The name of William King is not listed among the great ones of the earth. No monuments will ever be erected to his memory, for he was only a cook. Yet what a cook! In him blazed the fire of genius which, at the white heat of inspiration, drove him one day, in the old Bellevue, in Philadelphia, to combine bits of chicken, mushrooms, truffles, red and green peppers and cream in that delight-some mixture which ever after has been known as “Chicken à la King.”
New York Tribune, March 7, 1915.
I don’t often start my scribbles with an obituary. But this piece is about a death. A slow death at that. And not of Chef Bill King from Philly’s Bellevue Hotel. But of his magnificent creation.
I was thinking about some main dishes that had all but disappeared. Well the ones I dearly missed anyway. There were more than I thought. Beef Stroganoff, Coquilles St. Jacques, Spaghetti à la Caruso, Duck à l’Orange, Dover Sole Veronique, Clams Casino, and, most especially, Bill King’s contribution, Chicken à la King.
Most of those dishes you would only find in what my parents called posh restaurants, but Chicken à la King you would find everywhere. Not just at those posh (and often pretentious) places but at diners; in cafeterias; at the chrome and formica lunch counters at Kresge’s and Woolworth’s. And I liked just about everyone’s version of Chicken à la King. And I desperately wanted to taste it again.
There are almost always arguments about the origin of dishes and Chicken à la King is no different. Some credit Delmonico’s in New York, others Claridges in London. I like the William King version because it’s at least documented in print.
Exactly when Bill King invented Chicken à la King is also questionable. Fannie Farmer included two recipes for the dish in her 1896 version of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book but the glory years for the dish seemed to be the fifties, sixties and seventies. In the late seventies, in her book More Food That Really Schmecks, fellow Canadian foodie, Edna Staebler, nostagically writes, “When we were teenagers a party wasn’t a party unless we were served Chicken à la King. The girls always had two, the boys three. We were all skinny in those days.”
I guess I didn’t get invited to those parties. Maybe because I wasn’t even close to skinny in those days. And maybe that’s why I still have a nagging desire for Chicken à la King today and why I had to scratch that itch.
I didn’t even look for it on the restaurant menus of my second home, San Miguel de Allende. But in my first home, Toronto, there was hope.
There are 10,262 restaurants in Toronto according to Trip Advisor and one of the nice things about Trip Advisor is I could search the 339,732 Toronto comments to see if any of those reviewers mentioned my old fave.
“Your search returned 0 items.”
Me give up? Not yet.
I opened a new window to Google search and entered all the key words: Toronto, restaurant, chicken à la king (in quotation marks of course), menu.
“Your search returned approximately 44,200,000 items.”
I poured through the first 200 hits, the first 20 pages. There were a couple of closies but no cigar. Me give up? Of course I did. I’m lazy. I had to find another way to get my hit of Chicken à la King.
I considered a Knorr sauce or a box of Stouffer frozen. I’ve had good hollandaise and bearnaise from Knorr and a fine spinach souffle from Stouffer. But no.
I had to smooth-talk my personal chef into creating my long lost pleasure.
“Honey, did you like Chicken à la King?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Would you like to have it again.”
Maybe yes? Maybe no? Maybe consider making it?”
I brought home coral colored lilies the next day for Don Day’s Wife. Stage two in the seduction would be the emailing of a possible recipe. But which one?
I originally thought of keeping it basic. Like Kresge’s used to. Served by the ladies in their starchy whites on a slice of toasted white Wonder (helps build strong bodies 12 ways) bread. With a bit of celery in the sauce. But then I remembered how goopy that sauce was. Back to Google.
Kraft still has a recipe on their website with a sauce made of flour, milk, Miracle Whip and no chicken broth. No, thank you.
The recipe on Campbell’s site uses, you guessed it, a can of their cream of mushroom soup for their sauce. Even though I’ve been known to cheat with these cans before (always use 10% cream instead of the recommended milk), not this time.
Betty Crocker’s online recipe has lots of butter and a can of broth but the sauce still uses flour and milk.
