I recently picked up a pretty cool book called ‘What Ceasar Did for My Salad ‘ in which Albert Jack explains the original stories behind some of the world’s best-known dishes – think Lobster Thermidor, Bearnaise, HP sauce and gazpacho, and when I hit the section dealing on soups, where he explains the history behind Vichyssoise, I recalled the very first time I made this soup.
First week at chef school, we were all still learning how to use the serious knives we had been equipped with, and with all those vegetables that had been practiced into wonky brunoise, julienne, oblique, dice of all sizes and probably some chipped-off fingernails here and there, soups were the best way to get rid of the prep, whilst feeding the boarding scholars at the same time. Depending which section your station was on, you could’ve been assigned Vichyssoise, Borscht, Gazpacho, French Onion or Mulligatawny (everybody was afraid of getting this one – we hadn’t done spice identification, and how the hell were we suppposed to know how to clarify butter and use tamarind paste? Wasn’t this a French chef school anyway?) All the soups tested different skills – and you were graded twice, on how neatly and quickly you cut up the ingredients before cooking, and on the final product.
So I got Vichyssoise. All my prep was fine, but I lost marks on the final product – the soup wasn’t smooth enough (no blenders in this kitchen – everything went through a tamis sieve) and the chive garnish on top was not cut small enough. Six months later I was assigned to my first restaurant job, and the head chef nearly lost it/fired me when I made the same soup with peeled potatoes (in the real world, wastage mattered, flavour from the skins mattered, and a slightly ivory soup wasn’t a big deal). A few months later, I was working for a catering company, and we had to make about a ton of the stuff, and transport it to the venue. By the time it got there, the sweltering 40degree heat had turned the soup into a living, frothing, sour-smelling monster, and an emergency entree was prepared in a half hour flat by a team of frenzied swearing chefs, all blaming each other.
Speaking of frothing, the last time I was in charge of the leek and potato soup starter, it was served cappuccino-style in an espresso cup (the trick of turning liquids into froths and foams was in its infancy at this stage) Those were the days. Nowadays when I make soup, it’s chunky, no more velvety smooth pureed soups, I think that style is taking a break at the moment, anyways at home its far too much trouble, and the dishes aargh no.
The Tall Guy is having a bit of a fling with miso soup at the moment, (ok me too) and he makes a better one than me actually. It’s a good quick snack once we’re home late after service. I’m surprised at this miso-flirtation though, as I dragged him to Victoria Street’s “best” pho joint (David Chang declared it the best he’d ever tasted – and he knows) and he was not impressed. With the steaming broth, thin beef slices, noodles and cartiledge before him, he wanted to know if this was all we were going to eat, and promptly ordered spring rolls. My dad has a similar view on consomme “nou het die hoender net hierin getrap of hoe? ” (so did the chicken just step in the soup?) I can see his point.
As for me at the moment, favourite soups for at home are still chunky vegetable and roast chicken soup, and Moroccan harira, a soup my friend Ross makes better than anyone can, I reckon. These are more ‘soupy meals’ than thin broths, and neither will benefit from any blending…
*Vichyssoise: An expat French chef who served a cold version in New York (the Waldorf-Astoria, where else) of his native hot soup, and added a chopped chive garnish. Circa First World War.