We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), by unknown photographer Georges Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), by unknown photographer
Escoffier, Georges Auguste (1846–1935), master chef and writer on cookery, was born on 28 October 1846 in Villeneuve-sur-Loup (later Villeneuve-Loubet), Alpes-Maritimes, 15 kilometres from Nice, the son of Jean Baptiste Escoffier (d. 1909), farmer and village blacksmith. At thirteen Auguste was apprenticed to his uncle François Escoffier, who had opened in 1856 the Restaurant Français in Nice which provided an international cuisine for rich winter visitors and employed a Russian chef.

Chef de cuisine

After completing his apprenticeship Escoffier was offered work in Paris by Monsieur Bardoux, owner of the fashionable summer restaurant Le Petit Moulin Rouge. Near the Champs-Élysées, the restaurant attracted the ‘demi-monde’ of actresses, opera singers, cocottes, and their rich patrons. During the next five years Escoffier worked his way up through the various departments to become chef saucier under the direction of the chef de cuisine.

Although Escoffier had done his military service in an infantry regiment in 1867, on the declaration of war in July 1870 he was posted as chef de cuisine to the headquarters of the army of the Rhine in Metz. Escoffier described his experiences in Mémoires d'un soldat de l'armée du Rhin, published in serial form in La Revue de l'Art Culinaire during 1894 and 1895. He arrived in Metz in mid-July, and took part in three weeks of campaigning, which was followed by the ten-week siege of Metz. Escoffier describes collecting a secret farmyard of animals, and stockpiling essentials. He learnt to cook horsemeat. ‘On the day Metz surrendered there remained one chicken, a jar of meat extract, a tin of tunny fish and the goat, which I sold’ (Herbodeau and Thalamas, 28). Escoffier was the first serious chef to investigate tinned and preserved foods. Later he told Madame Ritz that his experience in Metz gave him the first idea of the potential of tinned foods and of the dire need the world had for them (Ritz, 33).

Following the fall of Metz, Escoffier spent six months as a prisoner of war in Germany, though after two miserable months he found a job as chef de cuisine for Marshal MacMahon, from France, imprisoned in Wiesbaden with his staff. Returning to France in April 1871 Escoffier escaped the siege of Paris by taking the last train from Paris to Versailles, where he worked first in Marshal MacMahon's headquarters and then for the officers of the 17th infantry regiment. During this period he learnt from an amateur sculptor the art of making wax flowers for elaborate table decorations. He later exhibited his creations at culinary exhibitions and wrote a book on the subject. After returning to civilian life, from 1872 to 1878 he worked each winter in the south of France, and returned in spring to Le Petit Moulin Rouge as chef de cuisine. Despite the military defeat, Paris life blossomed. With little formal education and although the life of a chef was physically very hard, the hours long, and the working conditions unpleasant, Escoffier interested himself in literature, theatre, and opera. His long friendship with Sarah Bernhardt dates from this period (1874). In 1876 be bought premises to set up a restaurant in Cannes; the Faisan Doré opened in 1879, but was then let. Instead, on his marriage in 1878 to Delphine Daphis (d. 1935), the daughter of Paul Daphis, a Paris publisher, Escoffier took a position as manager for La Maison Chevet, a famous catering firm in the Palais Royal, with a large government and international clientele.

Hotel cuisine

From 1884 Escoffier began writing for the professional journal La Revue de l'Art Culinaire. He also wrote with his wife Traité sur l'art de travailler les fleurs en cire (1885). A new career and a historic partnership began when Escoffier was asked by in 1884 to manage the kitchens of his recently opened Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. Ritz brought new ideas to hotel construction, furnishings, and staff organization and deportment, and Escoffier applied to kitchen management some of the same flair for innovation and quality that Ritz evolved for hotels.

The Grand Hotel had 250 rooms, a shopping arcade, electricity from its own steam engine, a ‘café anglais’, a separate restaurant in a Moorish style in the gardens, and a smoking room. Ritz realized that only first-class cooking would attract and keep the best clientele, and Escoffier took on the challenge of providing high-quality food throughout the day and night for large numbers, yet also providing elaborate gourmet meals for special customers. One long-lasting legacy was the prix fixe, a set menu devised to guide the inexperienced through the French haute cuisine.

Escoffier recruited and trained teams of chefs to work in Monaco in winter and at the Grand National Hotel in Lucerne, Europe's premier hotel, in summer; meanwhile Ritz engaged teams of specialists in wine, in waiting, and in other aspects of hotel management. They were so successful that in 1890 Ritz was approached by Richard D'Oyley Carte, the opera producer, who had expanded into property development in London and built a modern hotel, next to his theatre, the Savoy. It had opened in 1889 but lost money. Ritz put together a ‘little army of hotel men for the conquest of London’ (Ritz, 143); Escoffier reorganized the kitchen to provide a suitable working environment for sixty to eighty chefs and found new French staff, and the reopened Savoy Hotel was an immediate and lasting success. Led by the prince of Wales it became the meeting place for London high society and the nouveaux riches of the British empire. Madame Ritz, who was involved, described how the food and the ambience lured people from the clubs to dine in public and give great parties there. It allowed ladies, hitherto fearful of dining in public, to be seen in full regalia in the Savoy dining and supper rooms.

