A chef salad is an American composed salad that is essentially a complete meal in itself. The idea behind the name, reputedly, is that this is the kind of quick meal a chef might make for her / himself when s/he had a 10 minute break.
The salad has no fixed ingredients, just generalities: salad greens, sliced or chopped vegetables, pieces of meat (one kind or mixed), hard-boiled egg (sliced or halved), and a garnish of cheese (pieces or grated.) There will also be a salad dressing of some kind.
Chef salad now has a bad reputation for being made with iceberg lettuce, rubbery American cheese, boiled eggs that have gone black inside, and for being served in wooden restaurant salad bowls that have been through dishwashers one time too many.
It is also less popular because with its ingredients, it was like a mini trip to a salad bar all in itself — but now it has been muscled out by full-fledged salad bars.
What people expected a chef salad to be evolved over time. Many early recipes contained watercress and anchovies; most called for French dressing. Hard-boiled eggs seem to have been there since the earliest days; power-dosing on the protein — with the addition of cheese and meat — may have only occurred after the depression when such a luxury became affordable (though we have one 1939 recipe which calls for a bit of cheese.)
Some say Chef Salad originated with a Louis Diat, chef of the Ritz Carleton in New York City during the 1940s; others say it originated with a Victor Seydoux sometime in the 1930s or 1940s.
However, mentions of it in print go well before either. The first mention of it we have is from 1928; the first description of what it is, from 1931.
“The ten recipes to be given on Tuesday will be practical for home cooking and can. be prepared in any kitchen. They will include German Pancake, Eggs Florentine, Chicken en Casserole, Spaghetti Gibson, Tomato Omelette, Chicken Noodle Soup, Chef Salad, Veal Steak Schmidt, Crazy Quilt Sandwich, and a desert called Macaroon Omelette. “The Chef Salad is one that famous European chefs first mixed for themselves and then decided to pass on to their patrons,” Chef Schmidt said. ” — Chef to Reveal Cooking Method. Lima, Ohio: The Lima News. 28 October 1928. Page 17. [Ed. The chef in question was Fred K. Schmidt, chef of the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati.]
“In planning club refreshments for the holidays, Nancy and Lois used ingenuity. They said, “Guests will surfeited with sweet things. Why do we have to serve ice creams and sweet salads with candles and rich, hot chocolate? Let’s think of some menus that have zest and tang.” Here are a few they worked out: Chef salad, toasted scones, hot mince meat turnovers, cheese and coffee…. The chef salad was a favorite in any town where fresh vegetables could be procured in the market in the winter time. Nancy used large amounts of shredded lettuce, tomatoes peeled and cut into sixths, sliced cucumbers, sliced radishes, slivers of green peppers, wafer thin rings of mild onion, slices of hard cooked eggs. She tossed these all together in the bowl and then dressed the salad with a modified French dressing flavored with garlic, just flavored, and that was all.” — Nancy Page column. Chef Salad Can Be Made By Woman Cooks Too. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse Herald. 24 December 1931. Page 8.
“Crabmeat Cocktail, Grilled Fresh Whitefish with Anchovy Filet, Creamed Potatoes and Chef Salad for $1.50” — Advertisement in Marshall Evening Chronicle. Marshall, Michigan. 3 May 1932. Page 6.
[From: Salad For The Men. Frederick News-Post. Frederick, Maryland. 2 June 1939. Page 10.]
1/2 small head lettuce, broken in pieces
1/2 bunch water cress
1/4 cucumber, sliced thin
10 radishes, sliced thin
1/4 cup diced celery
2 chopped hard cooked eggs
Few spring [Ed: sprig?] chickory [sic]
1 dozen rolled anchovy filets.
Few strips of thinly sliced Swiss or American cheese
Rub a salad bowl with garlic. Put all the ingredients into the bowl . Pour over just enough French dressing to coat the salad greens. Toss lightly with a wooden spoon and fork until well mixed.
[Salads. Properly Made They Enhance All Other Dishes In Meal. Fresno, California: Fresno Bee. 19 September 1939. Page 21.]
4 green onions.
2 hearts celery.
2 hard cooked eggs.
Shred all ingredients and chill. When ready to serve mix vegetables, diced eggs and anchovies and slowly add the French dressing, toss the salad lightly with a fork and spoon to mix well. Serve in a salad bowl garnished with radish roses and water cress.