Often overlooked in restaurants in favour of the stars of the show—the meaty mains, the flashy apps, the sensual sweets—soup is frequently dismissed as an also-ran or a mere filler-upper. But great chefs know better. “I love soup. It’s a brilliant thing,” enthuses the man behind the nose-to-tail movement, pioneering chef Fergus Henderson of the Michelin-starred restaurant St. John in London, England. “Food has two things it should do: to sustain and to uplift. Both are in the nature of soup. Yet it gets forgotten.”
Revered as much for his philosophical musings as for his culinary genius, the former architect likens soup to “flying buttresses,” essential to a meal’s structural integrity, and ventures that perhaps it is looked down on because “there was always soup with grandparents. Maybe that’s it in some Proustian way.”
Another reason soup is so often taken for granted may simply be its ubiquity. There isn’t a culinary culture without it.There’s turtle, truffle, French onion, hot and sour, clam chowder, miso, pasta fazool—for starters. “I don’t think there’s any other dish that can fit any style of cuisine quite so well,” says Jonathan Gushue, executive chef at Ontario’s luxe Langdon Hall hotel in Cambridge. And soup invites extremes, from terrible tinned tomato to XLB, or xiao long bao, a Shanghai dumpling creation that has online critics raving about the life-changing flavours.
Although soup is widely presumed to be easy to make—anyone can rip open an envelope and add boiling water, after all—the tasty concoctions chefs themselves admire can prove a humbling challenge. “All that truffle and foie gras cooking is a no-brainer,” insists John Higgins, director of the George Brown Chef School in Toronto. “Making a good soup means you have to know what you’re doing.”
For one thing, “most soups need to be made a day in advance,” explains Gushue. “That way the flavours develop and meld.”
Texture is key. “Sometimes soup is like a heavy lump of glue, so rich and too seasoned,” scolds Higgins. “It should never, never be heavy.” Chefs also take a hard line on temperature. Hot must be hot; cold, frigid. Tepid is nasty.
Some chefs deal with the challenges by steering clear altogether. Matty Matheson, a hot twentysomething chef who runs Toronto’s Parts and Labour, rarely offers soup. Why? “Soups are fridge cleaners.” But after a moment’s reflection, he reconsiders: “Soups can be amazing! I had a tomato seafood chowder at Union [in Toronto] and it was just out of control. There was heat, it was fresh.”
His own menus are soupless partly to avoid the grind of coming up with a daily offering. “ ‘What’s it gonna be today?’ No way, that’s not for me,” says Matheson, who only makes the stuff when inspiration strikes. “I’ll make a really, really good one and put it on as a special,” such as an onion soup with sourdough crostini, garnished with whipped lardo and grated pecorino.
Key things chefs look for in great soups, aside from texture, are taste and creative garnishes that bring new dimensions to even the simplest bowl. Langdon Hall’s Gushue recalls a memorable cabbage vichyssoise he tasted on a recent gastronomic tour of Denmark (home to the world’s top restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen). “It was at a farm where they made everything from their own beer to bread, raised their own pigs and cattle.” What made it so good? The quality of the ingredients and a balanced complexity: “There was the texture of the potato, the brightness of the leeks and an earthy cabbage finish. Brilliant.”
Soup, it appears, is something of a Rorschach test for chefs. “You can actually look into the mind of the chef and see the way they think,” muses Gushue. The plainer the soup, the more revealing it may actually be, he adds. “You can really show yourself in a consommé.” Which may be why he has so little respect for chefs who “play it safe” and sidestep the risks truly memorable soup requires. Instead, sighs Gushue, “There’s that boring mushroom soup you see everywhere. It’s the Caesar salad of soups.”