Auguste Escoffier and the Birth of Modern Gastronomy

Auguste Escoffier, a chef, businessman, and genius inventor, changed French culinary arts forever. Director Olivier Julien has retraced the history of this man in touch with his time in a thorough, original docudrama to discover on TV5MONDE USA on October 14.
Auguste Escoffier (right), then the chef at the Carlton in London, ca. 1899. © Keystone-France

France-Amérique: Did you know about Escoffier before looking deeper into his story?

Olivier Julien: I had heard of him, but I was unaware of who he really was. He is a little-known figure in France, despite being quite famous in Anglophone countries and Japan. There are also very few sources available for telling his story; he really was a man in the shadows! Aside from his memoirs [Souvenirs culinaires, published after his death in 1935], which are little more than an assemblage of notes, guest lists, and recipes, there are a few books written by his disciples. I am no gastronomy specialist, but I was fascinated by such an atypical profile, by this man who described himself as an “artist-artisan.”

What was his approach to the culinary arts?

His first contribution, at a time when chefs were still basically servants, was to rehabilitate the artistic, artisanal dimension of the profession – one he compared to the fine arts. In the 19th century, while everyone was passionate about science and chemistry, he was one of the first to write a recipe book with precise quantities, creating reproducible dishes and leaving less room for improvisation. He was also renowned for having changed the atmosphere in the kitchen. He started out in a harsh, physical environment plagued by alcoholism and violence. Believing that it was impossible to cook properly in these conditions, he banned alcohol and tobacco in his kitchens. Later, he reorganized the responsibilities of each staff member and invented the concept of brigades, or “kitchen teams” – a system still in place in upscale restaurants today. While certain divisions and specialties already existed, he rearranged them into a production line and shared out roles more evenly.

What did he change about food itself?

His major revolution was to lighten the meals he cooked. That may come as a surprise, as the following generation constantly criticized his style for being too heavy, overly substantial, and with too many courses. However, he had already reduced the regular menu size by more than half, shifting from some fifteen courses to just six or seven!

Escoffier lived from 1846 to 1935, one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of France! What effect did that have on his life and work?

He was very attuned to the changes occurring during his lifetime, and drew inspiration from scientific progress, the rationalization of work, and the dietary concerns that emerged as lifestyles began to evolve. His cuisine shifted to become more modern. In a time when the old aristocracy was rubbing shoulders with the new monied classes, he now had to feed leaders of industry and other people who had less time to spend at restaurants.

Are his dishes still served today?

Constantly! Take the peach Melba, for example, a dessert inspired by the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Today, it is a classic in restaurants everywhere. Aside from his signature dishes, he also revamped the basics of French cuisine. His classification of sauces (the foundation of our culinary excellence!), the different stages for making them, the bases for sauces, and the lengthy cooking times are still taught in cooking schools today.

Escoffier’s name is inseparable from another gourmet… a certain César Ritz!

They met in Monte Carlo in the early 1880s and got on immediately. This was an era when the first palace hotels were appearing, welcoming guests including international princes and American industrialists such as the Vanderbilts and the Rothschilds. Together they founded all the leading hotels of the time. They launched the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, then travelled to London for the launch of the Savoy, a truly superlative establishment of its time. They brought with them a kitchen brigade, took the reins, and enjoyed outstanding success before returning to Paris to open other hotels such as the Ritz on the Place Vendôme. Escoffier even made it to the United States, first by working for transatlantic ocean liners, then as the champion of the Carlton brand. Today, the Association des disciples d’Escoffier still has an American chapter with a large number of cooks as members. What’s more, chefs he personally placed in restaurants in the United States paid tribute to him by financing a museum in his honor in his native town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Antibes, and a school for training future generations.

You chose a combination of interviews with leading chefs and scenes filmed in palace hotels. What was this process like?

The “docudrama” format was a clear choice. We were obliged to embody such a character! We filmed in working palace hotels with guests around us. Our actor, dressed up like Escoffier, walked around the Savoy kitchens in the middle of their service. We barely warned the chefs, but they all recognized him! In other scenes, we had to do several takes as tourists would stop and take photographs!

=> The docudrama
Auguste Escoffier ou la naissance de la gastronomie moderne will be broadcast on TV5 Monde USA on Wednesday, October 14, at 8:30 pm EST (5:30 pm PST) and on Saturday, October 17, at 3:45 am EST (12:45 am PST).