He was known as "the king of chefs, the chef of kings", but how can a chef who died in 1935 continue to influence restauranters and gourmets today?
A talented young man
Auguste Escoffier was born in 1846. At the age of 13 he became an apprentice in his uncle's kitchen, Le Restaurant Français, in Nice. He clearly showed great promise, and by 1865 Escoffier had moved to Paris to work at Le Petit Moulin Rouge. Eventually, while running the kitchen at the Hotel National in Lucerne, he met César Ritz (later founder of the Ritz Hotel) and moved to London where he cemented his reputation as a world-leader in French cuisine.
Escoffier's mission was to de-mystify the culinary arts, and reduce cooking to core recipes and techniques, performed well. He was the first to codify a recipe for stock, and used it in almost everything. In his iconic book Le Guide Culinaire (1903), still regarded as a sacred text by modern chefs, Escoffier preached:
"Indeed, stock is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done. If one's stock is good, what remains of the work is easy; if, on the other hand, it is bad or merely mediocre, it is quite hopeless to expect anything approaching a satisfactory meal."
Escoffier also built on the work of Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the codifiers of French haute cuisine, in order to define the five "mother sauces". According to Escoffier these are Béchamel (milk-based white sauce), Espagnole (a fortified veal stock sauce), Velouté (a light stock-based sauce, thickened with a roux or a mixture of egg yolks and cream), Hollandaise (egg yolk, butter and lemon or vinegar) and Tomate (tomato-based sauce). Other "daughter sauces" can be created by altering the ingredients of these five simple sauces, which form the foundation of good cuisine.
Taste is king
In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist (2007), Jonah Lehrer explains how at this time, "scientists were trying to create a prissy nouvelle cuisine based on their odd, and totally incorrect, notions of what was healthy. Pig blood was good for you. So was tripe. Broccoli, on the other hand, caused indigestion. The same with peaches and garlic."
Escoffier rightly ignored these half-baked ideas, arguing that cuisine should be fundamentally about one thing: taste. In his Guide Culinaire, Escoffier insisted that a great chef should spend time "carefully studying the trifling details of each separate flavour before he sends his masterpiece of culinary art before his patrons." He also included very few actual measurements and quantities in his cookbook, believing that "no theory, no formula, and no recipe can take the place of experience".
The simplicity of Le Guide Culinaire is what makes it timeless
Escoffier's recipes are proof that "simple" doesn't mean "bland". In his book Lehrer explains how the simple technique of deglazing became "the secret of Escoffier's success". Deglazing is what happens to the pan after a piece of meat has been cooked. The meat is cooked at a very hot temperature so that a delicious caramelised crust forms, then removed and left to rest, leaving burnt bits of residue on the bottom of the pan (the fronde). A hot liquid – such as one of Escoffier's perfectly made stocks – is added, and the fronde dissolves into the sauce, giving it a rich depth of flavour. This technique is now considered an essential staple for modern cooks, whether serving up a steak in a high-end restaurant, or preparing the gravy for a family Sunday roast.
By breaking cooking down into its fundamental parts, Escoffier created a culinary tradition that prizes taste above all. The simplicity of Le Guide Culinaire is what makes it timeless; good ingredients, careful preparation and delicious flavour – who can argue with that?