A French tradition, with roots in Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, has led to an improvisational and elastic vision for salad that was born fully in the USA.
Last August, the media-craving chef Cyril Lignac committed what the French internet quickly deemed a “kitchen nightmare,” if not downright “culinary terrorism.” His crime? A salade Niçoise recipe presented on his TV show that, in addition to tuna and olives, had incorporated such unspeakables as boiled cold potatoes and crisp green beans. “Why not just add mayonnaise while you’re at it?” tweeted one irate viewer. In the end, the angry mob got its way: The network airing Lignac’s program was forced to publish a revised recipe. And through the power of social media, salad had developed its own cancel culture.
The anger bubbling and brewing around the Niçoise salad wasn’t new. Every few years, the residents of Nice—or a hard-core subset of them—launch a broadside against what they see as a defilement of their proud hometown dish. Three years ago, the alleged offender was McDonald’s, putting potatoes in its Niçoise salads sold in Italy. In 2012, the Niçois unleashed a similar broadside against mayonnaise—corn, too.
They might have a point on the corn. But otherwise, Niçoise salad is one of those dishes that sits squarely in the eye of the beholder. It’s not just potatoes or green beans that start flame wars. The tuna that now seems canonical is, in fact, not. The hard-line Niçois insist on anchovies. But then, they also swear by greens, which, to many salad watchers, seems like a greater offense.
Despite the histrionics, you could argue that the outrage was a defense of salad itself, if an awkward one—a newly invigorated rallying cry in a nation that has largely disregarded salade as just a pile of greens before your cheese. Once, what the French call the “salade composée”—the composed salad—was an essential part of any restaurant or dinner party menu, and a foundational pillar in any French chef’s oeuvre. But as haute cuisine evolved through the 20th century, the concept of the finessed cold salad was diminished and herded forward to the front of the meal, in favor of theatrical main courses; poulet en vessie (chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder), popularized by Paul Bocuse, is a good example. Salad got another kick down the ladder with the push of innovation popularized as “nouvelle cuisine” in the 1960s and ’70s, which intended to lighten up the creamy, buttery, béchamel-y French dinosaur cooking. In a way, nouvelle cuisine tried to bring the lightness, as it were, of the salad to all the other parts of a meal; and yet, ironically, it cut away the cascade of endless courses that had at least given salads a place. The salade composée—the event salad—was lost in the shuffle.
During that era, and even into the 1980s, Americans—as some of the most fastidious copycats of all things French—largely emulated this path, lightening up formal French-inspired cooking while trimming away a lot of the opening acts, including the grand salad. But our relationship with salad was more conflicted. During the beef-happy times of the 1980s, and again in the pork-bellyish era a couple decades later, meal-worthy salads—even our own homegrown composed classics, like the ingenious Cobb—became little more than fodder for ladies who lunched. We love these salads, if maybe not with the fervor of the Niçois. But we’ve also tended to treat them not as the pleasures they are but as a punishment of sorts. This was the case, for instance, as the decadence of the ’80s gave way to the abstemiously fat-free tendencies of the 1990s—an era launched, perhaps, when Jacques Pépin lauded “the arrival of the age of the salad” in 1991. This, you might remember, was an era that proliferated such unmentionables as raspberry vinaigrette.
This conflicted relationship of Americans, and especially American chefs, with salad only deepened. The 2000s era of hedonism brought forward a new twist on the argument: that compiling something out of great ingredients—essentially curating your market basket—was not, in fact, cooking. This sentiment showed up when, for instance, the chef Daniel Patterson wrote about “the tyranny of Chez Panisse,” namely that Northern California’s ubiquity of loving great ingredients was at risk of squelching “stylistic diversity” in the kitchen. And David Chang piled on, accusing San Francisco restaurants of “just serving figs on a plate.” These were, ultimately, broadsides against Alice Waters, she of the iconic mesclun-and-goat-cheese salad of Chez Panisse that emerged in the 1980s—one so widely copied that there’s now debate as to precisely which farm first devised the idea of a salad mix. Chang doubled down, exhorting Californian cooks to “do something with your food.”
We’ve also tended to treat them not as the pleasures they are but as a punishment of sorts.
And then something happened, as the aughts rolled into the tens. The rise of wellness in the past decade-plus, at least in the United States (although increasingly in Paris), has reframed the conversation around salad. Indeed, the chopped and tossed irony of it all is that salade composée has, in the past few years, enjoyed a glorious renaissance in America, if not under that name. The most obvious evidence is right in front of us (or was, until the pandemic sent us all to work from home). In 2007, three business school friends grew sick of the endless ranks of mozzarella sticks and wings surrounding their Georgetown campus in Washington, DC, and they launched a fast-casual salad spot, selling frozen yogurt and fresh salads made with ingredients from the nearby Dupont Circle farmers’ market. In this, Sweetgreen was born in the wake of “do something with your food”—growing within a little more than a decade to a $1.6 billion mean, green juggernaut; drawing devotees willing to queue up and pay handsomely for a salad bowl—and now numbering more than 100 locations nationwide. This rise took place despite complaints from salad-skeptical naysayers, who should have taken note that among the company’s collaborating chefs was none other than . . . David Chang.
