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!

All was not happy at the Savoy, though, and he was eventually sacked by D’Oyly Carte after a very public row, to which the police were called. Ritz and Escoffier were (probably accurately) accused of misappropriating Savoy monies and using D’Oyly Catrte’s contacts to establish The Ritz Hotel Development Company. Once free of the contract at the Savoy, there was nothing to stop them setting up an independent hotel. Ritz established Escoffier, naturally, at the heart of his new Carlton hotel, to which he soon drew his previous clientele, away from the Savoy. The development of the Carlton allowed Escoffier to fully exploit the brigade system, and it became the first restaurateur to offer a full à la carte menu. By organising his kitchen into a production line, Escoffier could encourage diners to order what they liked from an extensive menu, yet still ensure the food arrived together.

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.

Lobster thermidor
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!

When I was putting together the menu for my dinner in celebration of Escoffier, I set myself the challenge of reflecting a few key factors. These were: creating a sense of luxury and of occasion; making use of all five mother sauces; creating new ice cream desserts and naming them after beautiful ladies, and using at least one modern dish to reflect Escoffier's continued influence. By including a couple of hot hors d'œuvres, I managed to use all five sauces and realised just how versatile this approach to mass catering is. Guests had been briefed to dress, if they could, with some nod in the direction of the Art Nouveau dining room at the Savoy - curves, flowing lines, floral designs and pastels. That same style was reflected in the layout of the table, with pale pink lilies and hand-made menu cards. We had a simple aperitif of Pineau des Charentes, then a five-course dinner and flight of wines. All but the last two dishes were taken from my battered copy of Ma Cuisine, including, of course the lobster thermidor. Dessert was a trio of ice-cream bombes: one made with coffee ice cream and apricot mousse, one made with pistachio ice cream and maraschino mousse, and one made with chocolate ice cream and raspberry mousse. We rounded off the meal with a savoury of pear & Roquefort, which I had taken from a Michel Roux Jr book but which could easily have been served a century earlier at the Carlton.


  1. Fascinating. What an amazing gentleman he was.

    1. Indeed he was. The idea of him over-ordering so he had spare food to give to the Little Sisters particularly pleases me.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment


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