How Five of the Most Iconic Dishes Were Born

Here are the stories behind a few modern classics that have inspired chefs around the world.

Molten Chocolate Cakes
Photo: © Lucy Schaeffer

Some new dishes arrive on the scene with a flash — and fizzle just as quickly. But a few of our most brilliant chefs have created dishes that are so perfectly conceived that they have earned the right to be called classic. As these recipes get passed from chef to chef, from coast to coast, they bring profound satisfaction wherever they go. Who can imagine life without them?

A Chocolate "Accident"

Perhaps no other recipe in recent history has caught on as fast as these barely baked, just-out-of-the-oven individual chocolate cakes, which under the slightest pressure from a fork, release a flow of melted chocolate. Credit for their invention goes to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, chef and co-owner of restaurants around the world, including New York City's Jean Georges and Vong.

How did it happen? "In 1987, Pierre Schutz, now the chef at Vong in Manhattan, spent time working with Marc Meneau in France and brought back a recipe for an underbaked chocolate cake," Vongerichten recalls. "We started playing with it at Lafayette, where we both worked." At first, the chefs baked the cakes in tiny paper cups; they were moist but not runny because they were so small. "Three months after we started making them, a customer requested them for a party," Vongerichten says. "That's when we first made larger ones and discovered that the insides ran — everyone loved them."

Designer Pizza

For most of the years that pizza has been popular in America, the toppings of choice have been tomatoes and mozzarella. But when Wolfgang Puck introduced "designer" pies at his Los Angeles restaurant, Spago, in the Eighties, he rocked the pizza world.

The Austrian-born chef developed a passion for pizza as a young apprentice at L'Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. He and a friend would spend their days off eating pizza at Chez Gu and making plans to open a restaurant in the United States with a pizzeria next door.

When Puck arrived in California, he started two trends: he made the humble pizza acceptable at upscale restaurants and he pioneered an anything- goes approach to toppings. One of his first creations, made with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and caviar, changed pizza forever.

Raw Genius

It's not clear who had the idea of replacing meat with fish to make the first seafood tartare. But we do know that in Paris in the early Eighties, chef Gilbert LeCoze was making tartares of salmon and whitefish and that he brought the recipes with him when he opened Le Bernardin in New York City in 1986. The idea to serve a tuna tartare at Le Bernardin came from Eric Ripert, who is now chef and co-owner of the restaurant. "When I came to New York 10 years ago, I couldn't believe how fabulous the tuna was," Ripert recounts. "And maybe because the first place I had impeccable tuna was at a sushi bar, I came to associate it with Asian flavors." These were the flavors he turned to when he created his recipe, a blend of raw-tuna cubes, ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds, cilantro, jalapeños and lemon juice layered between homemade potato chips. "I know the jalapeños aren't Asian; they're there just because I like them. There's nothing Asian about the potato chips, either," Ripert says. "The truth is, this dish isn't authentic anything. It's a 100 percent New York invention."

Red Wine with Fish

Daniel Boulud of Manhattan's restaurant Daniel is famed for his sea bass paupiette with Barolo sauce. He wraps rectangular pieces of sea bass in paper-thin slices of butter-dipped potatoes and sautés the packages (paupiettes) until the potatoes are crisp, then tops them with an intense red wine sauce. There are myriad renditions of Boulud's dish and, as Boulud is quick to say, his dish is a rendition of one made famous by someone else: Paul Bocuse. "Bocuse used to do rouget wrapped in potato 'scales,' and it was a dish I loved when I worked for him," he says. "Of course, in some ways, Bocuse's dish was a version of one Fernand Point, his mentor, made. It's only natural to build on what you know." Bocuse finished his dish with a beurre blanc, but Boulud envisioned a sauce made with supremely good red wine. Although he uses Barolo, the sauce can be prepared with any rich, complex red — the same wine you'll want to drink with the sea bass.

Crème de la Crème

Crème brûlée will be forever linked to Manhattan's Le Cirque, even though the restaurant's owner, the irrepressible Sirio Maccioni, refuses to take credit. "I don't think even Escoffier ever invented recipes," he quips. Still, the story of crème brûlée starts in the summer of 1982, when the Maccionis traveled to Spain to watch Italy compete in the World Cup semifinals. Tickets were impossible to come by, so Maccioni called King Juan Carlos of Spain, a boyhood friend from Tuscany, who not only produced tickets but recommended dinner in Barcelona at Le Goût d'Avignon. "The dessert was crema catalana — essentially a crème anglaise — covered with a baked-on sugar crust that you cracked with a small silver hammer," Maccioni recalls. "The presentation was great, but the cream was too eggy and the crust too thick." Back in New York, Maccioni's wife, Egidiana, who is a legendary cook, reworked the recipe and he renamed it, but neither Le Cirque's chef nor pastry chef wanted any part of it. "They thought it was too old fashioned and simple," Maccioni explains. When they relented, they relegated the job of preparing it to the cook with the least seniority, Francisco Gutierrez. Today, Gutierrez has decades of seniority — and he still makes the crème brûlée.

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