Lost Foods of New York City: Vichyssoise
Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.
Quick: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of cold soup?
Chances are pretty good that it’s gazpacho, or perhaps some kind of smoothie-textured fruit soup. But flash back a century and any New Yorker’s answer to that question would undoubtedly have been one and the same: vichyssoise—the ultra-creamy, chilled potato and leek soup that stole the city’s (and the country's) heart in the early 1900s.
Vichyssoise has, as its name suggests, distinctly French roots, but its soul belongs to Manhattan. The dish was created by a chef named Louis Diat, who modeled it after a beloved leek and potato soup his doting mother made him as a boy growing up in Montmarault, France. In 1910, the 25-year-old Diat moved to New York to be chef de cuisine at the just-opened Ritz-Carlton hotel. Seven years later, he offered his first bowl of crème vichyssoise glacée to hotel diners.
The soup was a feat of seasonal magic making. Diat's mother's version had been served like most soups are: warm. But according to Diat’s 1957 obituary in the New York Times, "The hotel took special pride in its summer roof-garden restaurant, and [Monsieur] Louis worked hard at dishes to tempt appetites stunned by New York summers." His ingenious solution was to take the hearty potage of his youth, thin it with ample amounts of milk and cream, and serve it chilled. He named the dish after Vichy, the well-known spa near his hometown.
Customers were immediately delighted. A 1950 New Yorker profile of Diat reported that he “put [the soup] on the menu every evening that summer, and every summer thereafter. He took it off during the cold weather, but got so many requests for it in all temperatures…that in 1923, he put it on year-round."
Like many New York hotel chefs before him, Chef Diat specialized in developing flamboyant, French-inspired recipes, which he liked to name after customers and celebrities. During his remarkable 41-year tenure, he dreamed up countless dishes including: Chicken Gloria Swanson (chicken sautéed in white wine and cream and served with mushrooms and truffles), Fillet of Sole Lincoln (sole cooked with oysters and shrimp) and Pears Mary Garden (stewed pears crowned with raspberry ice and sauce). But Diat's greatest and longest-lasting legacy was his vichyssoise.
The soup soon migrated from the Ritz-Carlton to menus across New York and the country, where it stayed popular for decades. As late as 1960, nearly half a century after it was first introduced, pioneering food writer Clementine Paddleford wrote, "Today, every New York restaurant of any rating serves the soup, and no two alike." In 1971, vichyssoise gained real (if unfortunate) street cred as a truly “American food” by landing at the center of a botulism scare. A tainted can of Bon Vivant-brand vichyssoise was traced to the death of a man in Westchester County, New York and the paralysis of his wife. As a result, the food company recalled the offending product and, thanks to its heavily tarnished image, filed for bankruptcy a month later.
Today, vichyssoise is not an entirely lost food. Classic and updated versions are available at a handful of restaurants across the city—like the caviar-dotted ramp vichyssoise served at Saxon and Parole or Lucien’s cucumber and mint vichyssoise made with fat-free buttermilk and garnished with grilled shrimp. But Diat's original is simply too French and too rich to enjoy wide rotation in today's rustic-food-minded, fat-phobic culture.
Luckily, in the privacy of one's own kitchen, there is no one around to shame you out of folding heart-stopping amounts of butter, whole milk, and heavy cream into the soup pot. And while Diat insisted that his soup be served icy cold, if that does not appeal or the season doesn’t quite call for it, it tastes equally delicious warm.
Crème Vichyssoise Glacée
Recipe slightly adapted from the one included in Chef Louis Diat's 'New York Times' obituary.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 leeks (white and light green parts only), thinly sliced
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and thinly sliced
4 cups chicken broth or water
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy cream
chopped chives to garnish, optional
- Melt the butter in a large pot set over medium heat. Add the leeks and onion and let cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add potatoes and stir to coat. Add broth (or water) and salt, and bring the mixture to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, until potatoes are very soft, 30–40 minutes. Remove soup from heat, season with pepper, and puree in a standard blender working in batches (or with an immersion blender) until smooth.
- Return pureed soup to a pot set over medium heat. Add milk and half-and-half and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- Stir in heavy cream and pass soup through a fine mesh sieve, discarding any solids. Let cool, then cover and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours before serving (the soup thickens slightly while chilling). Garnish with chives if desired.
Have a long lost favorite you would love to see resurrected? Suggest a dish for Lost Foods: New York City at LeahLostFoods@gmail.com.