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What Top Chef teaches us about plagiarism

Posted in Absurdities,Surviving Grad School by Arnold Pan on February 24, 2011
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One of the sillier things we’ve done on the blog over the past almost year is the “Top Grad Student” fake virtual reality show series, based on my fave reality show, Top Chef.  But who knew that Top Chef could also tell you everything thing you wanted to know about plagiarism, how we react to it, and how people can get away with it?  Just like every school has an honor code that students are presumed to abide by, apparently there’s something called “Chef Law” where you aren’t supposed to steal someone else’s culinary ideas.

Richard Blais (aka the plagiarized) by Godofbiscuits (Creative Commons license)

So to recap what happened on this week’s episode (spoiler alert!): It began with a seemingly innocuous scene where Richard Blais, the mad scientist and (imho) the most creative cheftestant, was showing Mike Isabella, a skeezy operator (again, imho), a Moleskine notebook full of his crazy musings, complete with drawings.  So flash forward to the Quickfire challenge, when apparently Mike preps a Fried “Chicken Oyster” in a shell that was originally Blais’ fantastical creation.  So throughout the challenge and the judgement, Blais gives Isabella the stink eye, while Isabella avoids his gaze; on the voiceover confessionals, Blais calls Isabella out for plagiarism, as Isabella claims that, though he got the idea from his competitor, others have done it before so it’s not copying.  You know how this turns out–Mike beats Richard, and pockets 5K out of it.  Richard is bent of shape, and Mike rubs everyone’s face in it by saying he was inspired by Richard.

Cut to post-challenge, when Mike is somehow pissed at Richard for not acting like either a winner or a loser should.  Meanwhile, Antonia tells the other contestants what happened, that Mike basically cribbed off Richard (we get a flashback scene here, I think) for the win, to which everyone invokes “Chef Law” and how dastardly Mike is.

Ultimately, Richard bests Mike at the end of the episode, then talks some mild s**t (Blais might be full of himself a bit, but he’s too geeky, nervous, and seemingly well-meaning to be a brash trash-talking type) about keeping his best recipes for himself.  So there’s order to the universe in the end, right?  Not so fast…

Here are a few lessons we learn about plagiarism and plagiarists from the episode…

1. Keep it to yourself: Whether Richard was willingly showing off his little notebook or Mike is one of those nosy people who’s always in your bizness — in Chinese, his type roughly translates to “butt-following bug” — there’s no reason to let anyone know more than they need to, especially in a competition.  I don’t know, I guess I know how Richard feels, since I liked sharing notes and all, but it’s something else to give someone your thesis and outline.  Hold on to your best ideas for yourself and resist showing off more than you need to.

More of what we learned about plagiarism from Top Chef, after the jump…

2. Cheaters can rationalize anything: Even without being directly confronted (though who knows what he was asked in the little cut-away interview), Mike came up with every rationalization for not cheating, saying that he’s seen it before and Richard should’ve just made the recipe himself if it was so great.  Then, Isabella basically seemed to blame Blais for his own guilt, explaining to viewers that Richard should act like a winner or go in the corner and be a loser.  Of course, the camera don’t lie, and Isabella did look pretty uncomfortable much of the time.

3. Don’t be passive aggressive: But really, Richard has to shoulder the blame for not calling Mike out when he had the chance.  And, to a lesser extent, the other competitors also could’ve blown the whistle on Mike.  What this goes to show is that the plagiarist will keep getting away with bad behavior if you give him the chance (showing your notes) and enable him (not tattling on him).  And usually, there’s not a tangible reward like $5000 for ratting Mike out, unless part of “Chef Law” is letting cheaters get ahead in the game.

4. Brazenness preys on honor: Really, this is a corollary to the previous point.  Basically, Mike-types will keep on working angles unless you keep him honest, literally speaking here.  Once the plagiarist gets  away with it, you best believe he’ll keep trying to get away with it.  And if your response isn’t any stronger than complaining to the camera or gossiping in the other room, and not speaking up, you’ll keep getting burned.  Just because you think you follow a certain code and want to seem like a good guy/guy doesn’t mean everyone or anyone else does and is.  No one wants to be a snitch, but would you rather play the dupe?

5. There ain’t no karma: So Richard winning the final challenge — and beating Mike in straight-up — makes you think there’s cosmic justice, right?  Not really, because it’s not like Mike wasn’t still hanging around and almost winning.  See, the thing is, the plagiarist still got a little further and did a little better because he got over.  Plus, no one even planted the seed in the judges’ mind that Mike isn’t on the up and up, which is something that could unconsciously come into play later on if there’s a mental tiebreaker in their heads — once you’ve been accused of cheating, the tag can stick.  In contrast, not keeping Mike in check gave him a chance to run roughshod in the kitchen, since he was basically puffed up and strutting about after the Quickfire, as one of the others noted.  So, no, karma didn’t get to Mike (at least yet?), since he came out of it five grand up and never getting — wait for it — his just desserts!

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One Response to 'What Top Chef teaches us about plagiarism'

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  1. Boy, I hope there is karma. But, yes, you have to stop plagiarists because they’ll keep on trucking. I wonder how many times Mike pulled this kind of stunt without getting caught because it sure is bold to do it on national television. Oh, well. He will forever be known as “that guy.”

    Regarding Richard, don’t mess with the nerds. He will bite back. I know it!


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