The History of Chef Salad

Chef Salad was always in my life because it was and still is a favorite of my father. He is someone who loves to walk into the kitchen, see what’s in the fridge, and wing it. A Chef Salad is perfect for those types of improvised meals. 

What ingredients are in Chef Salad?

Traditionally the Chef Salad (which can also be called Chef’s Salad) is usually a bed of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber topped with slices of hard-boiled eggs and julienned strips of ham, turkey, and swiss cheese. Then it is topped with whatever dressing is desired.

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Nowadays a Chef Salad can be whatever meat and cheese that you have on hand as many consider the customization limits are only your own imagination. According to a 1965 article: “If you’re the adventuresome type, then a Chef’s Salad is your type of dish. Basically, it is a green salad with the addition of Julienne strips of meat and cheese plus raw vegetables, fish and or shellfish, cooked egg or whatever your ingenuity or appetite dictates.” David Burke in his 2009 cookbook, David Burke’s New American Classics agrees that the salad is whatever meats, cheese, and garnishes you have in your fridge and pantry. He guarantees that “no matter what you pull together, you will have created the perfect Chef’s Salad”.

Two examples of Chef Salad featured in Ebony Magazine in 1970 and 1977.

Who and where was Chef Salad created?

Like many older recipes, this question doesn’t really have a concrete answer though there are a few thoughts on the matter. Chef Louis Diat of the New York City Ritz-Carlton Hotel often gets the credit for the creation of Chef Salad. Also, he did include a recipe for the salad in the 1941 cookbook Cooking a la Ritz. Though he is most likely the one who popularized the salad but not the original creator. Another contender is Victor Seydoux whose widow claimed that the salad originated from him at the Hotel Buffalo. This is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Chef Salad but there is no citation to back up the claim. Or people wave their hands toward California with a vague thought that it was created over there as the state is known for its “salad culture”.

Chef salad was definitely around before the 1940s as it was mentioned in an April 24, 1939 issue of the St. Petersburg Times. In the article, the author called for one to “take note of the chef salad recipe Mrs. John David Harris brought back with her from the swank Sun and Surf club in Palm Beach…lettuce is the background to make the plate attractive…cut vegetables and meat in long thing strips about like shoestring potatoes…use cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, baked ham, chicken, salami and some tangy cheese…use French dressing and garnish with slices of hard-boiled eggs.” David Burke concludes in his cookbook David Burke’s New American Classics that this recipe probably “grew out of hotel and country-club dining where all of the elements were always on hand, and the salad could be prepared easily”.

Lastly, I would be remiss to mention that others point out that the Chef Salad is just a 20th-century version of the 17th-century Salmagundi Sallet. The Old English Salmagundi Sallet was made with cubes of ham and chicken with hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, celery, and pickles on a bed of salad greens.

Heinz Chef Salad Life Mag 1954

Part of a 1950s Heinz Vinegar Ad featuring Chef Salad

When was Chef Salad popular?

Chef’s salad was popular from the 1940s through to the 1970s. In the home, it was considered a complete meal that could use up leftovers. In 1967, food columnist Cecily Brownstone called it a main dish salad. A 1965 article agreed that Chef Salad was a “complete meal by itself.” In the restaurant, it was considered classy. In the 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, it is mentioned that this “hearty main dish salad” is served in ‘many smart restaurants’ “. Cecily Brownstone chimes in again on the Chef Salad in 1955 when writing that this was a favorite main course salad in restaurants. The salad was so prevalent on restaurant menus that on a 1954 menu was found “Chef’s Salad $1. Yeah, we know, every restaurant has a chef salad, but they ain’t got our chef.” Many other restaurants tweaked the recipe and called it another name such as the Brown Derby adding chives and calling it the Beverly Salad Bowl.

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Though where the “All-American” salad really seemed to shine in the eyes of the mid-century was during those hot summer months before air conditioning became a staple in American homes. The St. Petersburg Times, being in Florida should know a thing or two about hot weather meals, called this perfect summer fare as it is “bright and hearty” in 1953. A 1952 article in the Washington Afro-American gets almost poetic when writing that this salad was perfect for the summer weather as they wrote: “And pleasantly enough, chef’s salad bowls are as colorful and gay as a just sprinkled flower garden.” Later in 1956, Fannie Joe Reid for the Afro-American wrote again about the salad being a welcome meal for hot summer weather. In 1971, Chef Salad was called the perfect summer salad as it is “cool, refreshing and satisfying, even on the hottest of days”.

This was often considered a great “man-pleasing” salad, especially for those aforementioned hot summer months. A quote from a 1961 article said ”This is the time of year when the male members of the family become less than satisfied with summer salads as a main dish and begin to hanker for the meaty face of approaching autumn and winter.” It goes on to offer up chef salad as the “perfect” compromise between the sexes for summer dinner”. Another article from a 1967 Florida newspaper agreed that it was also perfect for a summer meal that would suit a “man’s taste”. Then there was a 1974 article simply titled “Serve Chef’s Salad to Win Man’s Vote”.

He-Man Chef Salad Life Mag May 20 1940 Part

Part of a1940’s Hellmann’s Mayonnaise ad featuring the Chef Salad calling it a “He-Man” salad.

