For an entire week last year, I ate Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert. The scene was delightfully retro: a French restaurant on a Celebrity cruise while vacationing with my 70-year-old parents. The dining room was swathed in table linens and brocade drapes. Men wore jackets and ties, while women were done up in beaded dresses that caught the light. As servers filleted fish tableside and diners selected cheeses from a wheeled cart, I dreamed of the soufflé at the end of the meal: the lofty golden puff when it first arrives. The theater of tuxedoed waiters pouring crème anglaise. The scent of orange liqueur as it escapes on a plume of heat. Though a cruise can be as challenging as David Foster Wallace declared, a nightly meet-up with this endangered species of a dish was one of the bright notes on the trip.
Today, "you might associate soufflés with your father or grandfather," says Patrick O'Connell, chef/owner of the renowned Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia. Light, sweet, eggy, and ethereal, the soufflé has become a dinosaur in current era of fast casual, a time when diners want their entire meals served in 10 minutes or less, much less dessert. The soufflé, by contrast, demands the investment of time from both chef and diner: it requires oven space, it requires a watchful eye, and, most damningly, it cannot be made in advance.
Light, sweet, eggy, and ethereal, the soufflé has become a dinosaur in the era of fast casual.
A soufflé is basically an egg yolk base — crème patisserie — and beaten whites that have formed stiff peaks. This meringue is folded into the yolks gently, so as to keep the air in the mixture. It's then transferred into a soufflé mold or individual ramekins and baked for 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size. It's the lift that's especially enthralling — a cook's capturing of sugared air. "To this day, when I see a soufflé rising, I'm mesmerized," chef Eric Ripert recently told Jeff Gordinier of The New York Times while discussing his memoir, 32 Yolks, released this month. "I'm just like a kid again."
"The first injection of a fork or spoon into a soufflé is kind of a thrill," says O'Connell, who serves several versions of the dish at his restaurant. A spoonful is airy like foam, very hot, and faintly sweet; when a soufflé is perfect, it's a marvel. O'Connell likes to serve soufflé chaud (hot) with an unusual ice cream like rhubarb and verbena, creating a sauce, essentially, as the ice cream melts. He also appreciates the contrast of hot and cold.
But it's a rarity to find a soufflé on a contemporary menu like O'Connell's. The old-school dish arguably reached its pinnacle back in 1979, when Jacqueline Margulis opened Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco. At the restaurant, she still offers a menu of savory and sweet soufflés, each of which begin in the mixer and are finished by hand in a copper bowl. But as the grand, classic restaurant receded in the '80s, so did the soufflé, now on the brink of disappearance. (A downturn in the popularity of French cuisine — plus cutbacks to pastry chef positions as restaurants tightened spending — didn't help, either.) Yet the reputation of the soufflé and the sublime experience of eating a good one just might bring it back.
The soufflé earns its name from the French word soufflér — to puff. It was perfected in the mid-1800s by Marie-Antoine Carême who, in cooking for the newly rich in Paris, was aided by updated ovens that were heated by air drafts rather than coal. This change was key to the rise of the soufflé.
The popularity of soufflés grew with fine dining from the early 1900s through the mid-20th century. According to the archive at the New York Public Library Menu Project, soufflés appeared frequently on menus for special-occasion dinners with guests of honor at places like NYC's the Biltmore, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Hotel Astor.
"If made right, [soufflés are] magical and amazing, but there are so many things that can go wrong," says celebrity pastry chef and cookbook author Johnny Iuzzini, who started his career as a pastry chef at Daniel, Payard Pâtisserie and Bistro, and Jean-Georges. Presentation is as important as the baking, with the server delivering it with grace as she pierces a hole in the center and pours crème anglaise tableside (a restaurant trick that's special, but not a requirement). "When you add the variables of service — servers getting to the tables, placing, explaining, and garnishing — it becomes a risky business," Iuzzini says. Those intricacies, tied to the performative nature of fine dining, lost relevance as diners' tastes changed, and restaurants often scrapped the dish.
Iuzzini is now the founder and proprietor of his own brand, Sugar Fueled Inc., but during his 10 years at Jean-Georges, he "often rotated seasonally inspired soufflés" — even then, they were added to the menu strategically. "They were quite small, baked quickly, and we made them in batches throughout the night for freshness and stability, a bit safer of a proposition." Iuzzini points out that today's pastry chefs prefer deconstructed desserts, "with bits and pieces of sponges, piles of crumbles, and gelled curds and sauces," he says. And because the soufflé may seem "too simple, mundane, or boring... a lot of pastry chefs, I'm sure, feel it isn't worth the risk. Or it's below their caliber of cooking."
