KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Todd Wilbur has built a career out of making copies. But his is no dead-end job.
The 43-year-old Las Vegas man sold more than 79,000 cookbooks on the QVC shopping channel - in one day. His Web site gets 10 million page views a month. He has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee." And he's taped a segment with Chris Cuomo for "Good Morning, America."
Wilbur, who has no formal culinary training, cooks up copies of America's favorite snack foods and restaurant dishes, everything from Oreo cookies to P.F. Chang's lettuce wraps. He was in Kansas City recently to promote his eighth cookbook, "Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 2" (Plume, $15), which includes 150 recipes from chains such as Applebee's and Olive Garden.
During a taping for "Kansas City Live," Wilbur demonstrated several of his more popular recipes. His versions of Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits and Chili's Southwestern Egg Rolls drew raves from co-hosts Meredith Hoenes and Brett Anthony, as well as the cameramen.
"I feel like I'm at Red Lobster, because I can't quit eating the biscuits," Hoenes said. Anthony, his mouth full, nodded in agreement.
"Can you look into the stuffed mushrooms at Red Lobster? I love those," Hoenes asked during a commercial break. Wilbur assured her the recipe is in his first edition of "Top Secret Restaurant Recipes" (1997). When she asked for Applebee's Bloody Mary recipe, he promised to check it out.
Wilbur receives hundreds of such cloning requests each week. Americans are hungry for the copycats, he said, because they eat out so much that some restaurant dishes are like old family favorites. When people cook from one of his books, they know before they start what the finished product will taste like. Plus, it's fun to amaze friends and family with cloned recipes that taste like the real deal.
Wilbur began "reverse engineering" recipes in the late 1980s as a hobby. Sensing a business opportunity, he began cloning full time in 1993.
Few restaurants share their recipes, which opens the door for Wilbur. He makes no claims that these are the restaurants' exact recipes. Instead, they are his interpretations.
Restaurants love the publicity his recipes generate, Wilbur said. When he appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1997, California Pizza Kitchen, whose Barbecue Chicken Pizza was copied by Wilbur on the program, delivered a pizza to each member of the studio audience. And KFC sponsored one of his book tours.
"Just because you're making it at home doesn't mean you'll never go to the restaurants," he said. "It's not competitive, even though it costs less. And sometimes it's a great way for people to try something they've never had before, which might spur more restaurant visits."
In creating his recipes, Wilbur relies on research, old-fashioned sleuthing and a fair amount of guesswork. First, he eats a dish at the restaurant and photographs it with his cell phone. He might ask the server about the dish's ingredients. Then he orders the dish for carryout, requesting that garnishes or sauces be packaged separately.
Back home at his kitchen "lab," Wilbur begins the dissection by putting sauces through a sieve and rinsing them, which makes it easier to identify the chopped-up chunks that remain. He chills food for clues to the fat used in cooking. He scours the Internet and cookbooks for similar recipes that might serve as a starting point. Then the trial and error begins.
With practice, it has become easier to deconstruct recipes, Wilbur says. "Most recipes I can nail in six to eight attempts." But others, such as Starbucks scones and the apple pancakes from Original Pancake House, are real stumpers that might take six months to decipher.
Right now, the rice pudding from Kozy Shack is giving Wilbur fits because he can't figure out how to duplicate its creamy texture. His garbage disposal choked on the failed puddings and burned up. But the 2-horsepower commercial model that replaced it will liquefy even chicken bones, he said.
Other than the heavy-duty disposal, Wilbur's kitchen is not much different from the average Joe's. "I want ordinary people to be able to cook this stuff," he said, so he tries not to use fancy equipment, unusual techniques or offbeat ingredients.
Wilbur posts a brand-new recipe each Monday on his Web site (topsecretrecipes.com), which is run by his wife, Pamela. (They married last year in a top-secret ceremony at Lake Tahoe.) For one week, cooks can copy the recipe for free. After that, the recipes cost 79 cents apiece.
