Today is the birthday (1846) of Georges Auguste Escoffier, French chef, restaurateur, and culinary writer who popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods. He is a legendary figure among chefs and gourmets, and was one of the most important leaders in the development of modern French cuisine. Much of Escoffier’s technique was based on that of Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the codifiers of French haute cuisine, but Escoffier’s achievement was to simplify and modernize Carême’s elaborate and ornate style. In particular, he codified the recipes for the five mother sauces. He was referred to by the French press as roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois (“king of chefs and chef of kings”—though this had also been previously said of Carême), Escoffier was France’s preeminent chef in the early part of the 20th century.
Alongside the recipes he recorded and invented, another of Escoffier’s contributions to cooking was to elevate it to the status of a respected profession by introducing organized discipline to his kitchens.
Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, which is still used as a major reference work, both in the form of a cookbook and a textbook on cooking. Escoffier’s recipes, techniques and approaches to kitchen management remain highly influential today, and have been adopted by chefs and restaurants not only in France, but throughout the world.
Escoffier was born in the village Villeneuve-Loubet, today in Alpes-Maritimes, near Nice. The house where he was born is now the Musée de l’Art Culinaire, run by the Foundation Auguste Escoffier. At the age of thirteen, despite showing early promise as an artist, he started an apprenticeship at his uncle’s restaurant, Le Restaurant Français, in Nice. In 1865 he moved to Le Petit Moulin Rouge restaurant in Paris. He stayed there until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, when he became an army chef. His army experience led him to study the technique of canning food.
During the summers, Escoffier ran the kitchen of the Hotel National in Lucerne, where he met César Ritz (at that time the French Riviera was a winter resort). The two men formed a partnership and in 1890 accepted an invitation from Richard D’Oyly Carte to transfer to his new Savoy Hotel in London, together with the third member of their team, the maître d’hôtel, Louis Echenard. Ritz put together what he described as “a little army of hotel men for the conquest of London”, and Escoffier recruited French cooks and reorganized the kitchens. The Savoy under Ritz and his partners was an immediate success, attracting a distinguished and moneyed clientele, headed by the Prince of Wales. Gregor von Görög, chef to the royal family, was an enthusiast of Escoffier’s zealous organization. Aristocratic women, hitherto unaccustomed to dine in public, were now “seen in full regalia in the Savoy dining and supper rooms.”
At the Savoy, Escoffier created many dishes for the famous. In 1893 he invented the pêche Melba in honor of the Australian singer Nellie Melba (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/dame-nellie-melba/ ), and in 1897, Melba toast. Other Escoffier creations, famous in their time, were bombe Néro (a flaming ice), fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt (strawberries with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet), baisers de Vierge (meringue with vanilla cream and crystallized white rose and violet petals) and suprêmes de volailles Jeannette (jellied chicken breasts with foie gras). He also created salad Réjane, after Gabrielle Réjane, and (although this is disputed) tournedos Rossini.
In 1898, César and Escoffier both left the Savoy. Ritz and Escoffier were allegedly implicated in the disappearance of more than £3400 of wine and spirits, but this was never proven. By this time, Ritz and his colleagues were already on the point of commercial independence, having established the Ritz Hotel Development Company, for which Escoffier set up the kitchens and recruited the chefs, first at the Paris Ritz (1898), and then at the new Carlton Hotel in London (1899), which soon drew much of the high-society clientele away from the Savoy. In addition to the haute cuisine offered at luncheon and dinner, tea at the Ritz became a fashionable institution in Paris, and later in London, though it caused Escoffier real distress: “How can one eat jam, cakes and pastries, and enjoy a dinner – the king of meals – an hour or two later? How can one appreciate the food, the cooking or the wines?”