The rise of Sweetgreen seemed, in a way, like fortuitous timing—offering up salad just as Americans were ready to pivot back to healthy. Others had tried to be the great American salad purveyor, with less success—small chains like Chopt never achieved the reach that Sweetgreen relishes today. What made Sweetgreen different? I’d argue it was primarily that it didn’t ever quite feel like a salad bar, which is to say there was nothing abstemious in its menu. Its salads relied not on being overtly healthy so much as quietly indulgent—compositions of things we like to eat, so that the Guacamole Greens didn’t stint on tortilla chips, and even the Kale Caesar offered Parmesan cheese two ways (shaved and as crisps). In other words, Sweetgreen made apparent what we salad loyalists have long known: that salade composée is a thing of beauty, not of asceticism. In these confusing days, it’s for precisely those reasons that these salads stand to rule the world.
Whatever our apprehensions, it’s essential to understand that the salade composée once commanded deep respect. Auguste Escoffier asserted himself as decidedly pro salad in his 1903 Guide Culinaire—the proto-cookbook for 20th-century French cooking. During the legendary 1894 wedding dinner for the Duc d’Orléans at London’s Savoy Hotel, he inserted a salade Victoria—built around diced lobster, asparagus, and truffle—as a high point in the meal, between ortolans (of course) and asparagus hearts in marrow sauce. And it was taken as gospel for decades after that building a great salad requires serious talent, which is why the chef Prosper Montagné noted in his Larousse Gastronomique, another bible of French cooking, that great salads “come into the realm of grande cuisine.”
Montagné, one of three musketeers of French cooking, along with Escoffier and Marie-Antoine Carême, amplified the perfect salad taxonomy Escoffier had laid out. Yes, you could enjoy a salade simple, usually meaning one ingredient, raw or cooked, and a dressing. But art came with the composée, which might be an opportunity to use leftovers but also might be, say, a salade demi-deuil: equal parts julienned potato and truffle, seasoned with mustard cream and topped with more truffles. Or Niçoise, the quintessential composée, into which, incidentally, both Montagné and Escoffier—perhaps influenced by Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, one of France’s great produce evangelists—added the same key ingredient: potatoes.
That’s why the dismissiveness of the Niçois about tweaks to their treasured dish, from Escoffier (born in Villeneuve-Loubet, just 8 kilometers west of Nice) or anyone else, feels petty. The enforced sense of rigidity—no different than discounting flour tortillas (thus deeply offending Sonorans), picking on the adaptability of Americanized Chinese food, or any other hot mess under the umbrella of “authenticity”—goes directly against the true power of salad, which is its improvisational beauty.
That ethos feels entirely American, and arguably, it explains why composed salads end up feeling very American indeed. But it is also one of the great demonstrations that French “cuisine,” if you will, can be far more jazzy and flexible than we perceive it to be. This becomes clear when you read arguably the greatest modern interpreter of the composée: the American writer Richard Olney, one of the great experts on Provençal cooking, and, of course, the culinary link between France and California, having tutored Alice Waters, among many others.
In his 1974 book Simple French Food, Olney dedicates a full five pages to an ur-recipe for salade canaille, an “impromptu” composed salad, which, among other things, he described as homage to “the French affectation for the delinquent and the demi-monde.” (“Canaille” loosely translates as “scoundrel.”) Olney’s thesis? A great composed salad doesn’t follow specific recipes, like a Niçoise or a Waldorf, but instead should be created based on both whimsy and whatever seasonal ingredients are at hand. This might sound free-form, but Olney being Olney, it’s not. His instructions were exacting—and his rules read, even today, like perfect salad commandments.
The gist: Include some sort of protein, broken or cut up, a starch, and then a wide array of raw and cooked vegetables, followed by “leafy things” (which “may include tiny tender leaves of borage or sorrel, purslane, arugula, rocket, chicory,” and much else), herbs, and even edible flowers. More rules: Meat shouldn’t go with fish; one starch is usually enough; celery and fennel are too similar and not to be overlapped. “Anchovies may be incorporated into the sauce or used as a garnish and, in the absence of more amusing leftovers, tinned tuna, crab, or lobster can be useful,” Olney went on.
