For my 18th birthday – which fell during the summer in between high school graduation and moving off to college – my dad took me to a fancy dinner at a fancy French restaurant in Richmond, Va.; I believe it was called La Petite France. I had wanted to go there for some time. I will never forget that dinner. My dad, a man of few spoken (and even fewer written (sadly, a trait that I in no way inherited )) words, gave me a watch. He knew that I valued any evidence, trinkets, tchotckes, what have you, of his and my mom’s marriage (they divorced when I was 3, but have remained close friends to this day). The watch, he explained, was given to him by my mom before I was born. He had worn it for decades. The back of the watch was inscribed with his initials and the year 1972. He also went on to explain his interest in the concept of time – how our perception of it changes. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time. But then I remember thinking a year was such a long time, and Summer vacations were always forever away. Now, a year is like a second, a blip.
And that that meal seems like yesterday.
And that that meal seems like yesterday.
Still waters run deep, eh dad?
That night, among other food firsts, I tasted vichyssoise. I was absolutely blown away. This creamy and rich, yet delicate and subtle chilled soup was like nothing I had ever experienced. I could have had 4 bowls and not been sated. I am not sure if I have ordered vichyssoise out too many times since but I have endeavored to make it numerous times. Each time I do, I share it with whomever is close by and everyone seems to react the way I did when I first tasted it, and how I feel about it to this day. Except I have now learned that this is not a soup to have 4 bowls of. Considering it’s primarily potatoes, milk, heavy cream and butter, it’s best to show a little restraint (learned that the hard way with my last batch).
The culinary origins of vichyssoise, namely whether it is a genuinely French dish or an American innovation, is a subject of debate among culinary historians. Credit for the dish usually goes to Louis Diat, in 1917. Diat was the chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City for most of the first half of the 20th century. His inspiration for the soup was his mother’s much heartier potato-leek soup. He found it too hot to eat and poured cold milk into it to make it more palatable. The name is from Vichy, a city near where Diat grew up.
Interestingly, this culinary delight, which seems to have such complexity, is the most simple creation one can imagine. Call it the Cinderella of soups: its humble home cooking transformed into polished restaurant fare. Yes, you can gussy it up but why toy with perfection? I have found no variations that surpass the original but do often play with the garnish. A sprinkling of finely chopped chives tops a true vichyssoise, but I have experimented with fried leeks, a rosette of smoked salmon and torn croutons.
Since 1917 this recipe has remained almost entirely unchanged. If you order it out, you will see almost no chefs trying to put their bells and whistles on it. It is still as cool and soft as it was eight decades ago. And for the record, the aforementioned watch – I cherish it more than almost anything and wear it to this day. And every time I taste a vichyssoise I think of that watch, my dad, my 18th birthday dinner, and how while time does fly, it too stands still.
Loius Diat once prepared 8 portions of his famous soup to be delivered to the Manhattan town house of Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin D.’s mother, at her request – and enclosed this recipe (with one or two of my own alterations in parenthesis).
4 leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
5 medium white boiling potatoes (about 2 ¼ pounds), peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups whole milk
2 cups light cream
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp. finely chopped chives
1. Heat butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add leeks and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 20 minutes. Add potatoes, 4 cups water (I use chicken stock), and salt to taste and increase heat to high. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are soft, 50-60 minutes.
2. Strain soup through a mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing and scraping the solids with a spoon. Clean pot and return soup to it. Whisk in milk and light cream, bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat and let cool. Strain soup through a fine mesh sieve (finer than the first), pressing and scraping it into a bowl with the spoon, leaving behind a thick paste of solids. Discard solids. Stir heavy cream into soup, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled. Season soup with salt to taste.
3. Divide soup between 8 soup bowls and garnish with chives (or fried leeks, torn croutons, or a rosette of smoked salmon). Serve cold.