With subtle updates or radical changes, chefs make classic soups memorable.
This article first appeared in the 1 September 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Be it a broth, a gazpacho or a bisque, the difference between a good bowl of soup and a great one can be found in the details.
"So much of making a good soup is the attention that you've paid to it," says Philip Foss, executive chef at Lockwood, the restaurant within Chicago's Palmer House Hilton. "More than anything else, a soup is like a good braise. It should take a long time to make."
With hands-on attention comes the opportunity for chefs to apply their perspective to classic recipes. Foss has done so with a silky lobster bisque so popular that he can't take it off the menu. Michael Psilakis, chef-owner of Anthos and Mia Dona in New York City, rethinks the formula for perfect minestrone daily, depending on what the market yields. At The Bazaar by José Andrés in the new SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, Calif., Chef José Andrés introduces the West Coast to the frozen beet soup served at his six-seat concept Minibar in Washington, D.C.
Says Psilakis: "Every soup has its show-off point. If you're clarifying the soup and it's this beautifully clean broth with small cappelletti pasta that you know someone made with their hands, that is a sign of the type of talent and type of technique that is coming out of the kitchen."
Beyond being an outlet for culinary innovation, soups are practical. Daily changing soups offer opportunities to showcase local produce available in quantities too small to use on the permanent menu. Soups also benefit food-cost percentages. At Lockwood, strong sales of bisque supplement appetizers and entrées that use valuable lobster-tail meat.
To celebrate soup's versatility, interpretations of five classics follow: gazpacho, minestrone, bisque, chicken soup and chowder.
def. A chilled, raw soup most often made with puréed tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, breadcrumbs and garlic and seasoned with olive oil and sherry vinegar.
One of the most seasonally sensitive soups, gazpacho is suited perfectly to warm summer and fall days. Yet although it's made most often with tomatoes, interpretations of the classic chilled soup abound.
Once tomato season ends, Bill Fuller, corporate chef at Pittsburgh-based Big Burrito Restaurant Group, serves a white gazpacho made with grapes, almonds, garlic and bread in early fall at the group's Casbah Restaurant. Fuller calls it "a nice little fresh soup," acknowledging that its appeal is narrower than that of other soups. "It's the kind of thing that your adventurous diner would order and your traditional diner would not," he says. Still, Fuller sees other uses for the soup. He is thinking of using it as a sauce with tuna tartare.
Washington, D.C.'s José Andrés is a fan of classic, tomato-based gazpacho. His wife keeps two pitchers of the tomato gazpacho served at Jaleo, Andrés' three-unit, D.C.-area tapas concept, in the refrigerator at home. But he also likes to look beyond tomato gazpacho for cold soup inspiration. "Gazpacho is the cold soup that everyone knows," he says. "But gazpacho is the tip of the iceberg."
At The Bazaar, Andrés borrows inspiration from the gazpachos he grew up eating in Spain and combines them with his love of the beet soups served in eastern Europe. He serves a frozen beet soup in which raw beets are juiced, boiled briefly, chilled, seasoned with sherry vinegar and olive oil, and frozen until the mixture achieves a consistency nearly as thick as sorbet. It's served with thinly sliced raw scallops, micro cilantro, raw beet shavings and balsamic vinegar.
"For us, everything is degrees of temperature. In this case, it's like a thick cream, but it's thick because of the coldness," Andrés explains. "If they are able to find the beauty of the beet in the soup, then mission accomplished."
Other chefs borrow from gazpacho tradition to create something wholly new. Watermelon takes center stage in a chilled soup poured around a jumbo lump crab, cubed watermelon and mint salad garnished with baby cilantro at Forge in New York City. To counter the sweetness of the watermelon, Chef-owner Marc Forgione heats half the purée from one watermelon with shallots, ginger and Thai chile and mixes it with the remaining purée. He then strains and chills the mixture and seasons the soup with honey vinegar. For service, he presents it ice-cold. The chef also serves a chilled strawberry consommé infused with lemon verbena for dessert.
Says Forgione, "Soup is the best place to show your ability to season and balance things … If you're doing a savory dish with something that is sweet, you have to add acid and heat."
def. A hearty Italian vegetable soup filled with pasta and beans and garnished with Parmesan and olive oil.
It's hard to find a soup that's more willing to play along with the seasons than minestrone. It can be altered from a soup rich in peas, fava beans and parsley in the spring to one brimming with fresh shell beans and zucchini in the summer. For these reasons, Chef Psilakis rarely serves the same minestrone twice at Mia Dona.
No matter the season, each soup starts the same way. Onions are sweated slowly in olive oil and white wine. Tomato paste is added and cooked to a brick-red color. The mixture is deglazed with sherry vinegar, vegetable stock is poured over the top and a few Parmesan rinds are tossed in for good measure.
"Then we add fresh bay leaves," Psilakis says. "This is significant. There is a huge difference between dry and fresh bay leaves. You have to use five dried bay leaves for one fresh bay leaf."
