Hail Caesar, But Hold the Chicken

—Michael Ruhlman

ROAD TRIP: When Michael Ruhlman (c.) and his TV show co-hosts Ming Tsai (l.) and Todd English (r.) hit Olives in Las Vegas, English served up a surprise.

CHICKEN RUN: It's not that there's too much chicken on full-service menus; Ruhlman wants it served with more imagination.

Does anyone know who first put cooked chicken breast on a Caesar salad and called it a Chicken Caesar? I wish I did. I've been upset about this for at least two years now because I remember railing to Todd English and Ming Tsai about it as we traveled together for an erstwhile cooking show.

"The Chicken Caesar is an emblem of the mediocrity of American cuisine!" I would cry. Ming would chuckle and turn up the volume on his iPod, and Todd more or less ignored me as a run-of-the-mill crank screaming into the nor'easter of American food culture. Or so I thought. Last week I had lunch at a Cheesecake Factory in Cleveland, and of course, there it was, Caesar Salad, two prices, one plain, the other with chicken.

You can run but you can't hide. But worse, this week I had lunch at what positions itself as one of the most upscale restaurants in the city, Table 45, and here, at a restaurant offering cutting edge cuisine, a place that has built a glassed-in chef's table looking into a swank kitchen, I found it in the most egregious form. The chicken Caesar "Bangkok Style." Don't even ask.

I never wanted actually to write about it, though, until I read a line from Barbara Kingsolver's recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's efforts to eat locally for a year. "No matter what else we do or believe, food remains at the center of every culture. Ours now runs on empty calories."

The first part of that statement resounds with truth and hope—those of us who love food understand it as a fundamental part of our humanity: that the gathering, preparing and sharing of our daily nourishment is the core of our days and who we are. It is at the very center of our culture. And our legacy, the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar Salad.

Why is it so annoying to me? It's not that meat on a salad is bad. I love meat with salads—tuna, chicken, and beef have rich salad histories throughout the world.

Every single laminated menu serving any kind of American or American hybrid food seems to include the Chicken Caesar (if it's Mexican, it will be a Chicken Caesar taco). Why? Two reasons, neither of them hopeful.

The Chicken Caesar is the default meal for America eating out. Don't know what to have? Have the Chicken Caesar. Everything else looks like crap? Have the Chicken Caesar. Hard to screw it up. The Chicken Caesar exists because everything else about American cuisine at the major chain restaurants is of relentlessly dubious quality. Greens are greens, the chicken breast meat has a timid taste profile, and I'll lay odds that the dressing you get at Ruby Tuesdays, T.G.I. Friday's, Cheesecake Factory, Applebee's—fill in the blank—comes out of the same jug. But the point is, we don't really care what it tastes like, only that it tastes like the last one we had, that it's consistent. McDonald's learned the effectiveness of that strategy early on.

But really, I cringe when I see the Chicken Caesar because it represents an embrace of the misinformed and unimaginative American diner, who for better or worse continues to shape our menus. I'll have a salad, the reasoning goes, because it's healthy (let's disregard what it's slathered with), and I'm hungry, so let's pile on some chicken breast, the skim milk of the protein world.

I'm not saying it's not healthy, that I don't like salad or that I think it would only be laudable were it a deep-fried pork belly Caesar (though I'd definitely give it a go if I ever saw that at a Cheesecake Factory—we could batter it and call it the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar!).

All I'm asking is for the corporate bodies that determine the menus of our mass market sitdown restaurants is that they consider a few more options beyond the mediocre Chicken Caesar. Put a little imagination into it.

It's an uphill battle, I know, and surely the corporate bodies know better than I do about the ordering patterns of the public they serve and the bottom line that feeds their salaries, but I didn't quite know what I was up against until I traveled with Ming and Todd, two well-known, well-regarded chefs, railing against the goddamn Chicken Caesar on the plane. We were just embarking on a four-city shoot, heading to Las Vegas, which in many ways is a triumph in terms of offering an enormous swath of America all but unlimited high-end, imaginative food, the likes of which is only available in New York in such concentration.

English has one of those restaurants, his flagship Olives, at the Bellagio. I've had some terrific meals there. On our final night in Vegas, he hosted a dinner for all the folks putting the show together. He ordered for the table and began the meal with a few signature pizzas. With glee, with guffawing laughter, he watched a server place one of those pies directly in front of me. It was Olives' Chicken Caesar pizza. I'll bet he can't take it off the menu.

Nor should he. The pizza was delicious.