurant version and "it probably tasted a little bit better."
Some personal chefs rely on their networks. Susan Wood-Smith, owner of Best Dinner Thymes, says her clients often request dishes from Lumière in Vancouver or the Oliver Bonacini restaurants in Toronto. She consults her cookbooks and asks chef friends for hints.
"Very often they will help," she says - for example, steering her toward a particular fish sauce.
Of course, personal chefs are called on to copy more humble fare as well. "I get many requests for Swiss Chalet's barbecue sauce," Ms. Wood-Smith says.