A Love Letter to Escoffier
You can thank the original French chef for democratizing — and sanitizing — the art of professional cooking.
By Leslie Bilderback 07/01/2014
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Grandma was a terrible cook, so we were always thrilled to eat out. Despite my adult obsession with all things gastronomical, I didn’t start out with a discriminating palate. A night out meant dinner at Denny’s or Bob’s Big Boy. This was exciting for me, because every minute we were out meant one less minute I had to sit and watch The Perry Como Show or Lawrence Welk. (They never let me watch The Partridge Family. Grandma couldn't stand the music.)
My grandpa seemed satisfied with the culinary status quo although, upon reflection, I think he was a closet gourmand. His running gag was to ask the hostess to seat us in “The Escoffier Room.” I had no idea who Escoffier was in 1975, and I’m damn sure the hostesses didn’t either. But Grandpa did, which meant not only did he know what good food was, but he had given up hope of ever having it.
When I entered culinary school a decade later, our only textbook was Georges Auguste Escoffier’s 1901 masterpiece, Le Guide Culinaire. That book scared the hell out of me. It had no quantities or recipes, just brief explanations of complicated dishes written in a culinary code I didn’t understand. But soon enough I learned the code and gained an appreciation for the book and its revolutionary effect on professional cooking.
Before Escoffier’s influence took hold in the 1880s, professional cooking was gross, chaotic and thankless. Fine cookery had been regarded as an art for some time, but the work of an individual cook was not. A few chefs made names for themselves as owners and operators of restaurants, but on the whole, most cooks were resigned to grunt work. Elaborate dishes were highly garnished, often completely disguising the main ingredient. Each dish was created by separate teams, working in separate units on their own presentations, often duplicating tasks. Kitchens were hot, and cooks were allowed to smoke and drink on the job without restraint.
Recognizing that his profession was in crisis, Escoffier set new rules. He eliminated filth by establishing sanitation standards. He instituted the use of hats and neckerchiefs to keep hair and sweat off the food. Drinking, smoking and swearing were out of the question, and Escoffier hired a doctor to create an alcohol-free barley drink to keep his cooks hydrated and healthy.
Escoffier was the first to pay attention to his clientele’s taste habits and adapt his menu accordingly. This resulted not only in the à la carte menu, but a new focus on flavor. He respected the natural wholesomeness of food and preserved its nutritional value through the use of seasonal ingredients and limited cooking times. Escoffier classified the Mother Sauces, which gave chefs a template from which they could experiment with endless variation and creativity. He did away with frou-frou ornamentation and emphasized the main ingredient.
Haphazard kitchen organization was streamlined and station-based under Escoffier. Inspired by military management he witnessed during a stint in the army, “the brigade,” as it is still known today, altered not only the way professional kitchens functioned but raised the repute of the professional cook. While previously only chefs to the aristocracy were applauded, now even a saucier was considered respectable.
While Escoffier was at the helm of The Savoy in London (which he operated with his lifelong partner, Caesar Ritz), women could enter a public dining room without men for the first time. Before this, it was assumed that a woman dining alone was issuing an inappropriate invitation. Escoffier also celebrated women in new dishes created around popular female figures of the day, including Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba (Peach Melba, Melba Toast) and actress Sarah Bernhard (Fraises à la Sarah Bernhard).
Escoffier was the first chef to make his career entirely in the public realm. His forerunners made their names working for private clubs or nobility. But from his first apprenticeship to his collaboration with Ritz, Escoffier was in service to the public at large. His culinary aesthetic was focused on sales, which vastly differed from cuisine cooked merely to flaunt one’s status.
Future generations of culinary artists were influenced by the first à la carte cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire (my textbook). He also published the monthly magazine Le Carnet d’Epicure (A Gourmet’s Notebook), which brought him international fame, making him the first celebrity chef. More volumes followed, including Le Livre de Menus, L’Aide-Mémoire Culinaire, Le Riz, La Morue and Ma Cuisine. In 1985, Memories of My Life, a compilation of personal observations and philosophies, was published by his grandson.
His efforts resulted in a rapid increase in new restaurants around the world, and his focus on food safety sparked a trend in sanitary décor featuring white tile floors and walls to emphasize cleanliness. The public, now familiar with culinary sanitation, was easily swayed into action when Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was published in 1906. His novel about downtrodden immigrants in Chicago’s meatpacking district was a horrifying glimpse into slaughterhouse practices. The public reaction resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Food and Drug Administration. I’m not saying that Escoffier was responsible for modern food safety — except, actually, yes I am. The public expected cleanliness because of Escoffier’s initiatives.
All of these contributions were recognized by the French government when Escoffier became the first chef to be awarded the Legion of Honour. He succeeded in elevating the profession of cooking and made it more comfortable, enjoyable and creative.
Apparently, none of this was lost on my grandpa. His frequent invocation of Escoffier was, in retrospect I think, a snide jab at what public dining had become by the 1970s. He was one of the few family members who never questioned my career choice, and for that, too, I can thank Escoffier. I think Grandpa was relieved that somebody was finally rejecting Hamburger Helper and taking cooking seriously.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and author of Mug Cakes: 100 Speedy Microwave Treats to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth (St. Martin’s Press), lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.