History is – despite all other codified definitions – the discipline of an obsession with the past. I do not say “the past” to mean a trendy retrospective – a reflection on a bygone time that can still be mimicked now or in the future. Rather, I view the past as simply a linear path leading to what came before. It is no mistake that many historians choose to focus their studies on their family’s native homes (I, for instance, studied Russia and Eastern Europe). Historians in particular enjoy the detective work of uncovering and explaining – even in a broad sense – the narrative of what came before. This narrative expands and enriches our own stories, establishing a sense of continuity between ourselves and those that came before us.
In many ways, this is why I continue to turn to Escoffier. But who is Escoffier and why does he matter? The name probably doesn’t ring a bell for most unless they have read a book by Michael Ruhlman, Anthony Bourdain, or happen to own a traditional French cookbook. As a former culinary student, his name came up regularly, but I would estimate that most restaurant cooks – unless they work at a fine-dining establishment or are avid readers on the culinary arts – don’t know thing one about Escoffier. This is, however, a paradox: most cooks know Escoffier simply by the work that they do daily.
Georges-Auguste Escoffier was an early-twentieth century French chef and restaurateur who was in charge of many of the finest kitchens throughout London and Paris, including the Savoy, Paris Ritz, and Carlton (the merger of which eventually became the Ritz-Carlton chain of luxury hotels). In his own time, Escoffier was dubbed by the French press as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings” due to his culinary proficiency and high-profile clientele. The title itself had been previously bestowed on another Frenchman less than a century earlier: the chef Marie-Antoine Careme, who cooked for Napoleon among others, received this moniker for his elaborate presentations and grandiose cooking style. Escoffier utilized many of Careme’s techniques and developed his own, making him one of the forefathers of haute cuisine – perhaps better known as traditional fine dining. Additionally, Escoffier was responsible for the brigade system – the military-like system that many kitchens continue to use to structure their staff.
Escoffier’s most important and enduring contribution to cuisine, however, was his codification of haute cuisine in his now classic Le Guide Culinaire: A Guide to Modern Cookery. The original publication was just shy of 800 pages, and categorized the entire discipline of cooking. Escoffier established the term “Mother Sauces” – Bechamel (white with dairy), Espagnole (brown), veloute (white with clear stock), tomato, and Hollandaise – the five primary sauces from which all other sauces could be made. In the pages that follow, Escoffier illustrated how with the simple addition of one or two ingredients, one could make dozens, if not hundreds, of other sauces – each suited to a particular dish or series of dishes. He described the process of preparing classic meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, indicating the precise garnish required for each. Le Guide Culinaire became the bible for all believers in fine cuisine both in Escoffier’s time and up to the present day.
An in-depth read of the tome, however, might cause some to raise an eyebrow. There is an entire chapter on “Savory Jellies and Aspics” and recipes with names like “Steak Pudding” or complex preparations such as the following for “Chaud-Froid de Cailles en Belle-Vue” (Aspic of Quail “Bellevue”):
The quails should be boned for a chaud-froid, and stuffed with gratin forcemeat of game with a rod of foie gras and another truffle set in the middle. This done, reshape them; wrap them each in a square of muslin…decorate the breast of each quail elegantly with bits of truffle and poached white of egg… (Le Guide Culinaire, 599).
It would be difficult to consider Le Guide Culinaire a traditional or practical “cookbook.” The above recipe would be incredibly time consuming, finicky, and costly considering the use of foie gras and truffle as purely decorative elements. Furthermore, many recipes require one to reference one, if not multiple other recipes throughout the book. Cooking one’s way through Le Guide Culinaire proficiently is a rare skill in and of itself: Michael Ruhlman describes the rigors of doing so as a portion of the Certified Master Chef exam (see The Soul of a Chef). Few do it, and even fewer should contemplate doing so without deep pockets, a well-stocked kitchen, and a fair amount of free time.
Why, then, are both Escoffier and his work important? Are they simply relics of a bygone era of the culinary arts? Many would argue no. In terms of modern gastronomy, many chefs can trace a sort of lineage back to Escoffier (I foresee a fun game here – a “six degrees of separation” activity for food nerds). Many of Thomas Keller’s famed dishes are nods to Le Guide Culinaire, Anthony Bourdain references Escoffier the way a Catholic might speak of St. Peter, and even modernist/mad scientist Chef Grant Achatz (Alinea) premiered a “Paris 1906” menu featuring Escoffier’s recipes at his experimental restaurant Next. Julia Child, James Beard, and Jacques Pepin – the first “TV chefs” – were all simply taking what Escoffier already had codified and making it digestible for the public.
All culinary name-dropping aside, Escoffier’s most enduring legacy is the notion of culinary foundations. Escoffier does not begin Le Guide with a recipe for navarin d’agneau (a spring lamb stew) or gratin de chou-fleur (cauliflower gratin) and simply assume that you know how to make a good brown stock or béchamel/soubise. Escoffier laid out the building blocks first: if you know how to make a short list of basic foundation stocks and sauces, you can make hundreds more. If you know how to make a few simple dishes with these sauces, dozens of variations will follow.
Cooking above all is not about the robotic and slavish reliance recipes but rather, the mastery of certain skills and techniques. Learn and master the building blocks – have them in your head, ready to go at a moment’s notice rather than in a book or on a recipe card – and you have unlocked the mystery of cooking.
Image (of a stoic Escoffier) Courtesy of Britannica Online: http://media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/16/68516-004-BDDAD328.jpg