The Mysterious Origins Of The Chef's Salad

A traditional chef's salad is a full meal in and of itself. Imagine a vibrant array of smoked ham, boiled chicken or turkey, hard-boiled eggs, tomato, and cucumber on a bed of shredded lettuce. By today's standards, it may not sound as healthy as some other leafy green salads, but in the 1940s, it was embraced as a light yet meaty option for ladies and gents alike, per Quaint Cooking. As simple and standard as the makings of a chef's salad appear, its origins remain a topic of heated debate among food historians.

After all, a combination as classic as ham, egg, and lettuce seems to be an invention of ancient times, rather than something from the last century. Food Timeline reveals that cultures have been putting meats and hard-boiled eggs on their lettuce salads for quite some time (like the French in the 17th century), so it's hard to pinpoint where this particular combination was birthed.

The chef's salad had its heyday in the '50s, but once fast food restaurants began serving their own version of the chef's salads, it lost its status as a refined meal, notes Quaint Cooking. Perhaps it's due to the simplicity of the chef's salad that no one knows for sure where it came from, or who invented it.

Was it Louis Diat or the British?

Some credit the invention of the chef's salad to Louis Diat of the Ritz Carlton hotel, whose chef's salad was supposedly the first to be served (the recipe is in Diat's Cooking a la Ritz from 1941). There is a theory that Diat was inspired by the very similar Cobb Salad. There's a written record of an earlier "chef's salad" by Edith Barber, whose recipe is completely different from Diat's popular version, according to Food Timeline.

But many food historians point to the British for inventing its predecessor, the Salmagundi Sallet, a 17th-century salad with a comparable composition of hard-boiled eggs, meats, and pickles (via Quaint Cooking). As shown in Taste, the Salmagundi contained a few extra ingredients that are missing in a typical chef's salad, like anchovies, prawns, olives, and celery.

Salmagundi is really anything you make it: it's a composed salad, made up of things that fill you up, like meats and fat. A chef's salad follows the model of this older salad, except it focuses on more common ingredients like cold-cut meats and iceberg lettuce.

A modern take on chef's salad is that you must have the basic ingredients of ham, boiled eggs, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce — but the rest is up to you. Just make sure you serve the salad composed like a work of art, with each ingredient on display, rather than a roughly tossed chopped salad.