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The Caterer

Souper Stars

19 January 2006
Souper Stars

Elevate soup to celebrity status with the help of hearty components, upsized servings and abundant add-ons.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 2005 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Diners are warming up to the idea of soup as a meal, as options such as broths, bisques, stews and chowders move in from the sidelines with a boost from hearty ingredients, inspired garnishes and complementary sides.

Simplicity and comfort, plus portability, versatility and healthful perceptions, are among the reasons soup is a staple across foodservice, from kiosks to hospital cafeterias and high-end dining rooms. A menu must-have, soup is available at 96% of noncommercial facilities and 80% of commercial operations, according to R&I's 2005 Menu Census.

"Soup serves our customers' requests for healthful alternatives that are enjoyable on the go and meet more-sophisticated tastes. It's a great way to experiment with new flavors and food combinations," says Eric Ersher, managing partner of 13-unit quick-service chain Zoup! Fresh Soup Company, based in Southfield, Mich.

Among Zoup!'s most popular recipes are substantial selections prepared with top-quality ingredients. Creamy Chicken Pot Pie soup is thick with vegetables and topped with crumbled, house-made pie crust, while Collard Green Chicken Barley includes white-meat chicken, bacon, barley and vegetables in chicken stock.

Demand for soup remains highest during midday meals in cooler months, but with appeal that spans all demographics, the dish can be a vital player at multiple dayparts throughout the year.

A popular gazpacho bar at the University of Colorado in Greeley shows how soup transcends seasons. Twice a month, foodservice at the 14,000-student campus serves scratch-made gazpacho alongside an array of toppings: shrimp, jicama, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, red and green onions, pine nuts, black olives, shredded Parmesan and croutons.

"Students don't like to see things mixed together, especially vegetables," says Executive Chef Aran Essig. "They prefer to add what they like on their own."

Creative Combos

The Double, Zoup!'s meal of two 8-ounce soups with sourdough or multigrain bread, is priced $1 less than two types bought separately.

At upscale Kenny's Wood Fired Grill, scheduled to open this month in Addison, Texas, Chef-owner Kenny Bowers' creamy cedar-plank salmon chowder with chunks of potatoes, onions and celery would make a satisfying starter or snack on its own. Ladled into sourdough bread bowls and paired with a sandwich or small portion of protein, the combination makes fulfilling fare.

"People want upscale, they want fun, they want different, but they also want something they can relate to," says Bowers of soup's status across dining segments. "It definitely fits with the current trend of taking basic recipes to a high-end, creative level."

Pho Real

Chef-owner Mitch Maxwell aims to leave no appetite unsatisfied at fine-dining restaurant Maxwell's 148 in Natick, Mass. Pho Max Soup, inspired by the traditional Vietnamese dish, is no exception.

"I don't like people walking away hungry, so we make sure portions are substantial," says Maxwell, whose pho starts with a stock of shrimp shells, ginger, lemongrass, sambal chile paste, red jalapeÁ±os, lime leaves and star anise.

To the broth, he adds shrimp-and-crab dumplings, vegetables and herbs such as Thai holy basil and cilantro. A tangle of fried rice noodles tops the dish. The pho is served with a breadbasket that includes fried won ton crisps with sweet-chile dipping sauce.

Another robust ethnic specialty, Tuscan ribollita, heats up the winter menu at upscale Italian eatery Coco Pazzo in Chicago. Executive Chef Tony Priolo's recipe features cannellini beans and a crop of diced vegetables-zucchini, squash, potatoes, leeks, savoy cabbage and Tuscan kale-as well as chicken stock, crushed tomatoes and a sachet of aromatic herbs.

Simmered for two hours and cooled in an ice bath, the ribollita (which means reboiled) is held overnight to build flavor. The next day, diced, day-old sourdough is added to the broth, which then cooks for 35 to 40 minutes. The thick soup is drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil to serve.

"I eat it for lunch with nothing on the side, but you could match it with a salad," says Priolo, who ladles out as much as five gallons of the soup daily.

Short ribs, a cold-weather standard, star in a hearty, seasonal soup at 6-month-old Standard Restaurant in Dallas. Rich, beef broth is highlighted by rosemary, thyme and garlic and fortified with barley, mushrooms and pearl onions. A dash of sherry finishes the bowl, which Chef-owner Timothy Byres flanks with toast points or crostini and tops with crème fraÁ®che or horseradish cream.

