Auguste Escoffier – Father of French Cuisine
If you love the classics of French cuisine, you know Escoffier even if you’ve never heard his name. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Escoffier redefined and modernized traditional French cooking, kick-starting a revolution in the culinary arts. Although some of his cook books are over 100 years old, they are still considered the authoritative works of French cuisine. Escoffier is variously referred to as le roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois (‘the king of chefs and chef of kings”), or as the Emperor of Chefs. Kaiser Wilhelm II once told him, after enjoying one of his lavish dinners, “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs.”
Escoffier was introduced to restaurant kitchens by his uncle, a restaurateur in Nice. Proving a natural cook, he soon moved to the culinary capital of the world, Paris. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 that saw the city besieged and its population starved, he worked as an army chef, learning skills of efficiency which he would later bring to bear on the kitchens of the world’s top restaurants. After opening his own restaurant in fashionable Cannes on France’s exclusive Côte d’Azur, he went on to work in the even more chic and glamorous surroundings of Monte Carlo’s Grand Hotel. Here he learned his craft and formulated the ideas that would later change restaurant culture forever.
The second part of Escoffier’s career began when he met César Ritz of Ritz Hotel fame, and the two became business partners. Both went to work at London’s Savoy Hotel and set about reinventing haute cuisine, revolutionizing the style of food that was served by simplifying it from the fussy French cuisine of old, and making dining in public a fashionable activity in a way it had never been before. His high-profile position at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels meant Escoffier rubbed shoulders with the glitterati of turn-of-the-century society, and he created many dishes in their honor, including fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt, salade Réjane and mignonnettes de caille Rachel, all named after famous French actresses. Along with his later work at the Paris Ritz and London’s Carlton Hotel, where he retired in 1921, Escoffier’s time at the Savoy made an indelible mark on European food culture.
While Escoffier’s food writing was important, popularizing classical French cuisine in a more accessible form, his real contribution to the culinary arts was creating the modern conception of the chef as artist and creator. He also invented the first streamlined system of organization for restaurant kitchens, introducing the brigade de cuisine system, with separate chefs and work stations for each part of the menu, which every restaurant in the world uses today. If this has whetted your appetite to learn more about the King of Chefs, you may wish to visit the house where he was born in Villeneuve Loubet, near Nice in the south of France, which has been turned into the Musée Escoffier de l’Art Culinaires, or to try out one of his recipes, still in print to this day.