The Birth of a Chef
28 October 1846
Born into a modest family on 28 October 1846 in Villeneuve-Loubet (near Nice in the Alpes-Maritimes), the son of a farrier, at the age of thirteen Auguste Escoffier entered apprenticeship to his uncle, who ran the “Restaurant Français” in Nice, on the corner of the current Place Masséna. At the time, Nice was the capital of the County that bore its name, before its annexation by France in 1860.
Auguste Escoffier then worked at the “Cercle Masséna” (1863), before becoming the chef at the “Restaurant des Frères Provençaux" in Rue Saint-François de Paul. In 1864, he worked at the “Hotel Bellevue” in Nice, where he met the owner of the “Petit Moulin Rouge", a famous Parisian restaurant in Rue d’Antin, who offered him the position of assistant roaster.
In 1865, he therefore left Nice for Paris, an experience during which he started meeting the famous names of the time.
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war broke out. He was enlisted as a chef for the general staff of the Army of the Rhine. This was the opportunity for him to observe and reflect on the eating habits of troops in combat and envisage new methods for conserving food. Then during a period of captivity, he became the Chef for Marshall Mac-Mahon.
After being demobbed, he spend a season in Nice, from 1872 to 1873, at the “Hotel Luxembourg”. He then returned to the “Petit Moulin Rouge" in Paris, where he remained as the chef from 1873 to 1878. There, he served the famous names of the time: Sarah Bernhardt, Juliette Adam, Gustave Doré, etc. During this period at the “Petit Moulin Rouge", he bought a food company in Cannes. He added a restaurant to this, the “Faisan Doré”, which operated in winter, Cannes having become a very elegant and much-visited resort, especially by a rich English clientele.
After the winter season, he returned to Paris and the “Petit Moulin Rouge", which he finally left for good in 1878. In August of that year, he married Delphine Daffis, the daughter of a major publisher. They had three children, Paul, Daniel and Germaine.
Until the spring of 1884, he could be found in Paris, running the “Maison Chevet”, the “Palais Royal” and the “Restaurant Maire”.
In May 1884, he opened the all new Casino café-restaurant in Boulogne-sur-mer.
Auguste Escoffier at the age of 29
His meeting with César Ritz
In October 1884, he became the Chef of the “Grand Hotel” in Monte-Carlo. This establishment belonged to a Swiss family, the Jungbluths. It was managed by César Ritz, who would later open the “Hotel national” in Lucerne. The “Grand Hotel” in Monte-Carlo was then an old establishment, and under more competition from the brand new “Hotel de Paris”. Extremely comfortable and luxurious, Jean Giroix, the chef of the “Grand Hotel” came and took over the kitchens. Giroix often extolled the merits of a young chef to Ritz, one Auguste Escoffier, whose reputation was beginning to grow. Ritz immediately asked him, in the height of the season, to come to the “Grand Hotel”. This was an important date in the career of both men, because their respective genius would allow them an extraordinary collaboration that would result in the creation of the international luxury hospitality trade.
“The partnership between Ritz and Escoffier counts among the happiest events of their lives” noted Mrs Ritz in her book about her husband.
With the winter season in Monte-Carlo over, Escoffier followed Ritz to Lucerne, where he managed the kitchens of the “National”. It was at this time that train travel would see a marked development. The “Riviera” (as the “Côte d’Azur was not yet in existence) was linked to Paris by the railway as of 1865. From 1883 to 1896, fast luxury trains were launched one after the other: the Orient Express, the Calais-Rome, which went through Nice, the Sud-Express and the Nord-Express, etc. All this encouraged tourism.
The future King of Denmark, Frederick VIII, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, King Francis II of the Two-Sicilies, Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, Don Pedro, Emperor of Brazil and the Grand Dukes of Russia came to Monte-Carlo, all rivalling in luxury and magnificence.
At this time, Escoffier’s menus were often created in homage to the great ladies of this society: Réjane salad, Rachel Mignonnettes of quail, Pears Mary Garden, Poularde Adelina Patti, Coupe Yvette, Strawberries Sarah Bernhardt, Peach Melba...
This period would last seven years, until April 1890 when Ritz took over the “Savoy Hotel” in London, which had opened a year earlier. He entrusted the running of the kitchens and restaurant to Escoffier. They remained there until 1897 and made this Hotel the most sumptuous in Europe, frequented by a rich and royal clientele.
