6 Steps to Reverse-Engineer Any Restaurant Dish

Todd Wilbur began cracking recipes in the late '80s, when the $250 cookie recipe chain letter was having a resurgence. Hmm, secret recipes, he thought, and set about trying to discover the recipe for the original Mrs. Fields cookie. And then the Big Mac, the Orange Julius drink, and so on, until he had a book, Top Secret Recipes. That 1993 work led to nine more, plus Wilbur's television show, Top Secret Recipe, which just wrapped its first season (it airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT).

Wilbur mostly sticks to decoding fast-food and fast-casual recipes. That's what his readers want, the formula for Chili's baby back ribs, or Pizza Hut's pan pizza. But there's no reason Wilbur's methods can't unlock the secrets of pretty much any restaurant dish. Here's how he does it.

Step 1: Quiz the waiter

"I may ask the server: 'What's the dairy in that sauce? Is it cream? Is it sour cream? Is this lemon juice in the dressing or vinegar?'" says Wilbur. Waiters don't always know, so they might go back to the kitchen and ask the chef. "I make sure to visit the restaurant at off hours so I don't overburden the server," Wilbur notes. "I go at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. Otherwise you'll drive people crazy."

Step 2: Get it to go

Put in another order and ask for it to go. "As much as possible, try to get the dish broken up into its components," advises Wilbur. "If there are garnishes or sauces, ask for them on the side. If there's a dry rub, like for ribs or a steak, I might ask for a bit of extra in a container. It's much harder to tell what's what when the food's all mixed up, so I separate it out as much as possible."

Step 3: Really look at it

Depending on the food in question, Wilbur may cut it up into small pieces, smear it on a white plate to examine it closely, strain it and look at the particles captured, even examine it under a microscope. "I got a sample of the rub Chili's uses for its ribs, and under the video microscope you could see the salt, and the sugar, and garlic, and onion, quite clearly, in distinctive shapes."

On his show, Wilbur has the benefit of a food scientist, Claudio, to analyze ingredients. "He can tell me sugar levels, fat levels, acid levels, gluten levels," says Wilbur. Claudio can also test for the presence of aluminum, which indicates the use of baking powder, but he cannot test to find out what herbs and spices are used. He did, however, teach Wilbur a cool test to measure viscosity, involving a hollow metal cube with a hole in the bottom to observe how a sauce puddles.

Step 4: Seek out close cousins

Scour cookbooks and the Internet for recipes for similar dishes, looking for one that comes closest to the one you want to clone.

Step 5: Plunge right in

Cook the recipe you've settled on, then compare it to the takeout order from your fridge. What do you need to add or eliminate next time? Take notes and cook the dish over and over again, always comparing against the original. "This can be a very expensive process," admits Wilbur, "because this is where you just eat up ingredients." Wilbur advises new copycat chefs to avoid baked goods, which are notoriously temperamental, making for slow progress.

Step 6: Consult the experts

You may not need to do this every time—sometimes a dish is relatively easy to crack. But when he's having trouble duplicating a dish, Wilbur turns to the cookbooks and websites for Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen, and Good Eats, as well as Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking. "I can either do the work in the kitchen, or I can try to figure out scientifically why something isn't working," says Wilbur. "Sometimes I have no other choice but to learn something new about food science."

In the end, you've either copied the dish or died trying. Rest assured, says Wilbur, the process gets easier. "I'm pretty good now at knowing what I'm eating, just from taking a bite." Has analyzing food ruined his pleasure when he eats out? Sort of the opposite: "Sometimes I appreciate it even more, knowing all that has gone into it."

Image source: CMT.com