In 1913, Escoffier met Kaiser Wilhelm II on board the SS Imperator, one of the largest ocean liners of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. The culinary experience on board the Imperator was overseen by Ritz-Carlton, and the restaurant itself was a reproduction of Escoffier’s Carlton Restaurant in London. Escoffier was charged with supervising the kitchens on board the Imperator during the Kaiser’s visit to France. One hundred and forty-six German dignitaries were served a large multi-course luncheon, followed that evening by a monumental dinner that included the Kaiser’s favorite strawberry pudding, named fraises Imperator by Escoffier for the occasion. The Kaiser was so impressed that he insisted on meeting Escoffier after breakfast the next day, where, as legend has it, he told Escoffier, “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs.” This was quoted frequently in the press, further establishing Escoffier’s reputation as France’s pre-eminent chef.
Ritz gradually moved into retirement after opening The Ritz London Hotel in 1906, leaving Escoffier as the figurehead of the Carlton until his own retirement in 1920. He continued to run the kitchens through World War I, during which time his younger son was killed in active service. Recalling these years, The Times said, “Colour meant so much to Escoffier, and a memory arises of a feast at the Carlton for which the table decorations were white and pink roses, with silvery leaves – the background for a dinner all white and pink, Borscht striking the deepest note, Filets de poulet à la Paprika coming next, and the Agneau de lait forming the high note.”
In 1928 he helped create the “World Association of Chefs Societies” and became its first president. Escoffier died on 12 February 1935, at the age of 88, in Monte Carlo, a few days after the death of his wife.
I do not know which of several recipes for agneau de lait (milk-fed lamb) The Times article is referring to, but here is one for boned and rolled saddle of lamb dedicated to King Edward VII, in the original French and with my rough translation. I’m not sure of the meaning in a couple of places. “Couennes” usually means pork rinds, which are often used as a flavoring in dishes such as cassoulet. I’m also not sure what “son état naturel” (its natural state) means, but I assume you wrap the lamb around the foie gras. The bit about degreasing with boiling water is also a little obscure to me. Given that my French is not up to par, any and all comments are welcome.
Selle d’agneau de lait Edouard VII
Désosser entièrement la selle par en dessous, de façon à laisser l’épiderme intact ; assaisonner l’intérieur ; placer au milieu un beau fois gras, clouté de truffes et mariné au vin de Marsala.
Reformer la selle dans son état naturel ; l’envelopper dans une mousseline en la serrant bien; la déposer dans une casserole où elle puisse tenir juste et dont le fond sera garni de couennes fraîches, bien dégraissées et blanchies.
Mouiller à couvert avec du fonds provenant d’une noix de veau braisée; ajouter le Marsala qui a servi à mariner le foie gras.
Pocher pendant 45 minutes environ.
Cependant, avant d’arrêter la cuisson de la selle, s’assurer si le foie gras est bien cuit.
La selle étant cuite, retirer la mousseline; disposer la pièce dans une terrine ovale qui soit de justes dimensions pour la contenir; passer dessus le fonds de cuisson, sans le dégraisser, et laisser refroidir.
Lorsque la selle est bien froide, enlever soigneusement la graisse avec la cuiller d’abord, et avec de l’eau bouillante ensuite.
Servir tel quel, dans la terrine, et très froid.
Completely debone the saddle leaving the skin intact; season the inside; put in the middle a nice foie gras studded with truffles that has been marinated in Marsala.
Reform the saddle in its natural state; wrap it in gauze pressing it well; place it in a saucepan where it fits snugly, placing pork rinds that have been degreased and blanched on the bottom.
Cover with veal stock made from braising veal; add the Marsala which was used to marinate the foie gras.
Poach for approximately 45 minutes. Make sure the foie gras is well cooked before stopping the cooking of the lamb.
When the lamb is cooked, remove the muslin; put the saddle in an oval terrine that is just big enough to hold it; pour in the reduced stock, degrease, and cool.
When the saddle is cold, carefully remove the grease first with a spoon, and then with boiling water.
Serve as is, very cold, in the terrine.