You can still find chef salad on some restaurant menus and it is still made at home but it definitely has lost the glamor it once had. The Chef salad used to be a popular menu item but as America’s idea of fancy salads has changed it is no longer a popular item on restaurant menus The main reason is most likely due to the modern concerns about calorie and fat content. In Where Food and People Meet (2009), Phyllis Watts also points out that “its inclusion on fast food menus has caused it to be made with lesser choice meats and lettuce”. 

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Why should I make Chef Salad?

In The Silver Palate Cookbook, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins write “More than a salad of odds and ends, chef’s salad can be spectacular. Use only the freshest of vegetables and take the time to julienne them beautifully. It’s all in the hands of the chef.” I wholeheartedly agree. Ingredient quality can make or break a good Chef Salad. Living in Florida, I can totally understand the mid-century love for this salad on hot summer days when turning on an oven can heat up a house even with air conditioning. Plus it is great for using up small amounts of leftover meats and cheeses. 

Why should I make Chef Salad?

Honestly, you don’t need me giving you a recipe for chef salad but ol’Google likes one to be included. Just take what I write next as a mere suggestion. Be like my father and improvise your perfect salad with what you have on hand!

You can use any dressing you want. In the pictures I used Ranch dressing which I wrote about and included a recipe here. Other salad dressings I have written about are Thousand Island Dressing and Green Goddess.

Chef Salad

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

One of the classic American Salad.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups lettuce of choice (I used a mixture)
  • 1 to 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
  • Cooked chicken in desired amount, cut in sticks or cubes
  • Cooked ham, in desired amount, cut in sticks or cubes
  • Swiss cheese, in desired amount, cut in sticks or cubes
  • Sharp cheddar cheese, in desired amount, cut in sticks or cubes
  • 2 to 3 hard boiled eggs, sliced or chopped
  • Salad dressing of choice

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, place the lettuce. If you want more of a retro look, attractively arrange the rest of ingredients on top of the lettuce. If you want more of a modern look, evenly scatter the rest of the ingredients on top of the lettuce.
  2. Serve with your favorite dressing.

NOTES: Leftover turkey or beef were also popular additions or substitutions to this salad as well as salami.


Sources:

Anderson, Jean. The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997.

“Be Your Own Chef in Creating a Chef’s Salad”. Meriden Journal. March 18, 1965.

Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. United States: General Mills, 1950.

“Bright For Summer: Salads Can be Colorful, Cooling, Filling”. St. Petersburg Times. May 17, 1953.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Cooking is Fun”. The Gettysburg Times. June 22, 1967.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Make Your Own Chef’s Salad.” The Robesonian. September 30, 1955.

Choate, Judith., Burke, David. David Burke’s New American Classics. United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009.

“Cool Salad Luncheon Refreshes Hot Days”. St. Petersburg Times. June 29, 1967.

“Do-It-Yourself Chef’s Salad Fine for Buffet”. Meriden Journal September 21, 1961.

Downs, Mary Healer. “Cooking Fun”. Washington Afro-American. August 12, 1952.

Durkin, Mary S. “Nature’s Kitchen”. Lawrence Journal-World. May 23, 1982.

Ebinger, Janie. Janie’s Simply Entree Salads for Two. United States: Tate Publishing & Enterprises, LLC, 2009.

“Girl About Town: Jaded Summer Appetites….”. St. Petersburg Times. April 24, 1939.

Gray, Ruth. “Salads Are Fit For a Chef”. The Evening Independent. August 5, 1965.

Mariani, John F. The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. United States: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Maser, Nick. “The Passing Parade”. Reading Eagle. October 27, 1954.

Moore, Mary. “Imagination Needed for Salad Making”. The Leader-Post. November 19, 1958.

“Old English Supper Still Popular”. Schenectady Gazette. May 9, 1974.

Pfeiffer’s Chef Salad Ad. The Pittsburgh Press. April 8, 1959.

Reid, Fannie Joe. “Cooking Is Fun”. Washington Afro-American. July 3, 1956.

Rosencrans, Joyce. “New Chef Salads Are One-Dish Meals”. The Vindicator. August 14, 1990.

Rosso, Julee., Lukins, Sheila. The Silver Palate Cookbook. United States: Workman Publishing Company, 2007.

“Serve Chef’s Salad to Win Man’s Vote”. Mid Cities Daily News. August 6, 1974.

Stern, Jane and Stern, Michael. American Gourmet: Classic Recipes, Deluxe Delights, Flamboyant Favorites, and Swank “Company” Food from the ’50s and ’60s. United States: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Storey, Martha. 500 Treasured Country Recipes from Martha Storey and Friends: Mouthwatering, Time-Honored, Tried-And-True, Handed-Down, Soul-Satisfying Dishes. United States: Storey Publishing, LLC, 2012.

“Summer Salad Popular by Itself.” Boca Raton News. August 19, 1971.

Tomlinson, Sarah. “Home Arts Studio: Women Meet War Challenge”. NEED NEWSPAPER AND DATE.

Watts, Phyllis. Where Food and People Meet. United States: Xlibris Corporation LLC, 2009.

Weinraub, Judith. Salad: A Global History. United Kingdom: Reaktion Books, 2016.

Westmoreland, Susan. Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbooks. United States: Hearst Books, 2004.

Ads and Pictures:

Chef’s Salad Picture 1 – Ebony Magazine June 1970

Chef’s Salad Picture 2 – Ebony Magazine October 1977

Heinz Vinegar Ad – Life Magazine 1954

He-Man “Chef Salad”. Life Magazine May 20, 1940

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