The King Of Chefs And The Chef Of Kings: Georges-Auguste Escoffier
Diners at the Savoy Restaurant, London, circa 1890. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
No person has had a greater impact on dining and hospitality than the celebrated French chef, Georges-Auguste Escoffier. From peach melba to the kitchen brigade system to using fresh ingredients, Escoffier’s recipes, methods, and philosophies pervade almost all aspects of modern cuisine; even fast food.
Auguste Escoffier was born on October 28, 1846, in what is now called Villeneuve-Loubet, a small village outside of Nice, France. His father, Jean-Baptiste, grew tobacco and was a blacksmith. His father also decided that since Auguste was slight of stature he would be of no use at the blacksmith forge. He sent him to work at age 13 in his uncle Francois’s establishment, Restaurant Français, in Nice in 1859.
It was in Nice that Escoffier was baptized into the culinary arts. Kitchens were largely disorganized, not necessarily sanitary, and incredibly hot since windows were kept closed so as not to allow dishes to cool. It was so hot that cooks often drank copious amounts of wine to stay hydrated. Wearing built-up shoes so that he could stand even with the stovetops, he was cuffed and bullied. But it was here that he recognized the importance of cooking and believed that cooks and chefs should receive some recognition. “...cooking is a science and an art, and the man that puts all his heart into satisfying his fellow man deserves consideration.”
In 1865 Escoffier was invited by a Monsieur Bardoux to work at his Restaurant du Petit Moulin Rouge (not to be confused with the famous cabaret) in Paris. His first assignment was as an assistant to the chef rôtisseur, tending the heat of open fires. He very quickly was promoted so that by 1867 he was chef garde-manger in charge of stock and in 1870 chef saucier.
That year saw him conscripted into the French army due to the Franco-Prussian War. Naturally, he was rated as a cook, but he cooked for officers and the brass, not the enlisted. He continued to do so even after becoming a prisoner of war for six months.
In 1872, Escoffier returned to civilian life and until 1878 worked as the chef de cuisine at Restaurant du Petit Moulin Rouge. He then tried running his own restaurant for two years.
The year 1884 was critical for Escoffier because that is when he began his partnership with Cesar Ritz where he worked as a director of cuisine at the newly opened Grand Hotel. He then followed Ritz to London where they reopened the Savoy Hotel. Between this and other hotel ventures, Escoffier became known for his grand cuisine.
But Escoffier also became embroiled in scandal. In 1898 he was fired by the Savoy for stealing wine and spirits that were used by he and Ritz amounting to £3,000 to woo potential investors to other business ventures. Escoffier also took kickbacks from suppliers. This scandal would mar an otherwise stellar reputation.
By this point, Escoffier was truly a celebrity chef. The reasons why are manifold. He introduced a brigade system to the kitchen (a model followed by fast-food chains). Where before Escoffier cooks would complete all the aspects of a meal, Escoffier’s system made use of stations, like an assembly line, to complete discrete aspects of a dish. This allowed for quick turnover of meals.
He introduced or popularized a la carte dining where food can be ordered as separate items from a menu. He was the first to can tomatoes commercially. He invented hundreds of well-known dishes such as peach melba and cherries jubilee. One source cites his greatest contribution to cuisine as the creation of veal stock which enhanced natural flavors. To give a clue as to Escoffier’s culinary aptitude, he knew 600 ways to make eggs. But the overarching philosophy to Escoffier’s approach was to keep it as simple as possible. This more than anything else still gives him relevance and influence today.
Once Escoffier met the Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany while he was directing the cuisine on the luxury liner, Amerika. In a half-humorous, half-serious anecdote, Escoffier needed to ensure the Kaiser that he would not poison him since he was once their prisoner of war they struck up a friendly relationship with the Kaiser commenting, “I am the emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs.” Escoffier would cook again for the Kaiser in a private commission.
Escoffier was also endeared by his staff. Perhaps this is because he as no other person did, professionalized the kitchen. He emphasized cleanliness, professionalism, and using seasonal, fresh ingredients. This empathy is seen when his own staff perished aboard the Titanic in 1912. He personally ensured that the widows and children of his lost staff were taken care of. He was called “papa” by his workers.
Escoffier also published a seminal work, Le Guide Culinaire, which organized and codified French cuisine. It is still used as a textbook for budding chefs today.
Escoffier died on February 12, 1935, at age 88 a week after his wife Delphine. Even though he passed well over eight decades ago, he more than any other person laid the foundation for the foodie culture of the twenty-first century.