A few weeks ago, to kick off the 50th anniversary of the Taste section, we sifted through our archives and explored the history of wild rice soup. It’s probably Taste’s most-published recipe, with more than 60 iterations appearing over the years (find it online at startribune.com/taste).
The story generated a phone call — and a barrage of memories — from Keith Kersten. He’s now the CEO of Bushel Boy Farms in Owatonna, Minn. In the mid-1970s, he was a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, finishing his studies at the University of Minnesota and working for chef Willy Mueller and general manager Niels Tiedt at the Orion Room, the swanky restaurant at the top of the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis. That’s where the recipe originated, and where this chapter of the story begins.
“Willy was Swiss, and when he got here, he fell in love with wild rice,” recalled Kersten. “He had never seen it before. He made a pilaf with it, and it went on every dish, and it was delicious. Every night, he would make up two big roasting pans of wild rice, and he’d often have one left over, and that was an extremely expensive and wasteful thing to do. Back in 1974, it was $16 a pound. I remember that to this day. That’s the equivalent of $40 to $50 today. [Actually, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, it’s closer to $80.] Niels said that at that price, wild rice was ‘Minnesota truffles.’ ”
Yes, the recipe for wild rice soup was created out of economic necessity. And leftovers.
“Niels was saying, ‘He’s throwing all of this wild rice away, what are we going to do with this guy?’ ” said Kersten. “So I went in and I whipped up a wild rice soup. I took that [leftover] wild rice, I incorporated a béchamel, and then added ham, which brought it all together. Everyone loved it.”
Word obviously got around, because on Aug 28, 1974, a Minneapolis Star reader called upon the Taste section’s popular Restaurant Requests column, which tracked down chefs’ recipes and published them. Tiedt politely declined.
“This particular soup, although served in the Orion Restaurant, was created for the Tower Club, which is a private luncheon club,” wrote Tiedt. “We prefer to keep the recipe for our members and guests only.”
But Kersten recalls that there was more to it than that.
“I said I wasn’t interested in giving the secret ingredient,” he said. “Not because I didn’t want readers to know, but because I didn’t want Willy to know. I was young, and I was dumb, but I had a good clientele built up there, and I wasn’t going to give it up. That’s why we turned down the request to publish the recipe. Niels even put some pressure on, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be there for very long.”
He wasn’t. Shortly thereafter, Kersten took a job with Northwest Airlines, and relocated to Montana.
About a year later, the soup popped up again in the Restaurant Requests column. This time, the Orion Room obliged, and the recipe was published on Dec. 17, 1975. There’s just one hitch.
“It wasn’t my recipe; it was Willy’s,” said Kersten. “When I left the Orion Room, Willy did his own rendition of wild rice soup, and that’s the recipe that they shared with the newspaper. My mother cut it out of the Star and sent it to me, and I got a big kick out of seeing it.”
Four years passed. Kersten was back in Minneapolis on a family visit, and on a walk with his young daughter, he ran into supermarket owner Don Byerly.
“He was trimming his roses,” said Kersten. “He gave my daughter a rose, and a week later I was working for him.”
Byerly wanted to build a central kitchen to supply his growing chain of stores with freshly prepared foods, and he hired Kersten to make the project a reality. Guess who was a fan of that Orion Room wild rice soup?
“When he’d visit the restaurant, Don would ask for a couple of quarts — or whatever he could get — and then take the soup back to the Byerly’s kitchen, and they would try and figure it out,” said Kersten. “I remember going there and seeing what they were doing, and they were using things like artificial creamer and cream of mushroom soup. I got a big kick out of that. That’s when I said, ‘I have the recipe.’ ”
Frozen heat-and-serve wild rice soup was about to become a mainstream favorite, thanks to Kersten and the reach and influence of Byerly’s, which by 1980 was operating five busy locations.
Keeping a secret
Byerly sold majority ownership of his company in 1990 (and it was acquired by Lunds seven years later) and is retired and living in California. He isn’t sure of the exact date when the decision was made to get into the frozen wild rice soup business, although he recalls that the phenomenon started as a menu item at the stores’ restaurants.
“We had a lot of customers asking to buy soup by the pint or the quart, so they could take it home,” said Byerly. “Being a retail guy, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I think there’s an opportunity here.’ We always tried to provide something that people couldn’t get elsewhere. Keith took the soup, and he ran with it, and it was definitely something that people couldn’t get elsewhere.”
The production facility, one of the first of its kind in the country, opened in southeast Minneapolis in 1979.
“And we built the kitchen around that soup,” said Kersten. “Don had great forethought. The kitchen was supposed to be for fresh foods, but there were huge spikes in demand, and to keep the staff busy during slow periods, we added the line of what developed into 19 frozen soups, from chicken noodle to vegetable beef. The wild rice soup became a cornerstone of that kitchen, and then it became an institution.”
It sure did. A 1985 Taste story notes that the supermarket chain was posting annual sales of 40,000 gallons of wild rice soup. Byerly recalls that, at one time, Kersten was supplying frozen wild rice soup to supermarket chains in 11 states, making it one of Minnesota’s most endearing and enduring food exports (wild rice was adapted as the official state grain in 1977). The company eventually built a larger production facility in Lake Mills, Iowa.
“It’s still going strong today, and it was really built around that wild rice soup,” said Kersten.
Decades later, Kersten is no longer preparing wild rice soup.
“Why should I, when the Lunds & Byerlys version is so phenomenal?” he said, adding that he has an alternative. “I coat chicken breasts with seasoned flour, sauté them in butter, then throw in some mushrooms and brandy. Then I add three or four packages of Lunds & Byerlys wild rice soup, and bake it for two hours. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever had.”
Byerly was obviously a fan.
“Back then, I ate everything that was around, the richer, the better,” he said. “Since then, I’ve mended my ways. But yes, I loved it. I had it for lunch pretty much every day.”
By the way, that secret ingredient that Kersten refused to reveal, back in his Orion Room days? It’s staying that way.
“I’m not going to say what it is,” he said. “It belongs to Lunds & Byerlys. It’s their business.”