Escoffier – What’s so great about him?
Many of you may be familiar with the great (now defunct) French chef named : “Auguste Escoffier” often referred to as the father of French cooking. but what you are perhaps less familiar with is the reason why Escoffier is quite so highly regarded, and just how influential he was to the world of cooking and catering.
Stuart Scholes one of the channel subscribers and supporter has kindly written the article below to shed some light on the matter and provide us with an insight on what Escoffier brought to the world of cooking.
Escoffier – A brief biography
Born 1846, Georges-Auguste Escoffier started his apprenticeship at thirteen in his uncle’s restaurant in Nice. During the next few years he worked his way up the restaurant hierarchy, and by the time he was nineteen he was was offered a position at Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris.
Shortly after however, he was called up for military service, and he was thus engaged for the next seven years. During this time he continued his association with catering, becoming chef de cuisine for the Rhine Army, and pursuing an interest in the preservation of food, particularly the process of canning.
By 1878, he had completed his time in the army and was ready to open his first restaurant, Le Faisan D’Or in Cannes, which he managed for two years. In 1884, he moved to Monte Carlo to take control of the kitchen of the newly opened Grand Hotel, managed by César Ritz (yes, THAT Ritz). Over the next few years he was employed to manage the kitchens of numerous prestigious hotels, namely The Savoy, The Ritz in Paris and The Carlton.
He wrote many books, including multiple revisions of his most famous work, the afore-mentioned Guide Culinaire. He listed among his recipes many dishes which many will be familiar with, including Peach Melba, Melba Toast and Tournedos Rossini.
He died in 1935, back in Monte Carlo, at the age of 89.
Escoffier’s influence on catering culture
At the time Escoffier began working in the kitchens, high level cookery was restricted to the royalty and nobility of society, with chefs being employed for the purpose of catering to such ones or for private clubs. When catering for the establishments, set menus would have been the order of the day, as chefs created grand and perhaps overly lavish meals. Such meals would have included not only a gratuitous excess of ingredients and quantity, but also rich sauces and elaborate garnishes that detracted from or disguised the main ingredients of the dish.
The kitchens were a stressful and dangerous place to work. Cooks worked frantically in small windowless rooms, filled with fire and wood smoke. In order to stay hydrated they drank wine copiously, with the result that organisation was poor and haphazard, safety was all but non-existent, and the kitchen was filled with shouting, swearing and general mayhem.
As a side note, when it came to the idea of dining out, the concept of the ‘ordinary man’ being able to take his wife or girlfriend ‘out for a meal’ was unheard of, as it was illegal for women to dine out in public.
Escoffier set out to change all of this. He championed the use of a special malted drink that allowed the cooks to stay both hydrated and sober, one of the results being a much calmer, quieter atmosphere to work in. He organised his kitchens into clearly ordered sections, with each section being responsible for specific elements. By organising in this way, his kitchens could reportedly deliver up to 500 high-class plates of food in an hour.
Perhaps his most visible contribution is in the way we enjoy food at restaurants today. He lobbied for women to be allowed to dine in public and did much of the groundwork in promoting the idea that it was something ‘trendy’ for couples to decide to go out for a meal together. When dining together at an establishment run by Escoffier, such couples could choose what to eat from a list of prospective dishes using an ‘a la carte’ (according to the menu) approach, as opposed to being told what they would be eating from a set menu.
Escoffier’s approach to high class food was to simplify it, getting rid of the elaborate garnishes and rich sauces that detracted from the aesthetics and flavours of the dish. He engendered a culture of respect for food and ingredients within his subordinates, teaching them to constantly work to better themselves, and to utilise seasonal ingredients, rather than unnecessarily adding exotic items for show.
He worked hard to find ways to preserve the nutrients in the food when cooking, and remained keenly interested in the preservation of ingredients themselves, being instrumental in the first commercial canning of tomatoes, and in creating both bottled soups and dried stocks. In addition, he was highly involved in developing the cultivated mushroom industry.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Escoffier felt strongly that the knowledge of high level cuisine should be accessible to the ‘ordinary man’, and to that end he worked hard to prepare Le Guide Culinaire. In the foreword to his first edition, Escoffier clearly states that he wants the book to be ‘within reach of most people’s pockets, especially for those with limited means’.
All of this was radical, but the majority of this relates to the cooking scene a century ago. This therefore raises the question, what relevance does his work have for us today?
Escoffier’s modern day influence
Escoffier has left a powerful legacy on the way we look at and enjoy food today. As previously noted, any time we use canned food, or add commercially produced stock (either in solid or liquid form), we are taking advantage of processes which he was among the first to experiment with and perfect.
The fact that men and women are able to go out for a meal together and choose what to eat from a menu is also directly as a result of Escoffier’s influence. It may well be that even the desire to do so stems from Escoffier’s work to advertise and promote the concept in the first place.
The type of food we enjoy when we dine out is strongly influenced by the principles set out in Le Guide Culinaire. Generally we are presented with food which is based around a few simple ingredients which are expertly prepared. Usually the complicated elements are not the food itself, but the preparation processes involved, thus highlighting Escoffier’s approach to food preparation.
In addition, because of his principles of organisation, establishments, from fast-food through to high end, are able to provide a consistent dining experience to their customers, rapidly, safely and at the same time maintaining at least reasonable working practices and conditions for the workers that provide such services.
One final interesting point to note is that Escoffier produced a recipe for veal stock, which he added to dishes to give ‘deliciousness’. This is now more accurately defined as ‘natural msg (monosodium glutamate)’. This property has been harnessed by fast food companies, including McDonalds, who at various stages and in various forms have utilised the concept of adding natural msg (obtained from beef) to add the same ‘deliciousness’ to their products, such as french fries and hash browns.
Although no saint (Escoffier had his ups and downs like the rest of us) it’s hard to disagree that Escoffier worked extremely hard in his industry, raising standards for both his workers and his clientèle. His legacy continues to shape how society thinks about food and how modern chefs create dishes in a way that probably no-one ever has before nor will again.
Escoffier – What’s so great about him?” Courtesy of Stuart Scholes.