The Savoy Hotel
The “Savoy” shone with unprecedented brightness and its cuisine acquired international fame. It would be frequented by all the European aristocracy, the “kings” of American industry, and the greatest artists of the time, used to the refinement of César Ritz’s hotels and Escoffier’s cuisine. The Castellanes, the Breteuils, the Sagans, the Radziwills, the Rudinis, the Vanderbilts, Sarah Bernhardt and Nellie Melba would follow suit. It was for this famous Australian singer that in 1894 Auguste Escoffier would create his most famous desert, the “Peach Swan”, in homage to her talent after hearing her in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden. This desert became the “Peach Melba” on the inauguration of the Carlton Hotel in London in 1899.
This is where he invented the set price menu, for a minimum of four people, which quickly met with success among the Carlton’s demanding and busy clientele.
Wishing to promote French products in as far as possible, he had 4500 pounds of butter delivered from Normandy and Brittany every month, went to Lauris (in Provence) to encourage farmers to grow green asparagus instead of white, as the English preferred this. He did the same for peaches from the Rhone valley. He introduced London’s poultry farmers to the Rouen duck, which couldn’t be found there at the time. He managed to have tinned crushed tomatoes, a recipe he had developed during his time at the “Petit Moulin Rouge” produced and delivered by a fruit and vegetable preserving company.
He even managed, during a great ball for 600 people, to serve a cold dish called “Aurora Nymphs’ Legs”, happy to have the English - who called the French people “froggies” - unknowingly eat frogs leg’s, with a little help from the Prince of Wales who adored them!
The birth of the Ritz Hotel
César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier left the Savoy with some of their colleagues in March 1897 following tension with the hotel’s managers, Ritz already having the plan to open the first establishment to bear his name at Place Vendôme in Paris. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, publicly said of César Ritz: "Where Ritz goes, we shall follow"!
In fact, he created his own company, the Ritz Development Co., in which Escoffier was a partner. The Ritz Hotel fully expressed his revolutionary ideas on hospitality, his desire for comfort and hygiene and his organizational genius. Escoffier supervised the design and organization of the kitchens.
At the same time, the delay in building the Carlton Hotel in London served César Ritz’s luxury project.
The “Ritz” was opened with a sumptuous gala on 5 June 1898, and was a triumph. The most famous people in the world joined with Parisian society for this occasion.
Marcel Proust, the Duc de Levis Mirepoix, Gordon Bennet, Santos Dumont, Boni de Castellane…impossible to list the names of all the hundreds of people, the VIPs of the time who then came to the Ritz, the fashionable meeting place that guaranteed supreme elegance.
Boni de Castellane wrote: “I will sack my Chef, I would be stupid to try and rival Ritz and Escoffier”.
At the start of 1899, Escoffier left the Ritz Hotel and went back to London to prepare the opening of the Carlton Hotel, which took place on 1 July of this year.
He remained there until 1920, the year he retired to Monte-Carlo, to the house he had purchased in 1884 and where his wife lived, thus achieving the work on which he was fixated: the development of French cuisine, not only in England but throughout the entire world.
It was at the Carlton, supported by a team of sixty cooks, that he would again confirm the excellence of his cuisine and perfect his organization.
His colleagues, friends and biographers, Eugène Herbodeau and Paul Thalamas recounted:
“Elegantly dressed as of the morning, in his famous strictly-cut frock coat as he only put on his waistcoat and chef’s hat on Sundays, a day of crowds and action stations when he would rush to serve 500 covers at each sitting. As of seven o’clock, he would tour the kitchens, checking every detail, imposing an iron will without ever raising his voice. His morning was regularly split between his desk, where he drew up his menus, and the dining room where he enquire about the minutest of details for every client.
During service, he ceaselessly shuttled between the dining room and the kitchens, nothing escaped him. Around three thirty, when everything was over, he would return to his desk, read, write, reflect and then visit his suppliers, on foot as he was a tireless walker.
At the end of the day, at six o’clock, he would return to the kitchens, prepare the menus for the reserved tables. The dinner service lasted from seven o’clock until one in the morning. Around nine o’clock, if he hadn’t been called to the table of a famous client, he would eat a light meal alone and then return to his desk.
At midnight, he would take a final tour of the kitchen and check what remained, in order to avoid any waste.”
Auguste Escoffier and his staff at the Carlton in London
Organizing the kitchens on the Cruise Liners
Another major activity by Escoffier during these glorious years was the organization of the kitchens on the great German Cruise Liners.