"A lot of pastry chefs, I’m sure, feel it isn’t worth the risk. Or it’s below their caliber of cooking."
Washington, DC — a city that's had a long love affair with fine dining, in part because of its unshakable economy and lobbying rituals — used to be one of the easiest places in the United States to find an impressive soufflé. Some DC pastry chefs acknowledge they used to make soufflés, but that the dish is currently not on their menus: Either soufflés don't jibe with their current concepts or kitchen staff is too lean to make desserts a la minute, a lot of work for a dated dessert.
When Aggie Chin, of the Grill Room at Georgetown's Rosewood in Washington, DC, last made soufflés as head pastry chef at (the now-closed) Palena, she served them in chocolate pastry shells as one of the final courses on a tasting menu. But she rarely makes them today because they require dedicated oven space, so it's "hard to execute under normal service," she says. Eater Young Gun Alex Levin, head pastry chef at Osteria Morini, also in the District, says he loves a good soufflé, which makes sense considering his own experiences at Jean-Georges and Cafe Boulud in New York. But he wouldn't add a soufflé to his menu, since Osteria Morini sticks to dishes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
Levin could recall only one restaurant in Washington where he'd go out of his way for soufflé. Nearly every Thursday, Levin visits DBGB Kitchen and Bar for a burger and whatever soufflé is on the dessert menu. "It's the best in town," he says. "They know French cuisine."
What makes a great soufflé? According to Levin, it must rise properly and have a beautiful, flat crust. He prefers when it's made with the more-stable Italian meringue. And the soufflé should be perfectly cooked, "with no runny egg," he says. Chin, on the other hand, prefers a French meringue, whipped slowly to create "lots of tiny air bubbles," for a soufflé with an especially light, puffy texture.
While not in their current dessert repertoires, Levin and Chin believe soufflés are poised for a comeback. "Whether it's great pie, chocolate cake, or ice cream sandwiches, [pastry chefs] are bringing back the classics," Levin says. "And a soufflé is a classic dessert." (Julia Child might be known for her cheese soufflé, but she asserted the supremacy of the dessert version in the 1960 edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's "the epitome and the triumph of French cookery," she wrote, "a glorious and exciting finish to a great meal.")
Levin says he wouldn't be surprised to find more soufflés on menus soon, but given the number of high-volume restaurants in the nation's capital, he believes the dish needs a champion to shepherd them through the kitchen. Take Stephen Starr's French-inspired DC bistro Le Diplomate, which sees hundreds of diners a day: "That's a place where you need desserts that are easy to plate," Levin says.
"Soufflés are hard to perfect. But why should something so wonderful ever go out of style?"
But soufflés are just beginning to show up in unlikely places. At the Long Island City Flea in Queens, Portuguese-born, Paris-raised Pedro Da Silva of La Maison du Soufflé takes the seven to 10 minutes to make chocolate soufflés, selling them for $10 apiece. "Warm chocolate clouds in a bowl coming to you," reads the stall's tagline. It's also on the menu at Mimi, a new restaurant in New York's West Village. "Restaurants like Mimi don't really exist downtown anymore," writes critic Adam Platt in New York. "It's a throwback to another era... a place with outsize ambitions matched by a neighborly vibe and delivery." Liz Johnson's cooking, he writes, is rooted in the "ancient French canon."
Today at the Inn at Little Washington, the most popular breakfast item is an updated take on the dish: an oatmeal soufflé, with lightly sweetened rolled oats in the bottom of a ramekin, the meringue laced with warm maple syrup. "People go crazy for it," O'Connell says. "It delivers the element of surprise with oatmeal, such an everyday ingredient."
Levin and Chin say soufflés could soon return to menus beyond New York with the classic bistro revival. And according to the pastry chefs, they're easy to personalize by infusing, say, lemon lavender into the base, or Lazzaroni Amaretto, for a soufflé served with an Amaretto cookie for a striking textural contrast. A soufflé can be savory or sweet (and even frozen).
A soufflé is also an affordable luxury — the way a perfect pour of a single-estate espresso can be. "Soufflés are hard to beat, hard to perfect, and hard to maintain consistency," O'Connell says. "But why should something so wonderful ever go out of style?
Melissa McCart is a restaurant columnist for Newsday; you can also find her recent work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Saveur, and Eater.
Editor: Erin DeJesus