I dislike the concept of a signature dish. That said, mine came to life on a cold and miserable winter day in 2012. I was recently divorced and living in a basement apartment way too small for a single dad and two little girls, so I took them to a McDonald’s that had a playground area. I bought the kids a soft serve cone, and my oldest daughter, Talia, asked if they could have some French fries to dip into the ice cream cone.
I gave my daughter a strange look, but as I sat with them and I started to consider the pairing more earnestly, I became less skeptical and tried it myself. The sweet and salty juxtaposition against the hot and cold was like a party on my palate. Little did this living-in-a-fine-dining-bubble chef know that this has long been a classic combination, most notably at Wendy’s and colloquially known as French Fries and Frosty.
My culinary instincts kicked in: Why not turn that into a dish at my Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant, EL Ideas?
Our first rendition of the course featured a crispy potato tuile that was filled with a mashed potato ice cream in the style of a cannoli. This was then placed atop some stewed leeks and served with a hot potato-leek soup all around. All of the elements were there: hot and creamy soup, cold ice cream, and a crunchy and salty potato tuile. Most of my dishes take a lot of tweaking, but the way I served it the first day never changed. The response was overwhelming, and it obviously had tremendous sentimental value, both for myself and for the diners.
Our menu had always changed with great frequency, but this stayed on for over two years. Then one day while getting ready for a double service, I was having trouble with the laborious process of making the potato tuiles. I had forgotten to grease the molds, and they were breaking up all around me. I broke down like a little schoolboy and threw an absurd tantrum, smashing all of the tuiles into little pieces with my fists. I then threw the entire tray onto the floor, and shouted that we were all done with the dish. It was removed from the menu that night, and I swore it off.
As much of a pain in the ass it was to serve it, the novelty of that dish beckoned. I wanted to incorporate the same flavors and textural elements, but in a bolder way. By the time we were back to work after our weekend, inspiration had struck—it was lightning in a milkshake glass.
Gone was the intricate potato tuile; in its place was a technique popularized by chef Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, who perfected the French fried potato by frying it three times. It created a shatteringly crisp exterior, which was essential to the experience of the dish, as those potatoes sat inside of a hot potato leek soup without growing soggy.
Next, the real magic began. Vanilla whipped cream was dispensed from a nitrous oxide canister into liquid nitrogen.
Once the cream hit the nitro (-321 degrees!), it froze instantly and floated to the top of the vessel. To the delight of our diners hanging out with us in the kitchen, one can even remove huge boulders of nitro frozen whipped cream, which look like an alien’s skull.
At that point, the cream, still frozen solid, was broken into tiny pieces with the back of a slotted spoon. If you put a piece in your mouth, due to the extreme temperature difference between your body and the ultra-frozen ice cream, steam would shoot out your nose like you were a fire-breathing dragon.
To finish the dish, the hot potato leek soup is poured atop the potatoes, and the nitro frozen ice cream is spooned over the top. When the dish arrives at the the table, everyone’s instructed to take their spoon and dip it straight to the bottom of the glass. Because of the extreme difference in temperature between the very hot soup and the deep-freeze on the ice cream, an incredible amount of “smoke” billows from the glass, accompanied by a fajita-like cracking noise to fill the room.
The new version was much less work for myself and the kitchen, its hot-and-cold contrast even more pronounced, and it was embraced by guests even more than the one before.
That course may have been the last variation we ever served, were it not for the current pandemic. We’re selling takeaway meal kits at EL Ideas right now, and I’ve developed a new, easy make-at-home version of French fries and Frosty for those of you unfortunate folks unable to get your hands on liquid nitrogen. In this take, crunchy matchstick potatoes sit atop a potato and leek mash; the hot potato leek soup is poured all around, and the ice cream is served over the top. Now that we’re in curbside takeout mode, a portion of this revamped version comes as part of our newly introduced three-course menu.
This course means so much to me that I broke down in tears and struggled mightily to catch my breath to describe it to the room during our last service before we were mandated to close.
Great food tastes much better if seasoned with a good story, and the narrative of French fries and Frosty conjures nostalgic memories for many. For myself, holding onto a semblance of normalcy when all else is falling apart can’t be understated. And even though this isn’t the way I prefer to serve it, the spirit of the experience—whichever version—is one that I am very proud to have created and will continue to serve. Most of all, it’s an everlasting connection between myself and my kids.
There are four components to this dish: the hot soup, the potato-and-leek mash, the crispy potatoes, and the cold ice cream. Let’s take this one step at a time.
Potato Leek Soup
- 10 oz. Russet potato, peeled, washed, and cut into a large dice
- 10 oz. leeks, washed and white parts only, thinly sliced
- 1/2 stick (2 oz.) unsalted butter
- 1 qt. water
- 1 qt. whole milk
- 1 pint heavy cream
In a non-reactive soup pot, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add leeks and season with salt to begin the sweating process. Increase heat to high and add the potatoes and water. Bring to a boil and lower heat to maintain a soft boil. Once the potatoes are fork tender, add the cream and milk and return to a boil. Remove from the heat and puree in a blender. Season with salt to taste and keep hot.
Potato & Leek Mash
- 1 Russet potato
- 1 leek
- 1/4 stick (1 oz.) unsalted butter
Peel the potato and cut into large chunks. Wash well with cold water, place in a pot, and cover with cold water at 1-2 inches above the potato. Bring to boil and lower heat to a strong simmer. While the potatoes are cooking, wash and cut the leek into a medium dice. Place in a saute pan, cover with a bit of cold water, add the butter and a small amount of salt. Cook over high heat until the water is completely cooked out. Once the potatoes are fork tender, strain through a colander, and allow the potatoes to rest for 1-2 minutes to allow excess steam to escape. Pass through a food mill and combine with the leeks. Adjust seasoning with salt and keep warm.
- 1 qt. heavy cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
- 3 grams xanthan gum
Combine all ingredients except xanathan gum into a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Strain off the vanilla beans through a fine meshed sieve, and cool in an ice bath. Once cool, place in a blender and sheer in the xanathan gum on high speed. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer specifications and keep frozen. Alternative: Buy a pint of ice cream.
- 1 Russet potato
- Vegetable oil
In a Dutch oven, heat at least 2" of fryer oil to 315 degrees Fahrenheit. Peel the potatoes and process on a Japanese mandoline equipped with the julienne cutter. Cut the potatoes into matchstick size, and soak thoroughly in cold running water to release all the starches from the potatoes. Strain from the water and pat dry on paper towels. Fry a small amount at a time in the hot oil, agitating frequently with a spoon to prevent the potatoes from clumping together. Once the potatoes are golden brown, remove onto a tray lined with paper towels, then season with salt and reserve at room temperature.
Place the potato-leek mash in the center of a warmed bowl and place the matchstick potatoes in a generous pile atop the mash. Pour the hot soup around the matchstick potatoes (not on top of them) and scoop the ice cream on top of the matchstick potatoes. Serve immediately.