Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Escoffier and Us; Pt. I

 It doesn't seem possible to have a discussion about the history of culinary arts in the United States without tracing back to one of the biggest influences, if not the biggest, on the profession of cooking.

Pierre Auguste Escoffier did many things for the culinary world, but perhaps his two largest contributions were codifying a tangle of recipes that when viewed in order, can pretty much be used to make anything, even today.  Known as The Bible to classically trained cooks, la Guide Culinaire has over 5,000 recipes which reference and cross-reference in a most efficient way methods for creating everything from stocks and sauces, to terrines and souffles. 

His other significant contribution was the disciplined organization of both front and back of the house in restaurants and hotels into a system called la Brigade de Cuisine or, to cooks, The Kitchen Brigade.  His main purpose for implementing the system was to create some order in the chaos.  When producing 14-course meals, usually for esteemed guests, the only way to pull it off (and do so with precision and consistency) was to assign all the elements of the meal and service to individual teams.  Everyone has a task.  Perhaps Escoffier's military background accounted for some of this, but from a logical standpoint, it made sense, especially considering his commitment to bringing professionalism to the hotel and restaurant industry.

The Brigade system is responsible for terms like chef de cuisine (chef in charge of the kitchen) and sous chef (2nd in command), but also poissonnier and rotisseur (fish cook and roaster cook) and chef de partie and plongeur (station chef and dishwasher).  In hotels in Europe and even five star hotels around the world, this system is still recognized by kitchen professionals as the gold standard.

Ever see the film Ratatouille?  La Brigade is referenced because the producers wanted an accurate portrayal of a professional, French kitchen.  They also hired Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se as consultant on the film to ensure all detail were covered, and to give the film some credibility among F&B professionals.

On October 21,1930 while visiting the Pierre Hotel in New York City, Escoffier and his team were invited to attend Mushroom Day in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  It seems while there has only been an official festival in Kennett for 24 years, the fungus that put Kennett on the map was being celebrated way before. 
In Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life, the renowned chef discusses his trip to mushroom country:
"...About two hundred people were invited, including hotel directors, restaurant managers, and the largest distributors of food products from New York, Philadelphia, and neighboring cities.
At two o'clock the train stopped at its destination.  To get all the passengers to the mushroom farm several miles away from the station, 150 cars were lined up and waiting.  When we got to the farm, we were all asked to gather and pose for a historic photograph.
We toured the farm until six o'clock at night admiring its size, efficiency, and the quality of the products.  Then six hundred guests were invited for a meal at one of the best local restaurants; dinner consisted of veal saddle accompanied by...large platters of creamed mushrooms!

We were then taken several miles away from the restaurant to the beautiful property of Mr. and Mrs. Dupont de Nemours, millionaires of French origin.  The gardens of their home are illuminated at night and on this special occasion the fountains in the garden were also activated, creating an unforgettable light-and-water show worthy of the magic of any Perrault fairy tale.  It was a wonderful surprise and the end of an unforgettable day.  At 10 o'clock I thanked the Dupont family and headed back for New York, where arrived at 2 am."
The Main Fountains at Longwood Gardens, yesterday, 8/31/09
And his last notes referencing that trip:
"...Let me note that, in view of the rapid development of the mushroom industry in America, I fear that our French products may have difficulty competing with them, especially in view of the high cost of import taxes.."
Royal Trumpet and Maiitake Mushrooms from Kennett Square, PA

Escoffier in Kennett?  A 150 car caravan from the train station to the mushroom farms?  Dinner for 600- uhm- where?!  How many places could seat and feed 600 a meal of such high caliber in 1930?  I'm thinking the Hotel duPont.  But, then Escoffier was rubbing elbows in Chateau Country with the duPonts.  Was this @ Longwood, or do the duPonts just have a thing for fountain and light shows?  No matter what- I find all these notes fascinating. 

Next installment: Six Degrees of Auguste Escoffier

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Very interesting. Mushroom Festival is next weekend. :)


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