Heroes (3/4) - Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935)
We all have heroes, people we admire and want to emulate, perhaps to impress. Some of them will be distant figures who may have lived generations before us, others will be members of our own family. All of them make us who we are. A few years ago, I gave a series of dinners in celebration of some of my culinary heroes. This series of posts explores the lives and influence of those people and recalls the atmosphere and style of each dinner.
My edition of Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine is dated 1991. I must have bought it for one of the first dinner parties I gave. I was living and working at Loyola Hall at the time, a Jesuit-run retreat centre in Merseyside, now, very sadly, closed. With my every basic need provided for, I had begun to feel the need to entertain. I had found that a stall on the local market would get me lobsters at a reasonable price and decided they should be served à la termidor. I’d never eaten lobster thermidor, and didn’t know what was in it, but I knew it had cachet. I needed to find out more, and turned to a name I’d heard regularly in connection with classy food – that of Auguste Escoffier. That at 22 years old, with little experience of fine dining or advanced cooking, I should turn to Escoffier is testimony to the power of that name and to the Chef’s enduring influence on British cuisine.
Georges Auguste Escoffier was born in October 1846 near Nice. He was the son of a blacksmith and showed an early talent for art. Despite this, his father took him out of school at the age of thirteen, and he was apprenticed to his uncle, who owned a small restaurant. At this time, eating out was a new phenomenon: people dined at home, and professional cooks worked only in inns, relais and palaces. Restaurant kitchens were small, airless and filled with smoke from the wood-fired stoves. Cooks drank wine, as water could be unreliable, which did not make for a good combination with sharp knives! Escoffier must have shown quite an aptitude for cooking, as he was soon taken on by an upcoming hotel in the city and, at 19, moved thence to a fashionable restaurant in Paris. However, he was called into military service a few months later and spent the next seven years as a military cook, including service as chef de cuisine for the French Rhine army during the Franco-Prussian War. His experience of military life has gifted us with several innovations that continue to benefit both restaurant and domestic chefs: the highly efficient “brigade” system of kitchen organisation (used even in McDonald’s), a keen sense of professional pride and the widespread use of canned and preserved foods.
Leaving the military, Escoffier opened his own restaurant in Cannes, where he encountered César Ritz (he of the fabulous cocktail). At the time, Ritz was managing the new Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, and he quickly appointed Escoffier to run the kitchens there. In 1884, the pair were recruited, along with maître d’hôtel Louis Echenard, by Richard D’Oyly Carte, to run his hotel at the Savoy in London. Escoffier set about transforming the kitchens as soon as he arrived, banning smoking and drinking and commissioning a French doctor to develop a barley drink, to relieve the thirst of the chefs. He introduced the tall hat and neckerchief to help deal with the heat of the kitchen and prevent sweat dripping into food. Most importantly, he brought a sense of calm and order to the kitchen. Memoires of the time describe him walking out of the kitchen when annoyed, to avoid shouting, then returning when calm to explain to the member of staff what had upset him. Colleagues called him “Papa,” due to his treating them like family. He was known to buy trousers for young chefs who couldn’t afford them, to promote a sense of pride in coming to work, and was keen to ensure the welfare of all staff. Later, when in 1912 members of his staff were lost on the Titanic (he had designed the menus and provided all the kitchen staff), he personally saw to it that their widows and children were properly provided for.
|The table ready for my Escoffier celebration dinner
Between them, Ritz and Escoffier made dining a social event. Restaurant dining in Britain hadn’t caught on much from France, and hotel dining rooms were still the place for travellers to eat. Respectable women, if they were in the hotel at all, ate in their rooms or at the homes of friends. Escoffier and Ritz turned the Savoy dining room into a gentler, more feminine place. Perhaps the Art Nouveau fashion for sinuous curves, floral designs and gentler colours helped. More significant, I think, was Escoffier’s friendship with the highly fashionable Lady de Grey and his reputed affair with Sarah Bernhardt. Both these women made a point of dining very publicly at the Savoy, often among female friends, and reports of their dinners found their way into the popular papers, usually with leaked details of the menus. Very soon, the Savoy became the place to eat, for couples, for groups of ladies, for anyone, and Escoffier started his signature tradition of naming new desserts after the ladies he met. Pêches Melba, fraises Sarah, crêpes Suzette and a list of 52 ice cream bombes and 38 coupes all bear witness to his nose for publicity!
Not long after, and possibly preparing for his retirement, Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, both a collection of recipes and a catering textbook. This set out in detail his approach to food. Despite his reputation for elaborate dinners, it is essentially very simple: every dish is built from several elements that can be pre-prepared and put together to order. His style modernises and simplifies that of Marc-Antoine Carême, half a century earlier. Instead of Carême’s four mother sauces, Escoffier uses five: sauce tomate, velouté, sauce espagnole, sauce béchamel and sauce à la mayonnaise. From these five sauces, with the addition of carefully chosen fresh ingredients, all of Escoffier’s famous savoury dishes can be created. Of course he loved foie gras and truffles, but he was equally at home with simple vegetables and salads. I was amused to discover that he worked with the Little Sisters of the Poor, donating dood that he deliberately over-ordered and thereby stretching the money paid by his super-rich clients a little further to ensure the destitute were also fed.
and the Art Nouveau menu card for our celebration dinner
Escoffier wrote all his menus in French, a practice that refuses to die out, even in a city as forward-looking as modern London. For Escoffier, the dishes simply sounded more appetising in his native tongue. For his clients, he was teaching them to appreciate food more seriously, leading them by the hand through the stages of a full dinner, from light hors d’œuvres, via soup and fish, to the plat de résistance and the final flourish of a visually spectacular dessert. As a Frenchman, he didn’t much care for finishing a meal with a savoury dish, but he notes in Ma Cuisine that it is something “of which English people are very fond.” Given that he goes on to list several in a work intended for publication in France, he can’t have objected too much!