In 1904, the “Hamberg-Amerika Line” Sailing Company set up an à la carte restaurant service for its luxury passengers on its extremely beautiful ships, under the “Ritz Carlton Restaurant” brand name. Auguste Escoffier was responsible for organizing the kitchens. The first liner thus equipped was the “Amerika”, followed by the “Kaiserin Augusta Victoria" (45,000 tonnes).
These facilities were the perfect examples of their type at the turn of the century. Escoffier sailed on every maiden voyage, checking the slightest detail of the facilities and the work by the team.
In 1906, on board the “Amerika”, he had the chance to meet German Emperor Willhelm II, with whom he had a one-on-one discussion.
In 1913, he met the Emperor again, on board the “Imperator” (53,000 tonnes), the German company’s flagship, during its maiden voyage. During this meeting, Auguste Escoffier expressed his deepest wish, that never again would two great peoples war against each other, a wish shared by the Emperor.
The following year, the First World War broke out, and his second son Daniel was killed during its first few weeks.
An Active Retirement
The importance of Escoffier’s professional life, especially abroad, and the fame that the perfection of his work brought to France was immense. He gave this wonderful trade back its letters patent.
President Raymond Poincaré awarded him the title of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur while on an official visit to London on 11 November 1919 for the 1st anniversary of the 1918 Armistice. He was the first Chef to receive this award. In 1928, he was promoted to Officier de la Légion d'Honneur by Edouard Herriot, Minister for Public Education.
In 1920, after an exceptional career spanning 61 years, he embarked on a deserved retirement in Monte-Carlo. Nevertheless, he continued to travel in France and abroad for various professional events: the opening of hotels, exhibitions and culinary competitions, etc. He continued to write multiple articles and returned twice more to the United States. His last journey in 1930 would be devoted to the opening of the "Hotel Pierre" in New York.
The Villa Fernand - Monaco
A Work that endures
Few men in the history of cuisine have marked a profession as deeply, both in terms of the duration and exemplary nature of their career and in the transformations and innovations that they have brought to it.
While our tastes have changed today, as have the cooking utensils, cooking and conservation methods and the menu structure, in a world where new techniques are established, the rules of cuisine and for organizing work themselves remain identical to those created by Auguste Escoffier in his time.
His talent as a writer also allowed him to leave for posterity, in works that have since become classics, the lessons and tips that he generously gave to those who worked under him. After having been the codemaker, he is still today the undisputable theorist of modern cuisine.
In 1885 he published his first work, Les fleurs en cire (Wax flowers), confections he loved to make, perhaps satisfying his childhood desire to become a sculptor.
In 1903, the first edition of the Guide Culinaire was published, the master work that still remains the chefs’ bible.
In 1921, the 4th edition of the Guide was published, the last in his lifetime. This work was translated into many languages over the years.
In 1910 he created a magazine in London, the Carnet d'Épicure, in order to promote tourism in France amongst the English.
In 1912, with the Livre des Menus, Escoffier gave every cook multiple tips, many of which are still applicable in today's cuisine.
To help service in the dining room, the Aide-Mémoire Culinaire was published in 1919.
Two works were brought together in one collection, La vie a bon marché: recipes for preparing rice and recipes for preparing cod that were themselves aimed at consumers with modest incomes. In fact, Escoffier campaigned for everyone to be able to eat properly.
Lastly, Ma Cuisine, published in 1934 was aimed more specifically at home cooks the world over and was translated into several languages.
Auguste Escoffier, the Humanist
Escoffier was constantly concerned for the well-being of his employees and the improvement of their living conditions.
Consequently, during the First World War in London, he ceaselessly provided generous aid to the families of his cooks who had enlisted. He organized charity dinners, the profits from which were sent to France. A hand-written card from 27 July 1917 indicates a profit of 430 pounds, i.e. 11,000 Francs (over €70,000 today) “from a small party we have just held in favour of the women and children of our colleagues at the front”.
In London, throughout the period when he was running the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel and then the Carlton, his bounty and generosity never waivered. He thus helped the Petites Sœurs des Pauvres nuns in feeding the elderly people they looked after, by giving them the excess left over from the day before, in particular quails from which only the breasts had been served to clients, thus avoiding waste.
In 1903, he created the first Chefs’ Union in Great Britain.
In 1910, he published a brochure entitled the Mutual assistance project for ending poverty. While illness and old age were synonymous with poverty, he proposed various material safety measures for retirement, thus creating a veritable Social Security.