The Moveable feast: Emperor of Chefs, and Chef of Emperors


This week we will pay tribute to all the chefs everywhere by writing about the extraordinary Chef George-Auguste Escoffier, who was born into a blacksmith family but rose to become ‘The Emperor of Chefs and The Chef of Emperors’. He was born in 1846 and when he was 13 years old he worked in his uncles’ restaurant in Nice, Le Restaurant Francais.

Six years later he came to the attention of the owner of Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris where he worked in the kitchen and during the Franco-Prussian War studied and perfected the art of canning, which with a few improvements remains unchanged until today.

At 25, Escoffier opened his own restaurant in Cannes — The Golden Pheasant. In 1880, married a daughter of a publisher, Delphine Daffis who helped him write a number of books including the definitive Ma Cuisine in 1934.

While working in Monte Carlo, he met Cesar Ritz and they worked together in London at the Savoy Hotel. Each evening, while at the Savoy, Escoffier took to inventing dishes for his patrons so a new dish would appear the next day.

One example was the Peach Melba, which he invented for the Australian singer Nellie Melba, and strangely chose the raspberry as the flavour of the dish. He created a dish of quails and named it Rachel Mignonettes after two great actresses, and he conjured the Tournedos Rossini named after the great Italian composer.

In the early 20th century (1912) Kaiser, Emperor William II tasted his food abroad the Amerika Shipping Line where Escoffier was a consultant and said, “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs”.

In 1920, he was awarded the Legion of Honour, the first Chef to be so honoured. Escoffier often composed menus himself when he knew the clients. When he didn’t, he would ask the head waiter to find out as much about their preferences as possible and then Escoffier would create another miracle.

For a shooting party, Escoffier created a sauce which mixed equal portions of horseradish and chopped walnuts to which was added powdered sugar, a little salt, the juice of two lemons and enough fresh cream for a thick sauce.

Of another hunting meal by Escoffier, a guest wrote, “Our dinner that evening consisted of a cabbage, potato, and kohlrabi soup, augmented with three young chickens, an enormous piece of lean bacon, and a big farmhouse sausage. The broth, with some of the mashed vegetables, was poured over slices of toast, which made an excellent rustic soup. What remained of the vegetables were arranged on a large dish around the chickens, the bacon, and the sausage; here was the wherewithal to comfort the most robust of stomachs, and each of us did due honour to this good family dish. To follow, we were served with a leg of mutton, tender and pink, accompanied by a puree of chestnuts. Then, a surprise — an immense, hermetically sealed terrine, which, placed in the middle of the table, gave out, when it was uncovered, a marvellous scent of truffles, partridges, and aromatic herbs. This terrine contained eight young partridges, amply truffled and cased in fat bacon, a little bouquet of mountain herbs and several glasses of fine-champagne cognac.”

Escoffier died in 1935 and the house where he was born was turned into a museum of culinary art in 1966. He lives on through his recipes, the modern kitchen which with a few changes is still used. But most of all Escoffier was a man who reached out to other people with the ultimate gift — food.