Ritz's contract allowed his team to take on freelance work for six months of the year, and they organized hotels all over Europe. Escoffier did not move his home to London—Madame Escoffier and their three children remained in Monte Carlo. In 1886 Ritz formed the Ritz Hotel Development Company, of which Escoffier and his other managers became directors. However, such activities led to Ritz and Escoffier being dismissed from the Savoy in 1897. The Ritz team threatened to sue for wrongful dismissal: the Savoy's lawyers and accountants built up a counter case against them of financial mismanagement and fraud. After several years the dispute was settled, with Ritz and Escoffier repaying some money to the Savoy. In 1887, employed by the Ritz Company, Escoffier went to Paris to design the kitchens and recruit the chefs for the first Ritz Hotel, in the place Vendôme. Escoffier then returned to London to organize the new Carlton Hotel. From its opening it attracted much of the Savoy's clientele, including the prince of Wales and the Marlborough House set. It paid out a dividend of 7 per cent in its first year to its influential financial and aristocratic backers, and for many years it was considered the finest hotel in London. At the Carlton in 1902, on the night that King Edward VII's coronation was cancelled, Cesar Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown, from which he did not recover.

Escoffier now took over from Ritz as the figurehead of the Carlton and became an international celebrity in his own right, the leading chef of his time, continuing to design kitchens and to tackle such challenges as catering for the new ocean-liners. He continued as a director of the company and manager of the kitchens of the Carlton throughout the difficult war years, coping with both food and labour shortages. Both his sons were in the French army, and his second son was killed in November 1914. For his work in promoting France through its cuisine during these years President Poincaré personally presented him with the cross of the Légion d'honneur in 1919. Escoffier retired in 1920.

Culinary writings and practice

In his menus, his cooking, and his writing, Escoffier was the leading exponent of the idea that haute cuisine should also be light and healthy. He advocated simplicity, and the banquet style with displays of ornate foods in heavy, rich sauces and indigestible garnishes gave way to dishes cooked for the individual. He insisted that a sense of occasion and luxury should come from flowers, fine china and glass, and specially designed serving dishes and containers (including sculpted ice). In his kitchens he combined the new and the traditional. Modern electric lighting was arranged over stoves and preparation tables to give clear, bright light. Surfaces were designed for high standards of cleanliness. Yet despite the advent of gas and electric cookers, Escoffier continued to rely on natural heat, and flames produced by burning wood and coke. His preferred utensils continued to be of iron and copper.

Escoffier was a devout Catholic, and left-over food from his London kitchens was given to local French nuns for the poor. Physically very small (he always needed specially raised clogs to cook in), and temperamentally reserved, Escoffier worked to improve the morale and working conditions of his chefs and campaigned against the brutality, bad language, and alcoholism endemic in a stressful trade (he provided lemon barley-water in great quantities to cut down alcohol consumption). He encouraged his chefs to dress well and to improve their education. He was involved in setting up educational courses for more formal professional training, including that at the Westminster Technical College. His hotels provided good quarters for staff. Concerned about the long-term insecurity of catering employees, in 1903 he helped to found the Association Culinaire Française de Secours Mutuel.

Escoffier was not good with finance but his talents for organization played an important role in his success. He personally visited his suppliers, commissioned new goods, and sought out new foods. He once described his role in organizing the growing of English-style green asparagus in the 1890s in Lauris in France: he went to the region and personally persuaded the reluctant growers to change their methods, which resulted in improved supply and lower prices in London. In addition, Escoffier and his elder son pioneered the manufacture of gourmet tinned and bottled foods and sauces.

Significance

Chefs trained by Escoffier spread his practices of cosmopolitan cuisine throughout the world. However, it was through his writing that Escoffier promoted his ideas, recipes, and practices, and he left a lasting legacy. He rethought the traditional recipes and techniques of French cuisine and described them with a new precision, allowing for experimentation, especially in refining and lightening the essential sauces. In addition he incorporated recipes from other European traditions. In 1903 Le guide culinaire was published and became an immediate success. It has gone through numerous editions. In 1912 Escoffier published Le livre des menus, a book on kitchen organization and menu preparation based on his work at the Savoy and Carlton hotels. Between 1911 and 1914 he published in London the monthly magazine Le Carnet d'Épicure. After retiring he wrote Ma cuisine, traité de cuisine familiale (1934) for cooks in private houses.

After an active retirement, not wealthy but much honoured, Escoffier died on 12 February 1935 at 8 bis avenue de la Costa, Monte Carlo, Monaco; his wife died three weeks earlier, in January of the same year. He was buried at Villeneuve-Loubet, where the Escoffier family house later became the Musée de l'Art Culinaire.

F. Ashburner

Sources  

E. Herbodeau and P. Thalamas, Georges Auguste Escoffier [1955] · M. L. Ritz, Cesar Ritz, host to the world (1938) · P. Levy, Out to lunch (1986) · T. Shaw, The world of Escoffier (1994) · K. James, Escoffier: the king of chefs (2002) · A. Escoffier, The complete guide to the art of modern cookery, trans. H. L. Cracknell and R. J. Kaufmann (1979) [incl. biographical note by P. Escoffier; Fr. orig. (1903)] · A. Escoffier, Ma cuisine, ed. M. Howells, trans. V. Holland [1965] [Fr. orig. (1934)]

Archives  

Fondation Auguste Escoffier, Villeneuve-Loubet, France


Likenesses  

portrait, 1926, Parisian Chefs' Society · statue, 1936, Villeneuve-Loubet, Alpes-Maritimes, France · bronze medallion, 1953, Westminster Technical College, London · photograph, repro. in Herbodeau and Thalamas, Georges Auguste Escoffier, frontispiece [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£334 12s. 11d.—in England: administration with will, 12 May 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales