Puffed Up and Ready to Go
If you went out into the French Quarter and asked any random person what his or her favorite New Orleans food dish is, you'd probably hear some typical answers: gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and so forth. Every once in a while, however, you will have someone very enthusiastically tell you, "My favorite is pommes de terre soufflés." You might give him or her a look and say, "What are those, exactly?" and question why someone would be so excited talking about them.
Well, pommes de terre soufflés, also known as soufflé potatoes or potato puffs, are a type of fried potato that was created in France sometime during the 1800s. The exact origins of these potatoes have been theorized and disputed for a good number of years, but there is one specific story that has been accepted as the closest, or most popular, version of the truth.
According to Lisa Blount, PR and media manager at Antoine's Restaurant, French chef Jean-Louis-Francois Collinet, who was like the Emeril Lagasse or Martha Stewart of his day, first made soufflé potatoes completely by accident. The story goes that sometime during the 1830s, he was hired to fix a special dinner for the king of France, who most likely would have been King Louis Philippe I. The king and other royals were inaugurating the first steam-powered passenger train in France and were set to arrive where Collinet was to have dinner, which might have been at Le Pavillon Henri IV in Yvelines. There were watchmen stationed at the dinner location to tell Collinet when the king would arrive.
"So, what happened is that the watchman said, 'Yeah, hey. He's about to get on the train,'" Blount said. "So they came down to the party place and said, 'Ok, get cooking. He's on the train.' Well, then they found out that, actually, he didn't get on the train. His handlers said, 'That thing's going to blow up, you know. We don't trust it, so you're going to go the old-fashioned way.' And so, again, there are watch-out people, and they came back and said, 'Woah, pull back. He's now taking the slow road. It's going to be a bit more of a delay.'"
When told that, Collinet took out the thin-sliced potatoes that he was cooking in boiling oil and waited for when the king was getting closer to put them back in, thinking they would need to finish cooking. This decision did not turn out as planned.
"So, he took these essentially blanched-in-oil potatoes, and when he put them back into the oil, they puffed," Blount said. "And so that's how you get the puffy look of them and the name soufflé potatoes. So, essentially, a fancy french fry."
That's the generally accepted story of how soufflé potatoes were created, but how did they make it over to New Orleans? Blount explained that Antoine's founder and namesake, Antoine Alciatore, was the one who brought soufflé potatoes to New Orleans when he established the restaurant in 1840. She said that Alciatore, who was from Marseilles, had an apprenticeship with Collinet and started practicing with him when he was eight years old. She also said that Alciatore either could have observed or could have been helping Collinet prepare the king's dinner when the soufflé potatoes were produced.
"This is really truly a dish that we know was something Antoine brought from France," Blount said. "He had the skill set to make these potatoes."
When Alciatore arrived in New Orleans in 1840, he established the original Antoine's as a pension, or a boarding house were travelers could stay the night and have breakfast, lunch, and supper. Blount explained that even though menus didn't really exist back in the early 1800s, soufflé potatoes would very likely have been served in the early days of Antoine's because potatoes would have been easy to store without refrigeration.
"It's been here since the beginning," Blount said. "We think he really served it or a version of it since the beginning."
The process of making soufflé potatoes hasn't really changed much since they were first boiled in the 1830s. After thinly slicing a potato, you throw the slices into a pot of boiling oil. Once they've been blanched, the potatoes are taken out, left to cool, and then are thrown into a second pot of oil. Once the potatoes have puffed up, they are taken out again, lightly salted, and served with a traditional béarnaise sauce, which is made from clarified butter, egg yolks, white wine vinegar, and different herbs, like tarragon, chervil, and shallots.
For such a simple-sounding dish, Blount explained that making soufflé potatoes is actually pretty dangerous. She says that not only do you have to worry about the correct level of starch content in the potatoes, or else they won't puff up, but you also have to be careful of the high-temperature oil they're cooked in.
"They're a devil to make," Blount said. "You have to blanche them, and then you have to put them back in this almost 500-degree oil. That's hotter than the
Blount said that a special pot is needed to boil the potatoes. In order to keep the oil from flying out, the cooks at Antoine's use a pot that actually has a special top that was welded to it, acting as a shield to protect the cooks from the boiling oil.
"It's a really unique pot, and we've been using it for a long, long time," Blount said. "If you just used a regular pot with straight sides, you'd have so much splattering out the side of it that it would just be too dangerous."
Besides at Antoine's, you can also find hand-cut soufflé potatoes with their accompanying béarnaise sauce in New Orleans at Galatoire's at 209 Bourbon St. and Arnaud's at 813 Bienville St. No matter which place you get them from, if you order yourself a plate of soufflé potatoes, you'll get yourself something distinctly French, distinctly simple, and distinctly delicious.
"They're really a basic item, but I think that's what makes them so beautiful," Blount said.