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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Escoffier the Chef. Escoffier, the Most Important Influence and Contributor to French Cuisine in the First Half of the 20th Century.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

Escoffier –  Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).  The most influential of all modern French chefs until Prosper Montagne and then Fernand Point, but even then his influence remains. Escoffier was born in a small village called Villeneuve-Loubet in Provence, 15 km (10 miles) from Nice. He began working in French restaurant kitchens at age 13.   Let all the 13 year-olds into the kitchen and who knows where it will lead?  Escoffier from age 13 never looked back.
Escoffier in the French Army and a prisoner of war.
During the Franco-Prussian war (1870- 1871) Escoffier served as chef to the French General Staff. That war saw the Prussian Bismarck’s machinations succeed and ended with Napoleon III’s downfall and exile to England.  After Escoffier’s imprisonment, as a soldier, and release, he was discharged from the French army. From then on through to 1920, when he retired,  Escoffier ruled the world of French cuisine. Escoffier’s influence remains on all our tables and in all French restaurants today.

 A few years after Escoffier left the army in 1877 he opened the first restaurant that he would own; it was called Le Faisan d'Or, The Golden Pheasant, Cannes on the Cote d’Azur. Despite his growing reputation and excellence as the chef of the Le Faisan d'Or Escoffier’s real fame came later when he became the Chef de Cuisine at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, owned by César Ritz.From the Grand Hotel his reputation grew and became internationally famous together with César Ritz.  

Escoffier takes over the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel London

Then Escoffier joined with César Ritz again and took over the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel in London, in 1890.  From when he joined the Savoy and wherever Escoffier went, he created new dishes; in his lifetime he created and wrote down for posterity over 5,000 recipes.
The Savoy Hotel in London.
Where Escoffier’s fame really took off.

Escoffier’s service in the army affected his views on the organization of the French kitchen. He created the brigade de cuisine; like in an army, he wanted a clear chain of command. Escoffier’s brigades installed order in the French kitchen, beginning in the late 19th century. This system, with modern adaptations, is still in effect around the world today.
The kitchen brigade.
Today, restaurants cannot afford the huge staff required for a full Escoffier kitchen brigade, but the titles and the jobs remain. The Chef de Cuisine is still the Executive Chef; the Sous Chef is still the number two in the kitchen and responsible for the minute by minute operation; the Chefs de Parti, are today’s line chefs.  Escoffier set down in writing the responsibilities for each kitchen specialist all the way down to the plongeur, the dishwasher.
Poire Belle Helene

Poire Belle Helene and Nellie Melba

Food writers have looked everywhere for the Hélène who was one of Escoffier’s inspirations.    The candidates include honoring Jacques Offenbach who wrote the opera “La Belle Helene;” first performed in 1864 at the Paris Opera house. The opera is a thumb in cheek story based on Helen of Troy whose face alone launched a thousand ships.  It also certainly is true that Escoffier loved opera nearly as much as he loved opera singers; however, in 1864 he was still an assistant chef with professionally recognized talent but publicly unknown.  Then through the early 1870’s he was involved with the French Army, first as a conscript, then as the chef to a number of  France’s  Generals; that was followed by six months as a prisoner of war where he was held by the Prussians who had defeated Napoléon III. Unfortunately, that rules out Helen of Troy. Escoffier only began his work at the Savoy Hotel in London where the dish first appeared on a menu in 1890.

Also named as the possible honoree is Helene Queen of Romania; though she is also an unlikely choice as she became Queen of Romania in 1921 and Escoffier had left the Savoy Hotel before then.
Nellie Melba
Escoffier loved opera and at the Savoy, he met Nellie Melba; the most famous lyric soprano opera singer of her day had. She made her home at the Savoy Hotel while Escoffier was chef.  Apart from opera Escoffier also loved opera singers and he honored Nellie Melba with Peach Melba and Toast Melba.
It is evident to me, that the dish called Poiré Hélène was also named by Escoffier after Nellie Melba. Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell, and she was always Escoffier’s Belle Hélène.
Antonin Carême
The final works of the French chef Antonin Carême were his three-volume L’Art de la Cuisine Français au Dix- Neuvième Siècle, The Art of French Cuisine in the 19th Century; it was published posthumously in three parts in 1832.  From 1832 practically nothing else was added to organize or change the French kitchen, for nearly seventy years. Then, thankfully, Escoffier came along and wrote how French cuisine should be organized and changed in the early 20th century. 
L’Art Culinaire
 Escoffier’s first written work was a magazine, L’Art Culinaire; it was first published in 1883.  In 1903 the topics raised in L’Art Culinaire were updated as a book Le Guide Culinaire.  Le Guide Culinaire is usually, today, accredited to Escoffier alone. In reality, this book was the combined work of Escoffier and the then famous chefs Emile Fetu and Phileas Gilbert.
New issues of Le Guide Culinaire with a nod to Escoffier are being edited and published today. Altogether Escoffier wrote seven books, all collaborative works. In 1920 Escoffier updated his original magazine as La Revue Culinaire. Revues that try to link themselves to Escoffier are being edited and published today. Escoffier, Emile Fetu, and Phileas Gilbert also wrote that unique book for chefs, Le Livre des Menus, The Book of Menus that was published in 1924 and is available in English.
Escoffier, Emile Fetu and Phileas Gilbert’s
Le Guide Culinaire
Translated by H L Cracknell (Editor), R J Kaufmann (Editor).
Published in 2001 On sale at Amazon.Com.
Escoffier retires
From the day Escoffier and Cesar Ritz arrived at the Savoy Hotel, they were an unstoppable combination. From London Escoffier retired to Monte Carlo in his 70’s and he died there in 1935, aged 94.  His funeral cortège drove the few miles to the village of his birth Villeneuve-Loubet, today it is a town of over 15,000.  Escoffier was interred in the family tomb. You may visit the small, museum in the house where he was born, the Musée Escoffier de l'Art Culinaire.  The town of Villeneuve-Loubet is in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, the Côte d'Azur, Provence.
Prosper Montagné
In would be another thirty years, after Escoffier, before another 20th-century chef, Prosper Montagné, published, with others, another revolutionary work, the Larousse Gastronomique. The Larousse Gastronomique brought French cuisine into the middle of the 20th century.  In the midst of the 20th Century would come Fernand Point, the éminence grise behind the creation of Nouvelle Cuisine and today’s Modern French Cuisine.

Carême, Escoffier, Fetu, Gilbert, Montagné and Point 

Recipes may have changed; sauces may have been simplified, the equipment may have improved but all French chefs, even today, work with Carême, Escoffier, Fetu, Gilbert, Montagné and Point whispering in his or her ears. If you search for the influence of Escoffier, visit his Museum in the village where he was born. It is the headquarters of the Escoffier Foundation.
3 de la Rue Escoffier
The village of Villeneuve-Loubet,

For opening times call 04.9320.8051 or send an email to::
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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2016

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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