There is only one real soup man.
The original “soup man” of the International Soup Kitchen in Manhattan has spawned imitators galore. But Al Yeganeh, once parodied on “Seinfeld” as the “Soup Nazi,” is the real thing.
Soup, to Yeganeh, is “holy.” So wonderful is his soup that in the latest Zagat Survey of New York City restaurants, Yeganeh’s tiny takeout shop received a higher rating than the trendy Le Cirque 2000 - 27 out of a possible 30 points, to Le Cirque’s 25.
Against his will, he has become a celebrity.
Years before any of this happened, I had written about Yeganeh, saying that he was a misunderstood “artiste,” a sensitive soul. His medium was, and is, soup. He had long lines way before “Seinfeld.” Many (count me in) think he makes the best soup in the world.
Like his “Seinfeld” alter ego, he insists that customers follow a few simple rules to make the long line outside his place run smoothly: Have your money ready, place your order without dithering or commentary, move to the extreme left.
Once, a long time ago, I had asked Yeganeh what nationality he was. “I am international,” he said. Yeganeh does not suffer pushy people gladly, so I desisted.
A few days after the Zagat ratings came out, a hoarse voice burst out of my voice mail.
“This is Al Yeganeh, the Real Soup Man. I never called any reporter.”
He was “getting so many requests for interviews.” Some of them, he said, were from “trash media.” Yeganeh would, he said, talk to me.
I went to his home, hoping we could talk calmly. He was dressed in relaxed clothes and soft moccasins, but his nerves seemed raw.
He talked. I listened.
“The soup, it is my life,” he said. “I am the telephone man, the quality control, the chef, the counter man, the cashier.”
He works 21-hour days, he said, and sleeps three. On weekends, when the Soup Kitchen is closed, he allows himself an extra hour of sleep.
Dark circles under Yeganeh’s eyes bear this out. He is sleep-deprived and high-strung. He is his own worst critic, often speaking dismissively of a perfectly exquisite soup that is not up to his high standards.
When the Soup Kitchen closes each spring, from sometime in May until sometime in October, Yeganeh spends his long vacation searching out fabulous soup ingredients, some of which he imports from overseas.
His business acumen has earned him a listing in the International Who’s Who of Entrepreneurs, which he displays on a bookshelf.
From watching a video of Yeganeh at work, I can figure out only a few clues: he uses a French-made, high-speed mixer to blend ingredients in the pot, all his ingredients are chosen with great care, a squeeze of lemon adds verve to some soups and mustard seeds enliven some of his 200 or more varieties.
“Everything is old-fashioned, slow-cooking,” he said.
Yeganeh has been thrown off his stride by all the publicity. “Before ‘Seinfeld,”’ he said, “I concentrate, I do my work.” Now he gets impatient customers who are much more rude than he could ever be, in his view.
“They curse, they call the name the ‘Soup Nazi.’ I have a lot of intelligent, top-class customers, a lot of Jewish customers. That (name) is so hateful,” he railed. Youngsters, he said, hear grown-ups saying the “horrible” word and repeat it without knowing what it really means.
He demanded an apology from “Seinfeld” and got one in person from Jerry Seinfeld. Yeganeh asked for an on-air apology, however. He’s still waiting, with “Seinfeld” scheduled to leave the airwaves this spring.
New Yorkers, as the show suggested, will do anything to get the best soup in the world. But since “Seinfeld,” out-of-towners and curiosity seekers line up, too.
Those who try to engage the soupmeister in idle chitchat are unlikely to receive the extra gifts that make your soup ($6 and up) a complete meal: superb bread, a garnish of greens, gorgeous fruit and a chocolate.
To ensure the most delectable produce, Yeganeh deals with five fruit and vegetable companies. He personally checks every case of grapes. He insists on bread deliveries every hour, so the bread is as freshly baked as possible.
If customers heedless of the rules actually dare ask for bread, Yeganeh charges $2 or more for it. To get bread, do not ask; it’s as simple as that.
“My loyal customers,” as Yeganeh calls his regulars, are “trained,” he said, and know how to get everything. “We have a powerful mental connection,” he said.