Cravings of All Sizes

Brothy or creamy, smooth or chunky, soup's versatility with components and portioning makes it a meal-worthy match for any appetite.

Jack Yoss, Executive Chef of Nine Thirty at the W Hotel in Los Angeles, says local diners often opt to eat light, even at dinner. Meeting their demand for soup as a second course are midsized selections such as lobster bisque with corn, a seasonal recipe built on house-made corn stock.

The golden broth, reinforced by streaks of red-orange lobster oil and a sprinkling of chopped parsley and chives, is poured into wide-rimmed bowls around a delicate crab salad crowned with lemon mascarpone cheese. Yoss garnishes the dish with lightly herbed breadsticks.

"If customers order it as a main course, I tell the waiters to try to sell them a Sonoma Greens Salad to go with it," he says.

To match varying appetites at senior-living community Homestead Village in Lancaster, Pa., soups such as split pea, mushroom barley and chicken noodle are available every Friday in 12-ounce microwave- and freezer-safe containers that residents can store to eat at their discretion. The 400-resident facility's main kitchen, run by Orefield, Pa.-based CURA Hospitality, stocks the soups on a produce cart with scratch-made products left from each week's operations and prepares a variety of breads in mini- and regular-sized loaves as accompaniments.

"Soup is something nutritious for our residents to have for lunch-it gives them little bits of the whole food pyramid-and it's easy for them to prepare themselves," says Director of Dining Services Harriett Bennethum.

Bumping up serving sizes was the right choice for healthcare accounts at Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp., says Senior Executive Chef Leonard Lagasse. In cafes, 12- and 16-ounce portions of options such as Hearty Chicken Double Noodle and Adobo Pork and White Bean Chili are available, with 32-ounce takeout containers sold at select locations.

For patient foodservice, Asian-inspired dishes arrive in 16-ounce bowls that hold nearly double the amount of previous offerings. Recipes shaped around authentic flavor profiles include the Japanese Noodle Bowl, a fragrant rice wine-soy broth swimming with lo mein noodles, Japanese vegetables, green onions and lime zest.

Inspired Additions

The best-dressed soups come to the table with carefully selected adornments. Check out operators' ideas below.

  • An updated soup display at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., abounds with three types of crackers, artisan breads, cheese platters and soup-specific garnishes such as popcorn for tomato soup, tortilla strips and Jack cheese for Mexican onion soup, and apple crisps for apple-cheese soup. Diced turkey and tofu are available for those who wish to add protein to vegetable soups.

  • Beef takes center stage at Sterling Steakhouse in Los Angeles, but Executive Chef Andrew Pastore appeals to regulars seeking a break from steak with an inventive take on surf and turf. His special of lobster bisque with a grilled cheese sandwich of sharp and mild Cheddar, avocado, prosciutto and oven-dried tomato (r.) is available as appetizer or larger-portioned entrée.

  • Zoup!'s recipes are prepared using a cook-chill system in its central kitchen and reheated in double boilers at stores. To preserve quality and add custom flair, garnishes that don't hold up well on steam tables-among them egg and rice noodles for Amish Chicken and Sesame Noodle soups, or chopped pie crust for Chicken Pot Pie soup-are added to serve.

Premade Gets Personal

Consistency, efficiency and costs can make purchased bases and ready-to-serve soups a smart choice for foodservice. To jazz up offerings and add variety to menus, operators often put their own spins on prepared products.

  • Sports-themed chain Glory Days Grill, based in Gaithersburg, Md., cooks vacuum-packed soups such as Tuscan white bean and lentil with chorizo sous vide. The 17-unit company plans to develop customized garnishes such as crème fraÁ®che, fresh vegetables and herbs to enhance presentation.

  • At Simply Soup's three locations, frozen, ready-to-eat products are enlivened with additions such as fresh herbs and olive oil for tomato soup, and grated cheese, green onions and slivered almonds atop chicken soup with rice.

  • Purchased frozen soups yield multiple recipes at Aramark Corp.'s healthcare accounts. Rice and spinach are added to tomato soup to create Tomato Florentine, while beans, pasta, vegetables and seasonings join the same base to make minestrone. Cafes also offer a wide array of self-serve condiments from seasoned croutons to toasted pumpkin seeds.

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