I ended up emailing Don Day’s Wife a possible recipe from some publication I’d never heard of. I knew she was going to pretty much wing it anyway but it was a good way to remind her we had no dinner plans for Wednesday night. That and a little reinforcement on our reminder blackboard and it was confirmed I would soon be eating à la his majesty.
“Do you want it on toast?”, said Don Day’s Wife.
“I’m not sure”, I replied. “Maybe, but definitely not on supermarket sliced white. How about on pasta…penne or rotini?“
“Or I could put it in a vol-au-vent like they do in France when they make poulet à la reine,” said DDW.
“You can make a vol-au-vent?”, I exclaimed.
“You don’t make vol-au-vent”, replied DDW, “you buy it. Even some of the best pastry chefs don’t make their own.”
“Oh absolutely, definitely vol-au-vent”, I sighed.
I’m crazy about buttery, airy, puff pastries like phyllo and vol-au-vent (which I think translates as windblown), particularly when they’re served with something savory.
A quick trip to the market and Chicken à la King was on. But before I tell you how good it was, let me hand the iPad over to Don Day’s Wife so she can share her recipe (the words in brackets are my later additions).
Don Day’s Wife’s Chicken à la King
Total Time: 45 minutes
400 grams (1lb) boneless chicken thighs (In Toronto, we use Yorkshire Valley brand; in San Miguel, we buy them at the polleria on Collegio where they’re about one third the price). If you’re a white meat lover use a couple of breasts instead.
1 cup chicken broth (Don Day’s Wife used store-bought Campbell’s)
2 tablespoons dry sherry (DDW used Lustau Oloroso. Any brand will work)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons roasted red bell pepper, chopped
3 tablespoons (one large) jalapeño, chopped (Green pepper is used in most original recipes but DDW thinks they’re too bitter)
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
4 ounces mushrooms, sliced (DDW used cremini. White would be fine)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch of sweet smoked paprika
One tablespoon fresh tarragon (We have an overflowing pot in Toronto; if you’re like me and find it impossible to grow estragon in San Miguel de Allende, you may need to use a teaspoon of dry)
1/4 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup sour cream
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
A splash of truffled olive oil (Shaved truffles would be better but Don Day’s Wife says we can’t afford them; Olio Fino in San Miguel has some superb truffle oil)
For the moistest, most flavorful chicken, cook it sous vide, for one hour at 165 degrees (you could probably pick up a cooked chicken from a local rotisserie…even use leftovers from it…and skip this step). Cut into bite-size pieces.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring broth and sherry to a simmer.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a frypan over medium heat. Add oil, shallots, peppers, garlic and salt to the skillet and cook, stirring, until softened, about five minutes. Increase heat to medium-high, add mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about seven minutes.
Add chicken, paprika and tarragon and half of the chicken broth. Whisk the egg yolk into the sour cream and whipping cream. Slowly whisk in the remaining chicken broth, then add this mixture to the pan. Heat over low heat for about three more minutes to heat the chicken.
Pour into and over a vol-au-vent (Don Day’s Wife bought frozen Tenderflake brand ready for oven-baking. A piece of white toast may rekindle more memories).
Sprinkle parsley and truffle oil over the top.
OK, so how was it? How was my first Chicken à la King in about four decades?
I loved it*. It may have been the best Chicken à la King I had ever had in my life. But you’ll notice there was an asterisk on my first statement.
You see, this was the first Chicken à la King I’d had where the moist, full-of-flavor meat had been cooked sous vide. The first I’d ever had with the taste of those mycological miracles they call truffles. And, perhaps the first time I had ever had the dish in a puff pastry shell.
And I know very well that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Chicken à la King was like running into an old friend I hadn’t seen in forty years. Catching up was wonderful but, after a while, I realized we didn’t have that much in common anymore. My tastes had changed. I had changed. And though I cherished those brief moments we spent together, I wasn’t making any plans to get together again.
That being said, if your memories of Chicken à la King are as fond as mine, you should perhaps make its acquaintance again. Even if it’s for just one evening.
I started with a quotation and I’ll leave you with one. It comes from favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin (check out his The Tummy Trilogy). It’s actually a short little singalong ditty.
There’s nothing can defeat us
Whatever life may bring
‘Cause we can go and eat us
Some chicken à la king.