Diced vegetables are added and simmered until just cooked through, and then the soup is cooled. To order, Psilakis finishes the soup with bitter greens, pasta, fresh basil, fresh dill and spoonfuls of white-bean purée and garlic-confit purée.
"Minestrone is a recognizable thing; it's something that people can associate with," Psilakis says. "The glory of serving something that is identifiable to a guest is to make it better than they've ever had before."
def. The classic feel-good soup: shredded chicken, noodles and mirepoix in chicken broth.
Of the three soups that Darren Carbone, executive chef of Philadelphia's Alma de Cuba, can't take off the menu, his favorite is Sancocho de Pollo, a chicken soup made with a coconut-enriched chicken broth. "We have regulars who come in just for that soup," Carbone says. "It speaks most to what we try to do in the restaurant: Put a Latin spin on something that has been around."
The base of the soup is about three parts chicken stock to one part coconut milk. Carbone reduces the stock with the coconut milk and habaneros and then adds pulled chicken. At order, the hot-appetizer cook adds diced yuca, celery, carrot, peas and toasted coconut to the broth. It doesn't streamline the kitchen's workflow (when a new cook is training, Carbone might send as many as 10 soups back for flavor adjustment), but it also ensures that each soup has a clean, fresh taste.
"Soups are a real challenge of what a cook is made of," he says.
def. A thick, creamy soup most often made from a rich crustacean stock.
Lobster bisque is one of the few items that hasn't changed on Lockwood's menu. "There is something very homey and comforting about lobster bisque," Chef Foss says. "People are nuts about it." Recipe: Lobster Bisque
After 20 years of practice, Foss has perfected his version. He cleans lobster bodies of shell and gills for a cleaner-tasting bisque. He prefers celery root over celery in his mirepoix. As the bisque simmers with the lobster bodies and vegetables, he adds a scant amount of rice into the mixture as a thickener.
def. A thick seafood soup made in two distinct styles, often featuring clams. New England chowder refers to a dairy-based soup often thickened with roux; Manhattan chowder contains tomatoes. Nonseafood chowders are thick soups such as corn chowder.
- Tim Morrison has home-court advantage when making seafood chowders. The co-owner of Morrison's Chowder House, which has units in Freeport and Portland, Maine, relies on the local catch for the company's line of chowders. Although Morrison admits that the best-selling chowder is the classic, roux-thickened clam variety, he and several Maine locals favor the company's seafood chowder.
As is traditional of Maine chowders, says Morrison, the seafood chowder doesn't feature a roux. "In our opinion, anything you use to thicken chowder does nothing to add flavor," he says.
Instead, the soup achieves its creamy consistency with half-and-half, whole milk and evaporated milk. Butter and onions are cooked until they are translucent; haddock, scallops and shrimp are added incrementally until nearly cooked; lobster broth and clam juice deglaze the skillet; and then the dairy is added. Each 10-ounce serving of chowder is portioned, sealed in a plastic bag and heated to order just until the soup reaches about 190F. Without a roux binding the dairy together, the broth will break if it reaches a hard boil.
Preportioned soups cut down on loss and ensure consistency, Morrison says. Another secret to chowder success: Morrison worked with local potato farmers to find a variety of potatoes that wouldn't fall apart in the soup. The potatoes he now uses are starchy but firm; they are cooked separately from the soup and then heated with the soup before serving.
Can you serve cold soup in the winter? Most chefs agree that aside from a delicate amuse, the answer generally is no.
In Chicago, says Philip Foss, chef at Lockwood, "no one wants a vichyssoise in the winter-people want warmth inside of them."
A similar aversion to hot soups does not extend to the summer.
"The weird thing about soup in the summer is that it's hot and people are still eating soup," says Chef Michael Psilakis of Anthos and Mia Dona, both in New York City. Psilakis serves a chilled soup at Anthos in the summer, but he always serves soups hot at the more-casual Mia Dona.
Maybe there's some physiological sense to this logic. Before Chef Darren Carbone took over the kitchen at Philadelphia's Alma de Cuba, he worked in Arizona. "We would sell a million tortilla soups in the summer," he says. "Sweating cools you down."
Just because a soup isn't poured tableside doesn't mean that it is overlooked. As a satisfying item at a reasonable price point, soup is a perennial favorite at lunch. Here are a few casual renditions of classic soups.
Au Bon Pain, multiple locations: With cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, and green and red bell peppers with red-wine vinegar. $3.69/12 oz.; $4.69/16 oz.
Aramark, business & industry clients: BLT soup (tomato-based soup with bacon and lettuce). Prices vary by location.
Boston Market, multiple locations: Chicken tortilla soup made with cumin-tomato broth, chiles, chicken and tortillas. $2.29/side; $4.29/bowl
Boudin SF, multiple locations: Butternut squash bisque served in a sourdough bread bowl. $5.79
Legal Sea Foods, multiple locations: Classic New England Clam Chowder. $4.50/cup; $6.50/bowl