Once considered the most elegant and sophisticated dessert one could enjoy, it has just about disappeared from all but a handful of restaurants in America today. Having been in kitchens when the soufflé was popular, I think I can more closely examine its demise.
Preparing a soufflé requires concentrated effort by one person. It is time sensitive, and the service personnel need to be acutely aware of its status from when it is removed from the oven to placing it in front of the guest immediately. In short, it is a very needy dessert.
Solely from a business perspective, it requires much commitment for little return. Beyond the logistical factors in the kitchen and the economics of a restaurant, the dining public is considerably different than it was thirty years ago. With the popularity of cooking shows, and the publics awareness of food sourcing concerning the environment, health issues, ect., chefs today face challenges not imagined when I entered a kitchen in 1971. That’s 1971 A.D. folks, just in case you were unsure. Concerning the abandonment of the soufflé however, it really boils down to the changes we have seen in style, which really is nothing new at all. In writing about menus for the public, Escoffier said it best, “ No doubt Fashion- ever illogical and wayward- exercises her tyrannical sway here, as in other matters of opinion.”
This then, is my defense of the soufflé, and why it should not be put into the dust bin of the culinary arts. To fully appreciate a soufflé , as with most of the finer things in life, you must first understand it. The enjoyment of this dessert is in its subtle nuance. The difference in texture from the middle to the sides. The aroma when you open it with your first spoonful. The structure that is so light and tender obtained from eggs, with technique being the arbiter of quality. It requires you to notice things that are not necessarily glaring and ostentatious, qualities that seem to be directing our popular culture today. Excess seems to be what it takes for many people to appreciate, or for that matter even enjoy something. The many examples of this would be tedious so lets move on.
Autumn is the perfect time to discuss the virtues of the soufflé, because both of them invoke the concept of temporary beauty. Let me explain. You are walking in the woods in October, and you stop to take in the astounding vista we have here in the Northeast.
The way the light filters in from the canopy to the forest floor, the different hues from the hardwoods, everything you love about autumn. All this depends on where you are in the woods and the time of day. Tomorrow the light will be much different, as will the colors and the view. Witness the storm we had last week. The point is the window for appreciating anything of beauty is very small. Its temporary nature however, is part of its intrinsic beauty. When you prepare your soufflé as I hope you will, think of it as you would a walk in the autumn woods. Temporary, delightful, sensuous…