Chef Salad: What's in a Name?

Having fresh, crisp greens virtually at our fingertips all year round. It’s hard to believe this hasn’t been the case throughout most of human history. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons for the rise of the salad as a meal. And when you are in the mood for a salad that is more than lettuce and tomato (not that there’s anything wrong with a salad of lettuce and tomato) what could be more satisfying than a Chef Salad? Let’s break it down.

What is a Chef Salad?

A large salad served as a meal, a Chef Salad is a cornucopia of hard-boiled eggs, meat, cheese, vegetables, and of course greens. Ham and turkey are the traditional meat options and American or Swiss are the customary cheeses. But, as the name suggests, this salad is created by the chef from whatever ingredients he or she has at hand, so it’s not unusual to find Chef Salads that reflect the menu of the restaurant where they are served. To make the salad appear as appetizing as any other main course, the Chef Salad is a composed salad, with greens that are then topped with meats and cheeses either julienned or cubed, quartered eggs, and other diced vegetables artfully arranged on top.

The History of the Chef Salad

Since hunter gatherer days, humans have harvested and eaten greens, fruits, and vegetables. But the first time these items were thrown together with dressing is unknown. The ancient Romans and Greeks often served greens with an oil and vinegar dressing. The Greeks actually relished salad so much that they thought of it as a treat, almost like dessert, and served it at the end of the meal. The Romans took the opposite approach and served salad as a starter, their theory being that raw food needed little time for digestion, so there would be more room for the main dish. They also elevated the simple salad by creating the forerunner of panzanella – bread salad – and using items such as capon and anchovies in their salads.

Green salads that contained nuts, fruits, and small pieces of meats were popular during the Renaissance period and were often served at different points during the meal. At a meal with the trend-setting Louis XIV, you would find many different types of salads on the tables at Versailles. These types of salads included coleslaw, pickled vegetables, fruit salads, greens dressed with fresh herbs, oil, and vinegar as well as a new taste sensation, salads of greens, meats, hard-boiled eggs, and small pieces of capon. Something that sounds suspiciously like today’s Chef Salad.

This new salad soon evolved into a composed salad name Salmagundi, consisting of layers with a wide range of satisfying ingredients. These salads were extremely popular during the 18th century, but as happens to most fads, the passion for Salmagundi waned. However, the world’s passion for salads got a boost after WWI with the serendipitous development of refrigeration and women’s desire for slimmer figures. Salads became increasing popular, in home kitchens and restaurants alike. In addition, the variety of salad dressings grew, since it was now possible to have ready-made mayonnaise available at all times.

The Modern Era

This paved the way for the creation of the Chef Salad and, by mid-1930, this salad was a standard menu item. Which chef was the actual creator is still unknown, but its popularity can be tracked by its inclusion in the 1936 edition of The Joy of Cooking. Celebrity Chef Louis Diaz popularized his iteration of the dish at New York’s Ritz Carlton, but it is considered that Chef Victor Seydoux in Buffalo, New York, might have been the true originator of the modern version.

In the era of salad bars, the Chef Salad with its inclusion of cholesterol-rich eggs, cheese, and meat began to seem like an old-school relic. However, good food always seems to come back in style, and so has the Chef Salad. You might know it as the chopped salad, but what’s in a name? What’s in the salad is more important.