An Exceptional Man
Few men in history have influenced a profession as deeply as Auguste Escoffier. During his lifetime and in the decades that have followed, tastes have evolved, new products have been launched and preservation and cooking methods have changed. The organization of the professional kitchen however, has remained the same as Auguste Escoffier established during his long and brilliant career. Escoffier is immortalized as “The King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings. During his employment as chef at both the Savoy and Carlton Hotels in London, he created and put in place a formalized kitchen brigade system – individual cooking stations – and instituted the white toque; all are in place today and remain a part of his legacy. “The name Escoffier means something; it means that we remain committed to the level of quality that he has always fought for,” says his great-grandson, Michel Escoffier, who serves as president of the Auguste Escoffier Foundation and Museum in Villeneuve-Loubet, France.
A Visionary Leader
From the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning the twentieth, Escoffier emerged as the leader and reformer of French cuisine. In 1912 he wrote, “What creates the strength of French cuisine – that impeccable and enlightened taste that distinguishes it from other – is the care that is given to even the smallest details; the thoroughness required to impart a complete sensorial impression on the guests. Remove or neglect anything and the supremacy of French cuisine will end!” Today, no chef dares to refute this as the vision that defines the Disciples Escoffier.
One of the world’s first true celebrity chefs, Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) is credited with helping to raise the status of cooking from a laborer’s task to an artist’s endeavor. Escoffier left a legacy of culinary writings and recipes that are indispensable to modern cooks, and remains perhaps the foremost name in French cuisine.
Georges Auguste Escoffier, known simply as Auguste Escoffier, was born on October 28, 1846 in the small village of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, in the Provence region of France.
Among the key figures in the boy’s life was his father, who worked primarily as a blacksmith yet also cultivated tobacco plants. His grandmother, an enthusiastic cook, was perhaps more responsible than anyone for instilling in the boy an appreciation for the delights of cooking.
Young Escoffier attended the local school until age 12, upon which time his father thought it necessary that the boy learn a trade. In school he had shown a flair for drawing, yet he was encouraged to pursue this art only as a hobby, and to find his career in a more practical vocation. Thus his father took him to Nice, where he would apprentice in his uncle’s restaurant, Le Restaurant Francais. The year was 1859 and Escoffier was to turn 13 years old, when he would begin what was for many a modest career, yet what became for him an illustrious one.
Apprenticed to a Restaurateur
At Le Restaurant Francais, Escoffier was not coddled as the nephew of the boss. Rather, he experienced a classically disciplined and strenuous apprenticeship. For this strictness of training he would later, in his memoirs, express gratitude. He started as a kitchen boy and commis-saucier (sauce boy), and was initiated into the basic tasks of restaurant upkeep, such as the selection of ingredients and the servicing of customers. During this time Escoffier also attended night school, and had to juggle his studies with the demands of a budding career.
When Escoffier was 19 and had taken on yet more responsibilities in his uncle’s restaurant, a patron recognized his skills and offered him work in Paris. This was the owner of Le Petit Moulin Rouge, one of the finest restaurants in Paris, where Escoffier was to become a sous-chef. After three years in this position, he rose to the level of head chef, donning the esteemed chef’s hat. A small man, Escoffier was said to have taken to wearing platform shoes in order to better work the restaurant’s stoves. Escoffier remained in Paris, leaving his position briefly for military training, until 1870, when he was called for army duty at the onset of the Franco-Prussian War. Appointed Chef de Cuisine, he applied his talents to the daily fare of the French army. Faced with the challenge of creating meals that would preserve well, Escoffier was one of the first chefs to seriously study the techniques for canning meats, vegetables, and sauces. After the war he returned to Le Petit Moulin Rouge, where he remained head chef until 1878. Among Escoffier’s subsequent endeavors in Paris was his management of the Maison Chevet, a restaurant at the Palais Royal that specialized in banquets often prepared for dignitaries. Later he managed the kitchens at La Maison Maire, owned by the famed restaurateur Monsieur Paillard. But perhaps Escoffier’s most notable achievement during this period was his marriage in 1880 to Delphine Daffis, the daughter of a publisher. Their marriage would last 55 years, and they would bring into the world two sons and a daughter.
In their early years together, the couple spent their summers in Lucerne, Switzerland, where Escoffier managed the kitchens at the Hotel National, and their winters in Monte Carlo, where he served as Director of Cuisine of the Grand Hotel. It was in Lucerne that Escoffier met the Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz, who would figure prominently in his life, and with whom he would enter into a celebrated partnership. Ritz, who came from a small village in the Swiss Valais, had started his career as a hotel groom and had risen through the ranks, from headwaiter to hotel manager. It was Ritz who hired Escoffier as chef at the Hotel National, and the two would continue to combine their talents throughout their remarkable careers.
Teamed with Ritz
Among Escoffier and Ritz’s first successes was their joint venture at the Savoy Hotel in London, the first modern luxury hotel, where from 1890 to 1898 Escoffier served as Head of Restaurant Services and Ritz took the position of General Manager. When Ritz opened his own hotel in Paris, the ultra-modern Hotel Ritz, Escoffier brought his culinary expertise. But he soon returned to London to make a legend of the posh Carlton Hotel, where patrons included such luminaries as the Prince of Wales. It was here, where Escoffier presided over the kitchens for more than twenty years, that the French chef gained worldwide attention for his superior haute cuisine. It was also at the Carlton that, on the day the hotel opened in 1899, Escoffier unveiled a new dessert, Peach Melba, created and named in honor of the Australian opera singer-and former Savoy Hotel resident, Nellie Melba.
