Chef’s salad

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm:


Two linguistic points: (1) chef’s salad vs. chef salad; (2) the definite article in ordering at a restaurant (I’ll have chef(‘s) salad vs. I’ll have the chef(‘s) salad). Then some notes on the salad.

There are two predominant patterns for compound salad names with the second element salad:

(a) the first element, a common noun, refers to the principal ingredient: bean salad, potato salad, chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad, ham salad, etc.

(b) the first element is a proper name referring to a person or institution historically associated with the salad: Caesar salad, Waldorf salad, Cobb salad

The thing about chef(‘s) salad is that it has neither of these patterns. Chef’s salad has a very common pattern for compounds, with a possessive first element (lamb’s wool, women’s college, etc.); but there are no other salad names of this form — and it can be interpreted as involving a semantically possessive determiner, which is what got Ralph into trouble in #1. Chef salad looks like an instance of pattern (a) above, but the meaning is wrong, since it’s not a salad made from or with chefs.

The extremely slim evidence of the OED is that chef’s salad is the older of the two alternatives and that chef salad is a relatively recent innovation. The OED has entries for neither of the alternatives, but has exactly one quotation (in other entries) for each of them:

a quotation from a 1945 U.S. newspaper in the French entry: Chef’s Salad with French Dressing

a quotation from 2005 under taco salad: Chef salad and taco salad are usually high in fat

Now, Ralph could have avoided getting into trouble with the chef if he’d chosen to say (i) I’ll have chef’s salad or  (ii) I’ll have a chef’s salad instead of (iii) I’ll have the chef’s salad, since only (iii) has the crucial ambiguity between chef’s as part of the compound and as a possessive determiner.

I have the feeling that there is a subtle difference between the way (i)-(iii) are used in context, but at the moment I’m not able to tease out the differences.

(Of course, Ralph could have ordered the chef salad, but then he would have had to appreciate the ambiguity.)

Wikipedia on the salad:

Chef salad (or chef’s salad) is a salad consisting of hard-boiled eggs; one or more meats such as ham, turkey, chicken, or roast beef; tomatoes; cucumbers; and cheese; all placed upon a bed of tossed lettuce or other leaf vegetables. Several early recipes also include anchovies. A variety of dressings are used with this salad.

Food historians do not agree on the history and composition of chef salad, much less who assembled the first one. Some trace this salad’s roots to Salmagundi, a popular meat and salad dish originating in 17th century England and popular in colonial America. Others contend chef’s salad is a product of early twentieth century, originating in either New York or California. The person most often connected with the history of this salad is Louis Diat, chef of the Ritz-Carlton in New York City during the 1940s. While food historians acknowledge his recipe, they do not appear to be convinced he originated the dish, which is more popularly attributed to either chef Victor Seydoux at the Hotel Buffalo, a Statler Hotel in Buffalo, New York or chef Jacques Roser at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City.

Two photos of chef’s salad, with somewhat different ingredients and different modes of presentation (as a composed salad, then as a tossed salad):



Recipes on the net suggest all sorts of dressings: plain vinaigrette, French dressing (based on vinaigrette), various mayonnaise-based dressings (ranch dressing, blue cheese dressing, thousand island dressing), or (from Martha Stewart) a buttermilk and sour cream-based dressing. And many just say to use the dressing of your choice. (Some cooks offer two or three different dressings.)

One Response to “Chef’s salad”

  1. chryss Says:

    There’s also the region-of-origin salad – Aveyronnaise salad (reminds me of living in France), Niçoise salad, Lyonnaise salad, Greek salad.

    In French, you find both “salade du chef” and “salade au chef”, with some discussion about how the latter is supposedly just borne out of a desire to give the salad an overly refined name, but incorrect because you’d expect the chef to be an ingredient if you use the preposition à. Others disagree.

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