The pricing strategy, reminiscent of iTunes, appeals to the cook who might crave Chili's salsa but not want to buy an entire cookbook. The Web site has sold 100,000 recipes since August 2005, he said.
The 450 recipes he has posted online consistently win five-star ratings from the cooks who try them. "There's a filtering process," Wilbur explained. "I'm a perfectionist. I only put up recipes that are really good. I don't put up ones that don't taste right."
Wilbur divides his work week into cooking days and writing days. He also sketches all the blueprints in his book. (He majored in art, as well as theater and journalism, at the University of Redlands in California.)
Wilbur isn't worried about running out of recipes to clone. "It's a competitive business," he said. "The restaurants are always making new stuff."
He's also kicking around the idea of a fine-dining version of "Top Secret Restaurants," with recipes from the likes of Spago, Emeril's, Nobu, Mesa Grill and Capital Grille. All have opened restaurants in Las Vegas, which would conveniently reduce Wilbur's travel time.
Wilbur likes to eat out with friends and said he doesn't analyze dishes when he's off the clock. Even so, the lunch he ordered at Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue on the Plaza (passing P.F. Chang's and Cheesecake Factory to get there) was a no-brainer: the crown prime ribs, 100 percent beef.
If all restaurant fare were so simple, he'd be out of a job.
RED LOBSTER CHEDDAR BAY BISCUITS
Makes 12 biscuits
2 1/2 cups Bisquick baking mix
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) cold butter
1 heaping cup grated cheddar cheese
3/4 cup cold whole milk
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
Brush on top:
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine Bisquick with cold butter in a medium bowl using a pastry cutter or a large fork. You don't want to mix too thoroughly. There should be small chunks of butter in there that are about the size of peas. Add cheddar cheese, milk and 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder. Mix by hand until combined, but don't overmix.
Drop approximately 1/4 -cup portions of the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet using an ice cream scoop. Bake 15 to 17 minutes, or until the tops of the biscuits begin to turn light brown.
When you take the biscuits out of the oven, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small bowl in the microwave. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and the dried parsley flakes. Use a brush to spread garlic butter over the tops of all the biscuits.
Per biscuit: 199 calories (57 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 428 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Note: Nutritional analysis on recipes is for Todd Wilbur's "Top Secret" versions, not the actual restaurant dishes.
CHILI'S SOUTHWESTERN EGG ROLLS
Makes 3 to 4 appetizer servings
1 skinless chicken breast fillet
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced red bell pepper
2 tablespoons minced green onion
1/3 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons frozen spinach, thawed and drained
2 tablespoons diced, canned jalapeno pepper
1/2 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
5 (6-inch) flour tortillas
6 to 10 cups vegetable or canola oil
Preheat barbecue grill to high heat. Rub chicken breast with a little vegetable oil and grill 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until done. Sprinkle each side of the chicken lightly with salt and pepper while it cooks. Set chicken aside until it cools enough to handle.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add red pepper and onion to the pan and saute a couple minutes until tender.
Dice cooked chicken into small cubes and add it to the pan. Add corn, black beans, spinach, jalapeno peppers, parsley, cumin, chili powder, salt and cayenne pepper to the pan. Cook 4 minutes. Stir well so the spinach separates and is incorporated into the mixture.
Remove pan from the heat and add cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted.
Wrap tortillas in a moist cloth and microwave on high 1 1/2 minutes or until hot. Spoon about one-fifth of the mixture into the center of each tortilla. Fold in the ends and roll tortilla over the mixture very tightly; pierce with a toothpick to hold tortilla together. Arrange the egg rolls on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and freeze at least 4 hours. Overnight is best.
To cook egg rolls, heat 6 to 10 cups oil (use the amount required by your fryer) to 375 degrees. Deep-fry egg rolls 12 to 15 minutes and remove to paper towels or a rack to drain about 2 minutes. Slice each egg roll diagonally lengthwise and arrange on a plate around a small bowl of Avocado-Ranch Dipping Sauce (recipe follows).
