I did not invent the Caesar chicken salad, nor would I be so vainglorious as to claim otherwise. I may occasionally mention that I helped popularize the dish, but only if the conversational opportunity arises. For instance, if someone should be talking about Napoleon, I might say, “Well he was certainly no Julius Caesar! Speaking of which…” And then humbly recall how I did not invent the Caesar chicken salad.
It was in the mid-1980s, while head chef at Mangia, that I inherited the Caesar chicken salad recipe (which I should mention is different than grilled chicken over Caesar salad). I was the second chef at this upscale artisanal take-out (one of the first of its kind in Manhattan when it arrived in 1981). The recipe was written by the original chef, a person I never met and whose name I don’t know. It seems logical that this chef got the idea from somewhere else, and Mangia wasn’t first in the nation to serve Caesar chicken, but up to that time I’d never heard of marrying the classic dressing with poultry.
Within a year or so, every restaurant and gourmet-to-go shop in America was topping the classic salad with chicken. Yet if Mangia wasn’t the first to serve Caesar chicken, its concept of the dish was the finest. The process started by seasoning and roasting skin-on, bone-in Bell & Evans chicken breasts. While still warm, the meat would be pulled, like pork, and the moist morsels bathed in the spectacular Caesar dressing – a perfect blend of lemon, garlic, anchovy, cheese, and emulsified egg-and-oil (with a distinctive spike of champagne vinegar). To finish, shredded radicchio and romaine would get added and toasted croutons tossed on top with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
My true culinary breakthrough, a few years hence, came about only because I fell victim to an enthusiastic bean salesman from Oregon. I was head chef at Hale & Hearty (then an upper-east side upscale take-out shop), and if pressed I could recite maybe a half dozen bean varieties: Black, white, pinto, lima, garbanzo and Heinz Vegetarian Baked come to mind at the moment. The salesman, effectively utilizing a laid back “I’m-your-new-cool-dude-friend” approach, impressed the hell out of me when he spread 50 transparent bags of heirloom beans upon the counter, each filled with a different type (it would be decades before the word “heirloom” would come into common use). The beans came in all colors and patterns, from splattered to striped to polka dots, and with names such as Jacob’s Cattle Beans, Christmas Pole Butter Beans, Orca Beans, Speckled Kidney Beans, and Indiana Wild Goose Beans.
I purchased 5-pound boxes of half-a-dozen varieties to use in making soups and salads, and also bought a retail bean display of about 20 types placed into the extremely limited retail portion of the store – with cartons of back-up bags that I kept in back. I loved the display: Neat, bright rows of the exotic, colorful legumes practically glowing through the clear plastic packages. My bosses were considerably less enthused, which necessitated my patiently explaining how having the first and most extensive exotic bean display in town would put us on the cutting edge, garner local and national media attention, and ultimately catapult us into the forefront of ‘the next big thing’. “Take it from me,” I implored. “Heirloom beans are the new Caesar chicken salad!”
Their reaction to my eloquent exhortation was disappointingly concise: “Beans?”
Well, heirloom beans didn’t become a fad, though many years later I’d look at menus and recognize the names of my old, unpopular friends: cranberry beans and adzuki beans. They didn’t sell at all in the retail shop either (“The profits didn’t amount to a hill of beans,” the owners would joke way too often), so I was told to remove the display and take the leftover packets of legumes into the kitchen. From this ignominious defeat, however, was arguably born my greatest culinary creation: The Eleven Bean Salad.
At first I considered a Twenty Bean Salad, but that required cooking twenty types separately, which would take quite awhile (eleven takes long enough). Plus I didn’t want to show off. Eleven seemed a friendlier number – ambitious, but not overly so. I remember dining with my wife during this time and seeing a Five Bean Salad on some menu. “Amateur!” I huffed, with more than a little pride.
Allow me to bring you inside the creative mind of a culinary inventor for just a few moments. Take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A “regular” person might look at the sandwich and be quite satisfied. A culinary genius will look at that sandwich and say, “How can I make this better?” Well, different breads, different butters, and different jellies could be substituted in almost infinite combinations, but this has already been done -- almond butter with strawberry jam, cashew butter with orange marmalade, and so forth. How pedestrian! The creative artist will think outside the box and turn to precedent for inspiration: We know that minced peanuts and mint leaves get scattered over many Thai foods, so why wouldn’t a peanut butter and mint jelly sandwich work?
I asked myself that very question late one night, when I was hungry, too lazy to go out, and had little in the house to eat except bread, peanut butter, and condiments – among them a jar of mint jelly. “Brilliant!” I thought as I slathered the iridescent green jam onto the bread. “Why didn’t anyone ever think of this before?”
After the first bite it was apparent why: The taste was awful. Well, precedent isn’t a guarantee of success, and the life of a culinary inventor is filled with frustrating moments such as this. Still, I plow on. My current experimentation concerns root beer. So many people like the flavor, why isn’t it used in savory dishes? I’m fairly confident my foie gras with root beer gastrique will soon be the talk of Miami. And if not, perhaps I’ll break out that Twenty Bean Salad after all. It’s just a matter of the world catching up to me, as they did so many years ago with the Caesar chicken salad that I did not invent.