Heads or Tails

Chefs around the country are reinventing traditional bouillabaisse in intriguing ways

Some argue that a classic should stay true while others believe such dishes are like jazz improvisation: open to interpretation and invention. 

The French staple bouillabaisse is one of the latest classics to receive that second treatment as chefs around the country are reinventing Marseille’s traditional fish boil in intriguing ways. They’re capitalizing on local, seasonal fish and produce to make bouillabaisse variations popular and profitable. 

START AT THE BEGINNING 

Before improvising, it’s always best to understand the origins of a dish. By definition, “bouillabaisse” means “to boil and to lower” or “to reduce by evaporation,” which is a key technique for a traditional bouillabaisse.

“It’s a fish boil, not a fish stew,” says cookbook author and food historian Clifford A. Wright. “The reason for that is the broth and the olive oil must emulsify, which can only happen through a vigorous boil.” 

Bouillabaisse’s base of flavors makes it unique among fish soups: a Mediterranean blend of saffron, olive oil, orange zest and anise liqueur. It features approximately three parts white fish to one part dark, oily fish. Restaurants usually add shellfish for the wow factor.

The fish boil is garnished with toasted bread slathered with rouille—a mayonnaise-like blend of bread, saffron, garlic, tomato paste and cayenne emulsified in egg yolk and oil.

Some restaurants also serve sliced cooked potatoes with the dish.

Tell Me A Story

Bouillabaisse is a dish known for its richness. Legend has it that Venus served bouillabaisse to her husband, Vulcan, “to lull him to sleep while she consorted with Mars,” says Clifford A. Wright, a food historian. The dish’s name first appeared in a dictionary from 1785, where it is described as “a fisherman’s term, a sort of ragout consisting of boiling some fish in seawater.”

The Global Melting Pot  

At Chiba, a modern Japanese restaurant in New Orleans, the Oak Street Bouillabaisse ($25) has been a top-selling entree (100 orders a week) since the restaurant opened nearly three years ago. The dish begins with onions and lemongrass sauteed in oil infused with tom yum chili paste (Thai herbs, chiles and galangal) and is heavy on local shellfish and fish, including crawfish, shrimp and grouper. The red miso shellfish broth is streaked with bok choy and served with rice.

“I just had a woman from the Loire Valley (in France) say it was the best bouillabaisse she’d ever had,” Chef-owner Keith Dusko says. “We’re very proud of it.”

In Chicago, Chef Mike Sheerin, formerly of Cicchetti, gives bouillabaisse the Italian treatment. His shareable bowl of Venetian Seafood Stew ($34) has been on the menu year-round, built on a foundation of brown butter, tomatoes, cinnamon and spicy-sweet pickled piquillo peppers. He adds onion, garlic and chili flakes, cooks it down and passes the base through a food mill.

“It’s still kind of chunky,” he says. “That’s the base of the actual dish. Up until we add the seafood, it’s vegetarian.”

Mussels, prawns, lobster and braised octopus are cooked to order before the ingredients are added to the thick broth. The rich soup is beefed up with fregola sarda (tiny pasta that resembles Israeli couscous). An herb salad of green onion, cilantro, mint and a little fried rice garnish the dish. Ciabatta is served on the side, holding true to the restaurant’s Venetian roots.

BACKYARD FISHING

The local sustainable fish movement has been a boon to chefs exploring the flavor possibilities of bouillabaisse. Leaning heavily on Gulf seafood like oysters, shrimp and black drum, as well as some mussels from Prince Edward Island, co-executive Chef-owner Rich Taylor of the Scarlet Rabbit in Round Rock, Texas, considers his Texas Bouillabaisse ($17) one of his signature dishes. He starts the soup with the “Cajun trinity” of onions, celery and green bell pepper, and builds upon the foundation with white wine, seafood stock and cayenne. 

“It’s a pretty simple dish, but it’s doing really well for us,” he says. After being open for just 14 days, the small restaurant was selling up to 75 orders of the dish per week.

Kinmont, a sustainable fish restaurant in Chicago, serves a Fisherman’s Stew ($45) that’s reminiscent of bouillabaisse. Chef Duncan Biddulph’s creation changes with the seasons.

In late fall, he builds the dish from a base of frozen heirloom tomatoes, fish bones, aromatics and anise liqueur. In the spring, diners will find peas, asparagus, green garlic puree and grilled green onions in their bowls of stew. 

Grilled Gulf prawns and, increasingly, farm-raised shrimp from Indiana appear in the dish, along with clams, mussels and firm-fleshed fish like halibut. It’s served with housemade country bread. With two quarts of broth and about three pounds of seafood per bowl, it’s meant to be shared. 

STOCK BROKERS

Fish and seafood, as chefs know, don’t come cheap. So, how are they turning a profit on bouillabaisse? 

Most restaurants serving a bouillabaisse variation make the broth ahead but prepare the bouillabaisse to order. At Cicchetti, portioning ensures each order gets a half a lobster, two prawns, eight mussels and one baby octopus. 

"It’s a dish that exists to cross-utilize other ingredients in the kitchen." 

-Chef-owner Rich Taylor of the Scarlet Rabbit

Taylor, of the Scarlet Rabbit, agrees. “It’s all about portioning,” he says. “We control exactly what the customer gets. We don’t ladle it out of the pot.”

Using local, seasonal fish and produce is another way to control costs on the dish, particularly utilizing scraps from cutting fillets. And fish bones never go to waste when they can be used to flavor stock. 

“We’re capitalizing on something we’re already selling,” Biddulph says. “It’s a dish that exists to cross-utilize other ingredients in the kitchen. We’re preventing waste and not purchasing anything additional for the dish.” 

Heather Lalley is a Chicago-based writer and classically trained chef.

Re-Inventing Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse-inspired dishes are hitting menus around the country—often in surprising forms:

Rabbit in Flavors of Bouillabaisse 
(saffron ravioli with rack of rabbit, turnips, carrots, leeks, tomatoes and rouille), $55 as part of a two-course dinner, Batard, New York 

Bouillabaise de Mariscos Espanol 
(Spanish seafood soup with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, scallops and seasonal fish), $28, Galvez, New Orleans

Seafood Stew 
(mussels, lobster, shrimp, calamari, white fish and chorizo), $30, Ward 8 in Boston

New England-Style Bouillabaisse 
(oven-roasted cod, shrimp, crab, clams and new potatoes), $30, Adelene, Ocean City, New Jersey