If there's ever a top 10 list of people who have way too much time on their hands, former TV reporter Todd Wilbur ought to be on it.
Since 1987, he has been holed up in the kitchen, trying to create knockoff recipes for famous foods.
His first two cookbooks, "Top Secret Recipes" and "More Top Secret Recipes" (Plume, 1993 and 1994), presented best-guess formulas for such artery-clogging icons as Yoo-Hoo chocolate milk, Domino's pizza, Oreo cookies, Jack-in-the-Box tacos and Aunt Jemima maple syrup.
Now, perhaps because making your own fast-food seems to defeat the very purpose of the stuff, Wilbur has trained his sights on full-service restaurant fare.
His newest volume, "Top Secret Restaurant Recipes" (Plume), outlines culinary cloning techniques for Marie Callender corn bread, Planet Hollywood pot stickers, Benihana hibachi chicken, California Pizza Kitchen Thai chicken pizza, Cheesecake Factory key lime cheesecake, Denny's Moons Over My Hammy, T.G.I. Friday's potato skins, Red Lobster stuffed shrimp, Tony Roma's original baby back ribs and Dive! submarines, to name a few.
Wilbur stresses that the formulas aren't stolen. Rather, he dissects leftovers and experiments with recipes until he "duplicates the finished product as closely as possible, with ingredients you can find in any supermarket."
Do the concoctions taste like the real McCoy (or the real McDonald's, as the case may be)?
Entertainment Weekly's food editor examined that question in 1993 by cooking Wilbur's copycat Cracker Jacks, bogus Big Mac and twin Twinkies. The verdict: the Jacks and the Mac worked, but the impostor Twinkie "resembled an anemic tamale."
Perhaps more intriguing than Wilbur's recipes, however, are his product histories and trivia. The section on IHOP pancakes, for example, notes that the chain grills 400,000 flapjacks daily, enough to build a stack 8,000 feet high.
That's several times taller than Chicago's 1,454-foot Sears Tower, Wilbur says.
Now if only we had a Lake Michigan-sized recipe for fake Aunt Jemima syrup. . . .