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The History of Fine Dining: Haute, Nouvelle, & Fusion

Escoffier and Eliminating the Unessential

Although Carźme was the undisputed star of the first half of the 19th century his influence was eclipsed by a brighter star in second half, Georges-Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), whose influence still permeates almost every area of gourmet cooking. But there were still a few factors that were needed to set his stage.

In 1869 Russian table service was introduced into France, under the influence of another great chef, Felix Urbain-Dubois, who introduced the concept that each guest and course should be served individually to maximize the taste experience. Prior to this innovation the French had been serving 3 courses. But the first contained all the hot dishes, which cooled; the second contained all the cold dishes, which warmed prematurely and the third was for desserts. Serving each dish individually optimized the temperature and textures at the moment of consumption.

A second influence on Escoffier came from Prosper Montagné, another prestigious French chef. In contrast to Carźme he believed that the unessential should be discarded. This novel concept, at first resisted, was completely embraced Escoffier, who became a zealot for dining reform. Without Escoffier, Montagné’s ideas might have languished as an eccentric off beat idea. However because of Escoffier’s prestige, it quickly became mainstream.

Escoffier refined and modified all aspects of Dining. He accelerated service, shortened menus, and developed a kitchen team with clearly defined duties - chef, sous chef, meat, fish, appetizers and pastry cooks. He also named dishes after celebrities and wealthy patrons. For instance Peach Melba, was named after a famous actress of the day. This has become a well-established tradition. His innovations still dominate Dining.

Born in 1846 and beginning his training at the age of 12, he continued working for 62 years, finally retiring at the age of 74. His term of active service was exceptionally lengthy even by French standards. He had achieved a worldwide reputation by the time he died in 1935. He has been called ‘the king of chefs and the chef of kings’. One of his clients Emperor William II said “I am the emperor of Germany but you are the emperor of chefs.”

What were the circumstances of his rise to global fame? For the answer to this question we must introduce the most famous Maitre’d the world has ever known - for their partnership was the key to their international influence.

Cesar Ritz, the ultimate Maitre’d

Escoffier’s front man was Cesar Ritz (1850-1918), who was so influential during his day that his name has become synonymous with elegance and luxury. Ritzy, putting on the ritz, are just a few of the ways his name is used.

Ritz became the Maitre’d hotel at the Hotel Splendide in Paris in the 1870s. During his term there he came in contact with the celebrated and the wealthy - including Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan. He acted as their personal guide to continental taste. Ambitious he then became the General Manager of the Grand Hotel in Switzerland and then GM of their Monte Carlo branch, where he met Escoffier. Love at first sight.

Embracing their destiny together they opened a restaurant in Baden-Baden Germany. Escoffier tended the Back of the House, the food, while Ritz tended the Front, the service - the ideal restaurant relationship. Impressed with what they were doing, a wealthy patron, Richard D’oyly Carte, invited them to the Savoy Hotel in London. This is when England was at the height of her power - when the sun never set on British soil - prior to the collapse of their colonial Empire. Although the prosperous English businessman and aristocracy had plenty of money, the food that was available remained substandard.

With Escoffier as his chef Ritz converted London society to the practice of dining out. As one international traveler exclaimed, their restaurant ‘made London a place worth living in.’ This is the type of Maitre’d that every restaurant hopes for - suave, sophisticated, charming, international.

The Ritz Carlton and Haute Cuisine

The Dining experience they offered was such a universal success that the French wanted Ritz to establish his culinary formula in France. With a loan from Marnier La Pestelle, who invented Grand Marnier with Ritz suggesting the name, he purchased an old mansion. Ritz personally saw to the refurbishing of this old building with its 210 rooms. His Ritz Hotel opened in 1898 to a crowd of diners. Due to the immediate success of this establishment, Ritz returned to London to purchase the Carlton Hotel. It was at this time that Escoffier left the Savoy Hotel, where he’d worked since 1890, to become the chef of the Carlton Hotel, where he stayed for the remainder of his career from 1900 until 1920.

Based upon their international acclaim Ritz and Escoffier established a string of luxury hostelries located in most of the major Western cities - including London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, New York, Budapest, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. They had controlling interest in all nine establishments, which spanned 7 countries.

