For some, soup is a light, enjoyable alternative when the thought of a multi-course affair can’t be stomached. For others, it’s nourishing comfort in a bowl. But regardless of how you look at it, soup is a leading mainstay on most Canadian menus. Today, fuelled by a bevy of reasons, soups are getting an update. Diners are now looking for full flavour, often in lighter or more nutrient-dense soups, punctuated by bright hits of herbs and spices, or aided by the reinterpretation of ethnic favourites. Sure, chances are you’ll still find a chicken noodle-style soup on the menu, but in some eateries, noodles might be replaced with matzo balls or homemade corn tortilla strips. Here’s how several of this country’s finest chefs, from high-dining venues to QSRs, are reinventing soups to satisfy their diners’ demands for quality and flavour with a dash of flair.
According to Jill Failla, associate editor of Consumer Research at Chicago-based Technomic Inc., the company’s MenuMonitor data indicates that soup is the leading appetizer option in Canada. Additionally, she says “Soup is often spotlighted as a rotating, seasonal starter option, with operators highlighting local, in-season ingredients.”
At Toronto’s Nota Bene restaurant, for example, executive chef/owner David Lee insists on just that. “We go with the seasons in terms of the ingredients that define the soups we make,” says Lee, adding,“Right now we’re doing a traditional chilled, farmer’s market gazpacho soup with crab toast, basil and olive oil as a starter ($12).” In cooler months that might change to a game broth of venison or hare, featuring mini tortellini stuffed with game meat and made in-house ($10 to $12).
Year-round, there’s always one seasonal, made-from-scratch soup on Nota Bene’s appetizer menu that ranges from $10 to $12 (for 12 ounces), unless specialty ingredients are added. In the summer, Lee might offer a chilled, sweet English pea soup, made with a pea base stock and topped with shaved Perigord black truffles from Australia ($16). When the temperature outside dips, he’ll make a traditional
matzo ball soup that might also get a garnish of truffle shavings ($13), a treat his diners appreciate. “My clients want good, quality food and the value has to be there for them,” he adds.
In Vancouver, contemporary Canadian fine-dining Hawksworth Restaurant and its neighbouring Bel Café appeal to what executive chef/owner David Hawksworth says is his guest’s desire for “seasonal soups that are constantly changing, showcasing lighter flavours, made fresh every day.” This past summer the Hawksworth menu included bowl of English peas, crispy brandade, licorice and onion flowers,over which a green garlic and Pacific halibut velouté is poured as its
feature soup ($18). Next door, at sister restaurant Bel Café, you’ll find a roasted tomato and Thai chili soup with cheddar gougère ($6.80). Hawksworth says clients generally want lighter fare in the summer,but if the west coast happens to be experiencing a chillier, soggier summer, a chicken-noodle soup spiced with jalepeño peppers may also find its way onto the menu.
EXOTIC FLAVOURS UP THE ANTE
Across the board, from quick-service restaurants to high-end eateries,chefs are using spices, chillies and culinary techniques from around the world to impart a big hit of flavour to the stock pot. Technomic’s Failla says “Ethnic-inspired soups are trending on menus, which frequently feature spicy ingredients. Soups and dishes described as “spicy” have increased eight per cent on Top 200 chain menus since 2014,” she explains.
At Earls Kitchen + Bar restaurants across Canada, for example, the use of “memorable flavour profiles” derived from ethnic-cooking techniques is what product development chef David Wong and his team are after. “Canadians have a great appreciation for the food of other cultures and they want to see that reflected in our dishes. We bring them comfort food that speaks to the soul,” says Wong.
There are always two soup choices on Earls’ menus. The restaurant’s fan favourite is the Thai Carrot Soup ($7.50, small). Wong describes it as “killer,” made with lemongrass, lime leaf, lime juice, coriander, cumin, ginger, coconut milk and carrots. “It’s not trying to be too out there; it’s just a warming, solid soup that works,” he says.
Asian-inflected soups resonate with Canadian diners — these soups in particular grew 9.7 per cent on Top 200 menus during the past year, says Failla, adding that Thai soups are especially on trend.