Avocado-Ranch Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup smashed fresh avocado (about 1/2 an avocado)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon dried parsley
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
Dash dried dill weed
Dash garlic powder
2 tablespoons chopped tomato, for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped onion, for garnish
For the Avocado-Ranch Dipping Sauce: While egg rolls are in the freezer, combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Garnish the dipping sauce with the chopped tomato and onion.
Per serving for the egg rolls only, based on 3: 726 calories (67 percent from fat), 54 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 47 milligrams cholesterol, 38 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 689 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Per serving for the Avocado-Ranch Dipping Sauce only, based on 3: 198 calories (92 percent from fat), 22 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 211 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 1 serving
2 cups vanilla ice cream
2 ounces Kahlua coffee liqueur
Hershey's chocolate syrup (in a squirt bottle)
Canned whipped cream
Measure ice cream into a blender. Add Kahlua and blend until smooth.
Prepare a 16-ounce wineglass by swirling chocolate syrup around the inside of the glass. Hold the wineglass by the stem with one hand and twirl the glass as you squeeze the chocolate. Slowly move the chocolate up toward the rim of the glass so that the chocolate makes a continuous spiral around the inside of the glass.
Pour the drink from the blender into the glass. Add a pile of whipped cream to the top of the drink and drizzle additional chocolate syrup over the whipped cream. Add a straw and serve.
Per serving: 808 calories (35 percent from fat), 30 grams total fat (18 grams saturated), 116 milligrams cholesterol, 112 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 236 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
CHEESECAKE FACTORY WHITE CHOCOLATE RASPBERRY TRUFFLE CHEESECAKE
Makes 12 servings
1/2 cup raspberry preserves
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups chocolate cookie crumbs or 20 crumbled Oreos (filling removed)
1/3 cup margarine, melted
4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped into chunks
2 ounces shaved white chocolate for garnish (optional)
Canned whipped cream (optional)
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Place a large pan or oven-safe skillet filled with about 1/2 inch water in the oven while it preheats. Combine raspberry preserves with 1/4 cup water in a medium microwave-safe bowl; microwave 1 1/2 minutes on high. Stir until smooth. Strain to remove the raspberry seeds. Cool and then refrigerate strained preserves.
In a medium bowl, mix chocolate cookie crumbs and melted margarine. Use the bottom of a drinking glass to press the crumbs into the bottom and 2/3 up the side of a 9-inch springform pan that has been lined on the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Wrap a large piece of foil around the bottom of the pan to keep the cheesecake dry when it is placed in the water bath. Freeze crust until the filling is done.
Use an electric mixer to combine cream cheese, sugar, sour cream and vanilla. Mix on medium speed for a couple of minutes, or until the ingredients are smooth and creamy. Whisk eggs in a medium bowl and then add them to the cream cheese mixture. Blend the mixture to integrate the eggs.
Remove crust from the freezer and sprinkle white chocolate chunks on the bottom of the crust. Pour half the cream cheese filling into the crust. Drizzle raspberry preserves over the entire surface of the filling. Use a butter knife to swirl the raspberry into the cream cheese. Pour the other half of the filling into the crust.
Place the cheesecake into the water bath in the oven. Bake 12 minutes at 475 degrees, then turn down the oven to 350 degrees and bake 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top of the cheesecake turns a light brown or tan. Remove from the oven and cool. Cover and chill at least 4 hours.
Before serving, sprinkle the top of the cheesecake with shaved white chocolate and apply a pile of canned whipped cream, if desired.
Per serving: 486 calories (73 percent from fat), 40 grams total fat (22 grams saturated), 165 milligrams cholesterol, 24 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 348 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
CARRABA'S HOUSE SALAD DRESSING
Makes 1 cup
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 120 calories (93 percent from fat), 12 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, 132 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.