The extent of their collective and widespread influence on the Dining traditions of the West firmly established Escoffier’s haute cuisine as The Cuisine of the wealthy and sophisticated. Due to their international exertions Escoffier’s renown came to surpass that of Carźme’s.

Unfortunately due to the stress of his international business dealings and globe trotting Ritz suffered a nervous collapse in June 1902. Although he helped open the Ritz in London he remained an invalid, weak with illness for the last 16 years of life. However he left his name upon the luxury hotel chain that he founded - the Ritz Carlton, which still remains one of the fanciest resorts in the world.

Larousse Gastronomique

Escoffier also wrote many books to propagate his philosophy of Dining, including Ma Cuisine, published near the end of his life in 1934. While his books were popular when written, his aforementioned friend and fellow chef, Prosper Montagné, wrote the most influential French culinary classic, Larousse Gastronomique. It has been variously described as a basic encyclopedia of French cooking - a kaleidoscopic combination of an encyclopedia and cookbook - an anthology of haute cuisine. Although initially published in 1938, a few years after his death, Escoffier wrote the forward to this Bible of Haute Cuisine, which was based in part upon his monumental influence. He writes that the history of food “is equivalent to painting a portrait evoking a country’s whole civilization.” This gives some indication how serious the French are about their food.

It has been translated into myriad languages, the first American edition coming out in 1971, and has never been out of print. It is continually revised and updated just like any other encyclopedia - with new recipes by contemporary chefs added as recently as 1984. It is still recognized as the definitive reference book for amateur and professional cooks alike - a mandatory part of the library of every French chef.

Nouvelle Cuisine

However nothing remains the same for long in our transitory world. In the late 1950s a group of young French chefs - Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, the Troisgros Brothers, Alain Chapel - broke with the guidelines of haute cuisine, which had rigidified due to Escoffier’s massive prestige. They dared to go free form, but only in the sense that modern composers broke with classical music traditions. These innovators disregarded the codification and philosophy of haute cuisine, but not its rules or essence. Plate presentation, refined sauces, and high quality ingredients still were retained. Just the manifestations varied. This break with tradition was called nouvelle cuisine, a phrase coined by the influential restaurant critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau.

A major difference between haute and nouvelle was the basic sauce. In the attempt to avoid rich sauces for health reasons, rouxs, the standard of the old guard, were replaced by reductions, which used no flour as a filler or butter to thicken. Further these groundbreaking chefs employed novel combinations in small quantities, using only the best quality and ever on the search for unique ingredients. This led to a greater focus upon the purchasing of food. Perhaps more importantly in breaking the chains of the past, these creative and inventive practitioners established the chef as a creative artist in his own right, rather than someone who was an expert at duplicating the masters of the past.

Fusion

This break with traditions led inevitability to the next culinary wave - fusion, which could be called an extension of nouvelle. In this style international cuisines are mixed in creative ways. This differs from the nouvelle style, which was still predominantly French. For instance fusion might mix Asian and European techniques but in the French Dining setting with wine paring, courses, and the same attentive service, albeit more casual - not quite so formal. However quality ingredients prepared creatively and served properly are still of utmost importance.

To indicate the importance of this movement it has been suggested that one of France’s 3 Star chefs committed suicide partly at least because he didn’t have the background to move into fusion. A rising star in the nouvelle tradition he was unable to continue on the crest of the culinary wave because he was so grounded in the French tradition that he had no international culinary experience.

According to some the French Dining ritual is the only structured and organized system of cuisine in the world. While this view has some merit, I think it is a bit ethnocentric. Plate presentation with specific courses is very much a part of most of the sophisticated cultures of the world - perhaps not as codified, but, as we’ve seen, even the French system has been subject to variation. However the one element that sets French cuisine apart from the rest is the beverage paring with the courses - specifically wine. And while the Asians have their sake, there are no vintages - no aging - which eliminates an entire dimension of complexity.

The universality of the restaurant experience

Despite the relatively recent beginnings of dining out, at present the restaurant experience is universal. Most of us would be hard put to find someone who has never had a restaurant experience. While not everyone has worked in a restaurant, almost everyone has eaten at a restaurant of some level, whether Coffee Shop or Fine Dining. I think it would be safe to say that the Restaurant experience is nearly universal in most of the United States, perhaps in much of the citified world.

 

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