A chef aspiring to invent a signature dish is like a speechwriter setting out to coin a hot political catchphrase: The effort is futile, because it's impossible to predict what will tickle the public's fancy. Instead, like Pokémon, SUVs and Survivor, a signature dish inexplicably captivates the fickle masses. Celebrity chefs become known as much for their trademark dishes as for their talent and élan. Wolfgang Puck is remembered as the chef/artiste who created designer pizza. Paul Prudhomme is blamed for having endangered a marine species when his blackened redfish appeared on every bistro menu from San Francisco to South Beach. And chef Rick Bayless, of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, has become the latest media darling for stuffing tamales with huitlcoche, an edible corn fungus.
Some chefs, such as The Crossing's Jim Fiala, are nonplused when the culinary equivalent of a wallflower is the dish that woos their customers. "As a chef, it's kind of weird that I'm known for beets and goat cheese," he laments. Coy or wanton, a signature dish tends to be an overnight sensation. Chef Steve Scherrer, of Grenache, recalls that his restaurant's hallmark entrée, coriander-crusted lamb shanks, began as a weekend special: "We sold a 35-pound case of lamb shanks in one evening. On Monday we ordered more lamb, and by Tuesday the dish was on the regular menu." At Zoë Pan-Asia Café, the restaurant's signature is seared-tuna sashimi with kimch'i vegetables and ginger-sesame vinaigrette. Restaurateur Zoë Robinson admits that she can't forecast which new dishes will catch on. "I've come up with some things that I thought were going to be just great, and they didn't sell at all," she confesses ruefully. Though chefs may tire of preparing the restaurant's sovereign dish, they're reluctant to depose it because it drives business. Chef Mike Johnson, of Café Mira, believes his spicy Thai calamari and rock shrimp is a draw. "People come in here knowing that they're going to get the calamari," he says. "Almost every table orders one."
How did the soufflés at Fio's La Fourchette become the restaurant's signature dessert? "Probably because they're so good," quips chef Fio Antognini. "Very few restaurants offer soufflés," he explains, "and we have 25 flavors that we rotate on the menu." Indeed, calls to eight French restaurants in St. Louis revealed that none had soufflés on the menu. A manager at Café de France, however, said that the chef would gladly make a soufflé for any customer who requested one. Soufflés are always on Fio's menu, and every year, in March, the restaurant has a month long soufflé festival. One day each week, three soufflés are featured as desserts or appetizers. Diners can order fruit flavors such as lime, banana and orange, sweet flavors such as chocolate-hazelnut, pistachio and caramel/white chocolate, and savory soufflés such as one laden with mushrooms, garlic and Gruyere cheese. Antognini even prepares a wild-game soufflé, made with venison, wild boar, pheasant, partridge and other game.
A soufflé is a persnickety concoction that insists on being whipped up at the last minute. When the lofty dome emerges from the oven, it is whisked off to the diner in its ramekin with the urgency of a donor organ being rushed to the OR in an Igloo cooler. Yet for all its fragility and capriciousness, this high-strung confection is -- like most time-honored dishes -- versatile and deceptively simple. It's made merely by folding whipped egg whites into a concentrated sauce, such as chocolate or lemon. Like crê pes and mousses, soufflés are classified as crossover dishes because they can be sweet or savory, with ingredients ranging from goat cheese to grapes. To vary a soufflé's texture, solid ingredients such as walnuts, cherries and peppers can be shrouded in its billowing mantle.
Chefs and shrewd home cooks appreciate soufflés for their theatrical presentation. When the pillowy column is set before the diner, it invariably elicits a startled gasp of delight from everyone at the table, followed by a collective swooning over the masterpiece. The waiter or dinner host can prolong this maudlin spectacle by making a show of cracking the soufflé's frangible shell and pouring warm sauce into the dark, quivering center. This ritual has a way of turning the fuddy-duddy soufflé into fribble: After all, what could be more mischievous than playing with your food? And the frothy soufflé tastes much like the soft, wobbly comfort food you were fed in nursery school. When the gauzy custard is spooned out of the dish, it glistens with satiny sauce. "The idea is to get equal amounts of sauce and soufflé in every bite," says Antognini. Many of his soufflés, such as the popular Grand Marnier soufflé, are served with what the menu describes as pastry cream, more correctly called crème anglaise (a simple, classic sauce of milk, eggs and sugar, with no flour to thicken it). But soufflés can be gussied up with other sauces. For example, Antognini's chocolate-raspberry soufflé is infused with both chocolate and raspberry sauces.
It's disappointing that so few St. Louis chefs include soufflés in their repertoires. Perhaps they think the confection is a relic of that fusty era when French food was codified, methodical and dreary. But then why would top New York tables like Lutèce, Le Cirque 2000 and TriBeCa have soufflés on their menus? Come on, give it a try. And if you want to see how it's done, go to Fio's.