If customers fail to move speedily to the left, he wordlessly gestures them over with a nod of his head and what detractors describe as a glare.
Worse, a customer who launches into a soliloquy about which soup to get may be ushered out of the line with Yeganeh’s, “Next!”
This may seem harsh, or extreme. But Yeganeh insists that when people wait as long as an hour for his soup, sometimes in snow or rain, they deserve to have the transaction go as quickly as possible. Speedy service is his way of being courteous.
The rules are for the benefit of his true, longtime customers. If Yeganeh is distracted, he said, he burns the soup or puts in the spices twice. “Is that fair?” he asked rhetorically, his voice rising.
On one television program, it was estimated that Yeganeh takes in $10,000 a day selling soup, but of course he has enormous expenses for fresh (never frozen) seafood and exotic ingredients.
Yeganeh has his price, and it is high. He has asked for thousands and even a million dollars for an interview. However, he said, he wants the money to be given to charity, and sometimes that part is cut out of the sound bites. No wonder he is distrustful.
Because St. Martin’s Press would not agree to Yeganeh’s demand that there be no mention of “Seinfeld” on the cover, he turned down a lucrative book deal. Another deal, to join forces with an imitative soup chain, fell through because the chain wanted Yeganeh to sign a contract saying it could freeze the soup. It was unthinkable. Yeganeh cuts no corners.
His costly ingredients pay off. “The customer comes back,” he said. “I know what I am doing.”
This is what he wants the world to know: “I am not mean.”
In fact, he can be kind. One elderly woman still gives him a dollar for soup, because she believes it costs 85 cents, as it did when the Soup Kitchen started 12 years ago. “Keep the change, Al,” she tells him. They are friends.
One fan, when asked if she minds that she doesn’t get service with a smile, said she didn’t care: “I just want the soup.”
This recipe is adapted from a turkey chili recipe that Yeganeh prepared on the “Late Show With David Letterman;” you could substitute turkey stock and one small turkey for the chicken. When you make it, you will understand why Yeganeh has to work as hard as he does and sleep as little as he does. But once you have all the ingredients on hand, it is not really difficult.
6 cups chicken stock or broth
1 small onion, cut in half
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 sticks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh oregano
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
2 whole chickens, about 3-1/2 pounds each, giblets removed
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large red onions, finely diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
3 medium-sized cooked potatoes, peeled and lightly mashed
3 tablespoons high-quality chili powder
3 tablespoons chipotle puree (see note)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3 cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
3 cups cooked kidney beans
1 green pepper, diced
1/2 fresh sweet red pepper, diced
1/2 fresh sweet yellow pepper, diced
1/4 cup red wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
3 cups finely diced cooked chicken (see above)
2 cups coarsely chopped fresh mustard greens
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)
Garnishes: fresh guacamole, low-fat sour cream mixed with yogurt, chopped scallion and cilantro, grated Cheddar cheese, thinly sliced red onion, chopped hard-boiled egg
Place stock or broth, onion, carrots, celery, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns and chickens in large stockpot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 1-1/2 hours, or until chicken is tender.
Remove chicken. When cool enough to handle, remove bones, discard skin, reserve meat and return bones to stockpot. Cover and continue cooking for another 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Strain stock and reserve.
Heat oil in a clean, large soup pot. Add onions and garlic, sauteing until onions are translucent. Add celery, carrot and potatoes. Sweat, covered, over medium heat for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.
Add chili powder, chipotle puree, cumin, paprika and cinnamon, cooking over low heat for 10 minutes and stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes, 6 cups of the stock, beans, peppers, wine, and cilantro and simmer for about 45 minutes. Add chicken, mustard greens, corn and vinegar. (There will be leftover chicken; add a little more if you like, or save it for another soup, such as chicken-dumpling or chicken-noodle. Leftover broth may also be saved for that purpose.) Cook for 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, Tabasco and lemon juice. Serve with 1 or 2 of the garnishes.
Yield: 8 servings.
Note: Chipotle puree may be made by pureeing canned chipotle peppers in a blender or food processor or by soaking dried chipotle peppers in water and pureeing them.