Auguste Escoffier: Father of a foodie nation

  • Article by: N.M.KELBY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2012 - 11:00 AM

The French chef of the 19th and 20th centuries changed the way restaurants - including McDonald's - work. His legacy lives on today.

Auguste Escoffier

He may have inadvertently paved the way for McDonald's, but great Victorian chef Auguste Escoffier was so slight a man that he even couldn't reach the stove. He had platform shoes made and went on to cook his way into culinary history. In a time before Twitter or even phone service, Escoffier, who was born in 1846, quickly rose to become known as the Ambassador of French cuisine and was eventually knighted for it.

Kaiser Wilhelm II once remarked to Escoffier: "I am the emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs." Escoffier was not only an astonishing chef, but he simplified French food, co-created the Ritz Hotel chain, and wrote classic cookbooks ("Le Guide Culinaire" and "Ma Cuisine") that inspired Julia Child and changed the way we look at cooks, cooking and food forever.

Influence far and wide

Open a jar of tomato sauce for dinner recently? Escoffier was the first to commercially can tomatoes. Is your favorite gravy enriched with fresh mushrooms and bouillon? As a consultant, he helped create both dried soups and the cultivated mushroom industry. Ever dine a la carte? That was Escoffier's idea. He also lobbied to make it legal for women to dine in public.

Escoffier created hundreds of dishes named after both the lowly and famous (though not for his own wife), including Peach Melba (for Australian opera star Nellie Melba), Cherries Jubilee (for Queen Victoria's Jubilee) and Dauphine Potatoes (for the French court of the Dauphine, which included Marie Antoinette).

But his most important culinary contribution was the creation of veal stock. When mixed with foods, it imparts natural MSG (monosodium glutamate), which enhances natural flavors and creates what Escoffier named "deliciousness." At the same time the chef was working on his theory of what is now called the flavor of "umami," a Japanese chemist was proving it.

Inside Escoffier's kitchen

Modern restaurants, where anyone can order food -- as opposed to taverns and inns that serviced travelers only -- began in 18th-century France. It wasn't a very popular idea; most had no reason to eat anywhere except at home.

And so, when Escoffier became a chef, the industry was still in its infancy. Cooks worked in small windowless rooms filled with coal and wood smoke. Wine kept them hydrated. Add sharp knives, stress and shouts over the din of clanging pans and you can begin to imagine what a brutal place kitchens were.

Escoffier changed all that. In his kitchen, no anger or shouting was allowed. His staff drank a special malt brew that kept them hydrated and sober. Chaos was lessened by Escoffier's "brigade system." Unlike the old model where chefs cooked everything and then moved to the next order, in the brigade there were stations -- fish, meat, sauce, vegetable, etc. -- and the plate moved from station to station. This newfound system created an assembly line akin to Henry Ford's industrialization of automobile manufacturing. At the Ritz Hotel's lunch service, he could do 500 plates an hour.

Most colleagues called him "Papa," because he treated his staff like family. He fought for the rights of all kitchen workers to receive medical care and pensions. It was his staff that perished in the Titanic; he had designed the elaborate menus for that ill-fated voyage. After the tragedy, he personally saw to it that the widows and children of that staff were well taken care of.

Chef as artist

"A cook is a man with a can opener," Escoffier once said. "A chef is an artist."

Cooking is what brought him fame at an early age. Truffles, foie gras and caviar were his trinity, but he also knew nearly 600 ways to make eggs. "Le Guide Culinaire" includes recipes for 256 of them. While he wanted to be a sculptor and studied with the great Gustave Doré (where he met actress Sarah Bernhardt, a fellow student), he knew that sculptors were often paupers. Food became his medium.

The original Peach Melba was encased in spun gold leaf and served on the back of a swan made of ice. No request was too large or opulent. He once sculpted a table and chair out of shrubs so that a diner could eat in a garden.

Escoffier slept four to five hours a day; he never drank or smoked. When he died in 1935 at age 88, he was working on his memoirs, which he never completed. Despite the fact that he spent decades in England, with many visits to the United States, he never learned English, out of fear that it would cause him to think like the English, and then, unfortunately, cook like them.

His personal life was not without drama. His wife, poet Delphine Daffis, whose hand in marriage he won in a pool game, left him before the birth of their third child. Yet he returned to her after more than 30 years of separation, only to die within days of her passing. His reputed lover Sarah Bernhardt, for whom he cooked a meal of scrambled eggs and Moët until the day she died (according to rumor), could never be his alone.

And then there was the matter of missing money at the Savoy Hotel in London and charges of extortion. Both he and Cesar Ritz were dismissed in 1898 for using hotel property (wines, liquor, food and luxury items) to court investors for their own venture, the Ritz Hotel Development Co. They were also accused by hotel owner Richard D'Oyly Carte (Gilbert & Sullivan's producer and founder of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company) of extorting commissions from suppliers, reselling and repurposing of goods, and accepting short weights on food deliveries. The firing of Escoffier and Ritz made headlines worldwide.

While Escoffier was far from a saint, he considered himself a devout Catholic and spent a great deal of time and money fighting hunger in London alongside the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Still influential today

Escoffier is the father of our current foodie nation. Julia Child took his simple approach and made it accessible for Americans -- and set off a revolution. And then, there's that McDonald's connection.

Not only did Escoffier, the Henry Ford of cooking, create the brigade system (the McDonald brothers called it the "Speedee Service System"), but he also created the secret behind their wonderful fries.

A few years ago, it was revealed that the chain included beef fat and beef flavorings in the frying fat. The beef imparted a background note, just as Escoffier's stock did, a "deliciousness" that silently gave the product a distinctive taste.

And what was the plight of Escoffier's customers? The same as for those who eat at McDonald's: the disease of kings, gout, and obesity.

  • N.M. Kelby of St. Paul is the author of the recently published novel "White Truffles in Winter," a fictionalized account of Escoffier. Reach her at nmkelby@yahoo.com or at her website, nmkelby.com.
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  • August Escoffier was known as the Ambassador of French cuisine.

  • AUGUSTE ESCOFFIER

    1846-1935

    Career: Began his restaurant career at age 13, when he worked at a restaurant in Nice, France, owned by his uncle. His storied career lasted 62 years.

    Let them eat ... eggs? Escoffier knew almost 600 ways to make eggs. His cookbook "Le Guide Culinaire," written in 1903, included recipes for 256 ways. (We have recipes for two.)

    Famous dishes: He invented Peach Melba in honor of Austrian singer Nellie Melba.

    Restaurant chefs thank him: In addition to inventing a la carte eating, Escoffier also revolutionized the way restaurant kitchens ran, inventing the "brigade" system of organization, still used today.

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