At The Chopped Leaf chain of quick-service restaurants across Canada, three chef-created, prepared daily soups are on offer, with one always featuring “ethnic blends” such as its bestselling Thai Curry. A large 12 oz. bowl sells for $6.50, while small six oz. bowls go for $4.50.
What’s important to note, says brand president Blair Stevens, is that big-city diners prefer stronger, spicier taste profiles such as the Thai Curry soup. Smaller markets opt for “homestyle” recipes that aren’t as flavourful or adventurous, such as the baked potato soup or the wild mushroom chowder.
Blair also says that The Chopped Leaf doesn’t offer any soups with meat. “The majority of our customer base is female and we’ve found over the past few years there’s less demand to add proteins to a salad or soup.” Given that 20 to 45 per cent of its market base is women 25 to 40 years old, the company is listening to its customers’ preferences. It also features vegan and gluten-free options such as its spicy sweet potato soup. All of its soups are made from scratch without preservatives or additives and start with a vegetable broth base.
At Quebec City’s Soupe & Cie, made “famous” by its Million Dollar Critic TV show win, soups are all about ethnic flavours. The seven-year-old restaurant, co-owned by Natasha Thériault and François Bouchard, offers comforting “meals in a bowl.” Thériault prides herself on going beyond basic soup to offer substantial, satisfying portions with inventive sides called “drapeaux” (flags). The Mexican soup, for example, (all soups $8.99 for 400ml bowl with an extra $2 for the side, or large 800ml bowl for $12) features chicken, stock made from fresh, grilled tomatoes, lime juice, chipotle peppers, avocados, sour cream, house-made fried tortilla strips, hard-boiled eggs and cilantro. The “drapeau” in this case consists of a bowl of corn tortilla chips and fresh guacamole.
“Our soups are unique and exclusive to us,” says Thériault, adding, “you won’t see them anywhere else. We make everything — from broths to sides — in-house daily, without using MSG or artificial ingredients. That’s part of what makes it special.” As one of 11 children whose parents made soups to stretch the family’s food budget,
Thériault intrinsically understands the cost-effective, nourishing power of soup.
She says that 85 to 90 per cent of her customers are women who bring in their male counterparts and end up “converting” them, she quips. Men grumble about going to Soupe & Cie and leaving hungry, “but once they come in, they change their tunes,” says Thériault. “We had a lady tell us her husband hadn’t eaten soup in 20 years. He ordered a bowl of Mexican and both left happy.” Her proudest moment might
have been hearing from a widower that his doctor told him to eat at the restaurant since the man doesn’t enjoy cooking and needs to eat nutrient dense foods. Doctor’s orders, he says, he enjoys following.
Given our cold climate, there’s always room for hearty soups, too. Failla says based on Technomic’s MenuMonitor, seafood including shrimp, crab, scallops and mussels, features largely in soups, often highlighting a restaurant’s commitment to sustainability.
“Cream-based soups are still popular and growing at leading chains — increasing 5.6 per cent over the past year on Top 200 menus,” she says. This explains the perennially popular seafood chowder. At Vancouver’s Bel Café you’ll find a West coast version highlighting smoked corn, Pacific seafood, Salt Spring Island
mussels and fresh herbs ($8.60). At Earls Kitchen & Bar restaurants, the most ordered soup is its Earls Clam Chowder. “It has an incredible following,” says Wong. The New England-style soup, made with clams, cream, chopped tomatoes, parsley and smoky bacon sells for $7.50 for a small bowl.
Interestingly, at Soupe & Cie, men in particular favour the Swiss Soup, which consists of a smoked ham broth, three cheeses, onions, pearl barley, fresh herbs and bread layered into a jar and broiled until bubbly. Thériault says even the gents have a hard time finishing this belly buster. She believes her soups are well received because global flavours are “exportable.” After its Million Dollar Critic win, the
humble eatery got flooded with offers to open around Canada and beyond. But money is not Thériault’s key concern. When it comes to Soup & Cie, it’s about retaining the “soul” of the place and the recipes. “Who knows,” she wonders, “It might be that soup becomes the fast food of of the future. It’s healthy, it’s quick, delicious and it brings people together.”
Written By: Mary Luz Mejia
Volume 48, Number 6