The beauty of a salad like his canaille, Olney wrote, was that “in the seasonal round of my own life, [it] symbolizes the happiest time of the year.” Yes, it could serve as a main course, even an entire meal. It could also serve as the master recipe—and overall mission statement—for nearly everything Sweetgreen has created.
This is the true irony behind the conflicted view that Americans have had toward salad. On the one hand, Olney’s cooking was arguably the basis of the goat cheese salad at Chez Panisse, which would, along with the beets and goat cheese popularized by Wolfgang Puck, become the symbol of Californian cooking. And the idea of salad as a meal is more mainstream today than at any point in the past 50 years. At the same time, there remains even today a bit of a punch line to that idea—not just from bacon-slinging bro chefs, but more broadly, in the sense that it represents an effete and, yes, liberal way of eating.
This animosity isn’t particularly new. During the prosperous mid-century, when meat, bountiful and cheap, was a main course, salad was often considered just a prelude to a proper American meal. Or was it? Even then, the composed salad maintained a pride of place: as in their own section on the Waldorf-Astoria’s menu in 1959, where you could order the hotel’s namesake composed salad. And Crab Louis—a quintessential composée—cost as much as a loin lamb chop.
In 2021, it’s clear that Olney’s improvisational and elastic vision of the salade composée has won the day.
But it was also clear that Americans harbored a sort of insecurity about the salad. Salads were increasingly shuttled to the front of a meal, a preamble to more important things. The New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, both a defender of American cooking and a lover of French tradition, was no fan of this “California style” of service—one that he attributed to the “slimming practices during the so-called golden age of Hollywood,” with stars gorging on salad to fill up and avoid a heavier main course . . . never mind the fact that the greatest of all American composed salads, the Cobb, was invented at Hollywood’s Brown Derby.
In 2021, it’s clear that Olney’s improvisational and elastic vision of the salade composée has won the day. You can find it, for instance, on the menu at Bar Cleeta in Bentonville, Arkansas, where alongside wagyu brisket is a full plate of butternut squash carpaccio, with Fromager d’Affinois, speck, and apples—as composed a salad as the French would ever conceive. Or at 402, in Omaha, Nebraska, a city once home to the world’s largest livestock market, where salads outnumber steaks three to one.
There’s no question some of this dovetails with the booming wellness industry—hence why Goop’s website has twice as many recipes for salad as for pasta. It’s also connected to the rise of what we can call Ottolenghi-like cooking, an American embrace of mezze: the small plates for our times, and the continuation of our conflicted relationship with the Mediterranean diet. But more than anything, there’s Sweetgreen, churning out its salads, and even planning its first drive-through location.
Sweetgreen’s ability to succeed where others didn’t is less about timing and more about the fact that its founders unlocked the key to making Americans love salad: namely by repositioning the composée as a properly American, and adequately indulgent, treat. That approach wasn’t just serendipity or dumb luck. One of the company’s three founders is Nicolas Jammet, son of the owners of La Caravelle, long one of New York’s north stars of classic French cooking. And, quite clearly, there was alchemy taking place between the notion of “fresh and healthy” and a subtle indulgence, one that dared not speak its name. Thus, a recent Autumn Caesar salad leaned on roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes—and had about 20 percent more calories than a Big Mac (a very unequal romaine-to-beef comparison, but a reminder that salad is in no way definitionally a diet food).
This ability to blur the lines between the two is, in fact, the true secret to a great salade composée, which is to say that the linking of “salad” and “healthy” is more about our own biases as diet-fixated Americans than anything in the original French notion. The French, after all, brought us such gorgeous composées as the Lyonnaise, its opulence driven by egg yolk and lardons. And then there are the manifestations at none other than . . . La Caravelle. If, in the early 1980s, there was nary a salad to be found on its menu, soon there would be soigné additions like a crabmeat salad prepared tableside, complete with a slug of brandy.
It’s quite easy to see this aesthetic at work today—in the speck and double-cream cheese included in Bar Cleeta’s squash carpaccio, for instance. And, needless to say, at Sweetgreen. Jammet has talked before about “the wink,” a flourish in each salad that adds curb appeal and has been an engine of Sweetgreen’s success. In other words, those Parmesan crisps in the Kale Caesar, maybe, or the za’atar bread crumbs atop the Buffalo Chicken Bowl, weren’t just serendipitous garnishes. They were deliberate choices, calculated to make the salade composée something totally craveable—the equivalent of the secret to a great salad that Escoffier described as “whimsy and taste,” of Olney’s “imaginative and playful, self-renewing invention” of a salad, shined up with a daub of millennial flair.
And one of the most dramatic winks? It can be found in Sweetgreen’s 2016 tribute to the Niçoise, aptly named the Not So Niçoise, in which steelhead trout took on the fish role and asparagus replaced green beans.
And were there potatoes? Of course there were. That’s how you conquer the world.