Several theories have it that the dish is named after a New York "King." Some say that the dish is named after E. Clark King, a New York hotel proprietor. Others claim that Foxhall P. Keene, the son of Wall Street broker James R. Keene, suggested the dish while fashionably dining at Delmonico's, and that "chicken a la Keene" somehow became "chicken a la King."
The dish most probably comes from William King of Philadelphia (see below). There is no doubt, however, that New York hotels helped popularize it.
14 December 1893, New York Times, pg. 3:
The alumni of Princeton College gave a dinner to the football team to-night at the Princeton Inn. (...) Among the dishes were the following: Green turtle a la Capitaine Trenchard, chicken a la King, tenderloin of "beef" a la Wheeler, diamond-back terrapin a la Balliet, plum pudding "holly" Lance.
3 February 1905, Washington (DC) Times, pg. 7, col. 1:
One of the favorite luncheon dishes now being served is chicken a la king. It is delicious, and attractive to look upon as well. This is the way it is made: Cut into small dice the white meat of a cold roast chicken. Make a sauce poulette as follows: Put two tablespoonfuls of butter in a saucepan over the fire. When the butter melts stir in two heaping tablespoonfuls of flour which has been sifted twice. When the flour and butter are blended to a cream pour in slowly, and a little at a time, a pint of hot milk, stirring constantly to keep from lumping. Let the sauce just boil up once; then add a teaspoonful of grated onion, a saltspoonful of salt, and the yolks of two raw eggs. Stir them briskly through the sauce; then add two truffles and two mushrooms cut in small pieces and fried lightly in butter, one sweet green pepper cut in shreds and the seeds removed, and a generous tablespoonful of capers chopped rather fine, and just a suggestion of grated nutmeg. Last of all, add the cold chicken, stir the whole together, let it cook one minute, and serve on a deep platter garnished with diamond-shaped croutons.
27 February 1905, Baltimore (MD) Sun, pg. 9:
SOME GOOD THINGS TO EAT.
Chicken A La King" As It Is Served At The Waldorf.
One of the favorite luncheon dishes now being served in the Waldorf-Astoria is chicken a la king.
24 December 1906, Massillon (Ohio) Independent, pg. 2:
Pg. 2, col. 3:
CHICKEN A LA KING.
Recipe From One of New York's Big Popular Hotels.
A favorite dish served in one of the big popular hotels of New York is chicken a la king. The recipe, as given by the chef of the fashionable establishment, is as follows: Cut into small pieces the white meat of a cold roast chicken. Make a sauce with two tablespoonfuls of butter in a saucepan over the fire. When the butter melts stir in two heaping tablespoonfuls of flour which has been well sifted. When the flour and butter are mixed to a cream pour in slowly a pint of hot milk, stirring constantly to keep from lumping. Allow the sauce to boil up once, then add a teaspoonful of grated onion, a teaspoonful of salt and the yolks of two eggs. Stir them briskly through the sauce, add two truffles and two mushrooms cut in small pieces and fried lightly in butter, one sweet green pepper cut in shreds after seeds have been removed and a generous tablespoonful of capers chopped and just a suggestion of grated nutmeg. Last of all, add the chicken, stir all together and allow it to cook a minute. Chicken a la king is usually served in a chafing dish -- New York Post.
14 July 1911, Los Angeles Times, pg. II5 ad:
Minced Chicken a la King, 35c.
21 September 1911, Washington Post, pg. 3 ad:
A good sherry to use to give the right flavor to lobster a la newberg, crab meat a la Maryland, and chicken a la king.
TO-KALON WINE CO.
5 March 1915, New York Tribune, pg. 9, col. 5:
"CHICKEN A LA KING"
An Obscure Cook Made Famous
by Compunding Well
Philadelphia, March 4. -- A final tribute to the man who invented what is now the most famous bit of cookery in the world is being paid to-day by Philadelphia hotel men, who are collecting a purse for his widow and two small sons. The man whose culinary achievement the hotel men honor was William King. He died to-day at his home here.
"Chicken a la King" is the name of the dish that has entranced the
world's epicureans, and, like all good things, it is simple. At the request of a waiter at the old Bellevue Hotel King compounded the dish one day twenty years ago. At that time he was an ordinary assistant cook in the kitchen of the hostelry that later was succeeded by the Bellevue-Stratford.
A patron with a jaded palate had been grumbling, and the waiter asked King to prepare some dish that would please the man. King cut the white meat of chicken into small cubes. He added fresh mushrooms, cut in the same way, truffles, red and green peppers, and cooked the mixture in cream. The patron ate it lingeringly and lovingly, as one who knew that he had met with a masterpiece, and then wanted to know who invented the dish.
"'Bill' King," said the waiter; "he works in the kitchen."
"Chicken a la King," said the patron; and so was the dish christened.
7 March 1915, New York Tribune, part five (Sunday editorials), pg. 8, cols. 1-2:
Chicken a la King.
The name of William King is not listed among the great ones of the
earth. No monuments will ever be erected to his memory, for he was only a cook. Yet what a cook! In him blazed the fire of genius which, at the white heat of inspiration, drove him one day, in the old Bellevue, in Philadelphia, to combine bits of chicken, mushrooms, truffles, red and green peppers and cream in that delight-some mixture which ever after has been known as "Chicken a la King."
That was many a year ago. Since then that toothsome morsel has pleased palates all round the world. King the man went the way of many another genius to his grave, and some of his old acquaintances have undertaken to look after his widow and children. Nevertheless, his work lives after him.
To adopt the sentiments of a purveyor of good things who is also a
philosopher, "For happiness of man he doeth more by far who maketh a new dish than he who finds a star!"
14 March 1915, Washington Post, pg. M4:
A NAME ON ALL MEN'S TONGUES.
The inventor of chicken a la King is dead. If Macadam is immortalized by a type of roadway, and Lord Raglan by a garment, and Sir Robert Peel by the "bobbies" and "peelers," why should not William King, of Philadelphia, go down to fame upon the palatable, savory concoction of fowl and muchrooms (sic), truffles and red peppers smothered in cream that wears his name?