What was so great about Escoffier?

Borne in 1846, Auguste Escoffier was one of the first chefs to have global name recognition. People traveled from everywhere to eat his food and to this day every serious student of cooking owns a copy of his cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire. But then a lot of chefs over the last century or so have cooked well, had broad name recognition and published cookbooks. So what made Escoffier a legend? Was his food that good? Could he have beaten Morimoto on Iron Chef?

To my mind legend status for a chef is only secondarily about food. Antonin Carême is an excellent example. Sure he was a fabulously talented artisan who made giant strides in cuisine. Yet more than that he exemplified his era, which is to say he connected his culinary skill to broader societal currents. Carême’s food thus became an expression not just of a personal vision, but of a time, a place and a culture. He did, in short, what truly great artists do: tap a vein of history.

Escoffier was like that. On the surface you look at the things he accomplished and think well that’s nice, I guess somebody had to do it. Things like streamlining the French sauce system and refining the plate-after-plate “service à la russe” method of serving, processes both begun under Carême.

Escoffier also invented the “brigade system” of kitchen organization (chef de cuisine, sous-chef de cuisine, chef de partie, etc…) that is widely employed to this day. He bestowed professionalism and respectability on the art of cooking, a professionalism he exemplified and used to found, in partnership with César Ritz, a hotel empire.

Looking around at what was going on in the world at that time, the leaps forward in industrialization and industrial efficiency, the assembly line, the rise of the professional classes, franchising and the expansion of commercial empires, there’s no question that Escoffier leveraged those trends, taking food further than anyone before him. In short he was a man of his time just like Carême and, more recently, Gaston Lenôtre. Hope than answers your question, reader Judy!

2 thoughts on “What was so great about Escoffier?”

  1. Escoffier was, as I understand it, the guy who actually wrote down how to make the classic French food. Doing this made it much more reliable. It made it more likely you knew what you would get when you ordered something by name where before every chef did their own thing and called it the same thing as what other guys did.

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