At the Savoy and the Carlton, Escoffier created some of his most famous recipes; Peach Melba was among these, as was Chaud-Froid Jeannette and Cuisses de Nymphe Aurore, a frogs’ legs dish named after the Prince of Wales. Also during this time the French chef introduced and perfected some of his many innovations to cookery, restaurant service, and kitchen organization. Departing from the style of previous chefs, Escoffier strove to simplify the art of cooking, doing away with excessive garnishes, heavy sauces, and elaborate presentations. As the most prominent French chef of his day, he succeeded the culinary artist Marie Antoine Careme (1784-1833), and he sought to modernize his predecessor’s complex approach to cooking, in effect altering the standards of his national cuisine.
Escoffier’s preference for simplicity also extended to restaurant menus; here, he reduced the number of courses served, and took credit for introducing, at the Carlton, the first a la carte menu. At large banquet-style meals, Escoffier abandoned a practice called service a la francaise (service in the French style), in which collections of dishes of all kinds were served at table simultaneously; instead, the French chef chose to standardize service a la russe (service in the Russian style), in which each course is presented in the order that it appears on the menu.
In the kitchen, Escoffier’s innovations again tended toward simplification. As head chef at the Carlton he faced the challenge of having to prepare superb dishes quickly for the hotel’s high-powered clientele, and he found inefficiencies in the organization of the standard restaurant kitchen. In Escoffier’s day, the restaurant kitchen was composed of separate units in which groups of chefs worked on their own, often duplicating each other’s tasks and creating more work than was necessary. Escoffier insisted on unifying and streamlining the restaurant kitchen, so that his staff of about sixty chefs could work together seamlessly and quickly, serving as many as 500 dishes at a typical Sunday dinner at the Carlton.
The working conditions of kitchen laborers also begged improvement, and Escoffier recognized and answered these needs. In the French chef’s day, the atmosphere of the kitchen was loud, chaotic, overheated with wood or coke-fired stoves, and was rife with powerful cooking odors. This created working conditions that were sometimes intolerable, and chefs often took to drinking while they toiled. Escoffier aimed to curb these excesses, which often compromised the health of kitchen workers. He even hired a doctor to help concoct a comforting and healthful beverage, made with barley that cooks could drink in place of alcohol. Through these and other improvements, Escoffier helped to raise the esteem of a profession that had once been regarded as lowly and coarse.
Wrote Le Guide and Other Works
The turn of the century brought some changes for Escoffier. His partnership with Ritz came to an end in 1901, when Ritz fell ill with a nervous breakdown. Yet some happier changes came in the following years, when Escoffier began publishing his culinary works, opening a new avenue in his career. His first book, Le Guide Culinaire (1903 Culinary Guide) was an exhaustive resource, including about 5,000 recipes and garnish preparations. Le Guide, known to English speakers as The Escoffier Cook Book, remains an invaluable reference for contemporary cooks. Books published subsequently by Escoffier include Le Carnet d’Epicure (1911 Notebook of a Gourmet), Le Livre de Menus (1912 The Book of Menus), and Ma Cuisine (1934 My Cuisine).
An energetic and inexhaustible man, Escoffier took the time to begin new endeavors in addition to his work at the Carlton and his manuscript preparations. In 1904 a German shipping company, Hamburg-Amerika Lines, invited the French chef to plan a restaurant service to be offered to passengers on its luxury liners. Called the Ritz-Carlton Restaurants, the service was unveiled in 1912 amid great fanfare. Yet Escoffier did not concern himself only with the lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged clientele of posh restaurants and cruise ships. A philanthropist at heart, he organized programs to feed the hungry and to give financial assistance to retired chefs.
Passing into old age yet retaining his youthful enthusiasm, Escoffier continued to direct the kitchens of the Carlton Hotel until 1919, the year he turned 73. His plan was to retire with his wife to Monte Carlo, yet not long after arriving in this city he was presented with yet another irresistible business opportunity. An old friend, the widow of his former Petit Moulin Rouge colleague Jean Giroix, invited Escoffier to collaborate with her in the administration of the Hotel de L’Ermitage. The French chef accepted, eluding retirement, and even went on to help develop another hotel, the Riviera, in Upper Monte Carlo.
The aged chef, whose name had become synonymous with superlative cuisine, in his late years enjoyed worldwide renown. In 1920 the French government recognized Escoffier for his work in elevating the status of French cuisine and culture by making him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, and again by making him an Officer of the Legion d’Honneur in 1928.
By 1921 Escoffier had finally retired from restaurant life, although he continued to write about his work and experiences. The French chef died in Monte Carlo at age 89, on February 12, 1935, only days after the death of his wife.
Escoffier left behind a legacy still enjoyed by professional chefs, home cooks, and gastronomes worldwide. He invented some 10,000 recipes, and culinary institutions around the world that continue to teach his methods. In 1966 the French transformed the house in which he was born into a culinary museum; as a result his birthplace of Villeneuve-Loubet, once not even a dot on the map of the Provence region, is now well marked on the road from Nice to Cannes. These and other tributes serve to honor the master of French cooking, to whom the Kaiser Wilhelm II was said to have once remarked: “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs.”