Books & Reviews 📚

Book #26: Escoffier: The King of Chefs

Author: Kenneth James
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (2002)
Pages: 319
Chapters: 18+17 interludes


Auguste Escoffier (1846 -1935) was the first modern celebrity chef.His clientele included royalty as well as leaders of society and fashion. This book traces his career from his humble origins on the French Riviera to Paris, London and New York. Acknowledged already during his lifetime as the greatest chef in the world, with the hotelier César Ritz, he changed the way we eat and the way food is presented. Together they established a tradition of superb cooking. They were also instrumental in making dining in public respectable for women. Escoffier popularized his repertoire in a series of hugely successful cookery books. He shows what made the cuisine at the Savoy and the Carlton so outstanding, as well as drawing a persona: a culinary portrait of a chef of genius. Escoffier: The King of Chefs also presents the dishes, from eggs to lobster, on which Escoffier had both lasting influence and strongly held views.


“Although I had not originally intended to enter this profession, since I am in it, I will work in such a fashion that I will rise above the ordinary, and I will do my best to raise again the prestige of the chef de cuisine.”

– A. Escoffier

So said, so done. I’m just going to talk about the book.

Frenchmen rules the kitchen! That being said, I have no business in the kitchen. I am not a foodie fanatic nor am I an adventure eater, but where history is concerned – food included – I indulge. Also, I am a notable Francophile and Auguste Escoffier simply happen to be one of my favorite French heroes. This man was a revolutionary. When I picked this book up, I was not expecting much about the Escoffier family knowing that French people (well, most of them) are a private people. Even the French footballers are very private about their personal life. He didn’t let me down. Escoffier had written little about his family during his time.

“Cooking is a science and an art, and the man that puts all his heart into satisfying his fellow man deserves consideration.”

– A. Escoffier

Escoffier’s father chose this field for him and instead of fighting his father over his future, Escoffier did his best to come out on top. In the first Interlude, the author divulges into coffee history. Coffee was Escoffier’s favorite brew and he said, “Never serve coffee except at the end of a meal.”

Coffee drinkers are a bit like wine lovers: They know what they like and sneer at the others.

Coffee back then was an exquisite expensive brew. Escoffier’s cooking career started off with the forbidden brew that was meant to be drunk on special occasions. Look at how far we’ve come! The French certainly enjoy taking their coffee at breakfast. Escoffier’s love for coffee saw him write an article about it in 1883, stating that the beverage was THE necessary complement to ALL meals. About coffee being introduced in France in 1669, Escoffier said, “The French people, the most alert in the world had no need of it as a remedy, but both the court and the bourgeoisie adopted it as a new gastronomic joy.” The first successful coffee house was opened in Paris by an Italian in 1702, the Café Procope.

Escoffier was a staunch patriot and he loved his country. It had pained him to see his own fellow people insulting Bazine and praising the Prussians after they won the war against France. “What more could they have desired than to see French soldiers being insulted in France by the … French?”

Indeed, the Prussians must have smirked in satisfaction, but that is the French for you. I’ve seen it time after time again in football. The French simply enjoy insulting their own.

As relaxation, Escoffier read books on the history of France (my favorite history topic too!).

The French style of presentation of a meal was derived from the system pioneered by Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). Another Frenchman that I love!

The author didn’t touch on this, but I’m going to anyway. Carême was interested in architecture and he applied it to desserts thus he became known as the Architect of French Cuisine. He was the originator of haute cuisine. He updated the chef’s uniform. This was the man who was considered the first celebrity chef by many. Even Escoffier was inspired by him, but somewhere in French cuisine history, his story got lost and many modern cookery students are quick to identify with Escoffier. Carême was abandoned on the streets by his father who was too poor to keep him. But look at the man he turned out to be!

You can read more here:

Marie-Antoine Careme-the-first-celebrity-chef

I met a lot of interesting people in this book such as the eccentric Jean Zamoyski and Izzet Bey, a Francophile such as myself.

“To know how to eat is to know how to live.” – A. Escoffier

Enter César Ritz.

The pioneer of luxury hotels. Ritz’s story was equally interesting as Escoffier. When he sent for the master chef he was four years younger than the 38-year-old Escoffier. Ritz wanted nothing more than to run his own hotel. Escoffier wanted nothing more than to run his own business, to be independent and work in his own way to exploit his culinary talent. The Escoffier-Ritz partnership couldn’t have come at a better time. They got on like a house on fire and understood each other on a professional level. They complimented each other well. They even shared a mutual distaste of England and its way of life until April 06th, 1890 when they arrived in England to take over the Savoy.

“Even English dishes were quite good if cooked by a French chef,” – M. Gimon (Auguste’s understudy)

The author seemed curious as to what Escoffier’s actual relationship to Sarah Bernhardt, “the most famous actress the world has ever known” was.

Although there are no mentions of Escoffier and Bernhardt having an affair, James couldn’t let it go and mentioned it several times in the book. It was pretty clear that they were intrigued with each other and I mean, look at her! Had I been living in her time, she would have been my muse. Escoffier was a lover of the ladies and he named many dishes after them, but there is no strong evidence pointing to speculated affairs… not saying that he didn’t have one. Escoffier-Ritz brought the Grand National Hotel in Rome to a high standard. It was the first hotel in the world to have a bathroom for every bedroom.

You can more about the hotel history here:

Escoffier’s book Le Guide Culinaire is still an important book for the kitchen.

Have you ever had the Pêche Melba or Peach Melba? It was one of Escoffier’s creation. Peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream, covered with raspberry puree and lace of spun sugar, nestled between the wings of a sculptured swan. Today:

“The secret is that most of my best dishes were created for the ladies.” – A. Escoffier

Ritz had overworked himself and became depressed. It was quite sad how he sunk out of life. At one point, he couldn’t even recognize his wife, who took over all his responsibilities. Ritz died a couple of weeks before the Armistice. Escoffier was also concerned for the less fortunate, the aged and the invalids. He was appalled when he saw the wastage of food from grand hotels in London, something which still goes on today not only in hotels but in mere restaurants too. At the Savoy, Escoffier had the nuns come each morning to take away the left-overs for distribution.

Escoffier was also generous and wouldn’t hesitate to reach into his pocket. He appeared to not hold many grudges, a fine example: the chef de cuisine who bullied him at his early days at the Petit Moulin Rouge was now old and lonely. What did Escoffier do? He asked the nuns to take Ulysee Rahaut in. ❤

Escoffier helped save lives when a fire broke out at the Carlton Hotel on August 09th 1911. He had collected people from the upper floors and led them to safety. Again, April 14th, 1912, the Titanic went down leaving 1500 people dead at sea. All but one of the cooks perished, but Escoffier made it his duty to publish photos of each cook with obituaries in Le Carnet d’Epicure. He didn’t sit on problems, he did something about them.

Escoffier passed away six days after his wife Delphine, having lived a fulfilled life.

Sometimes I didn’t feel like I was reading the bio of Auguste Escoffier, just a mere historical account of important parts of his life. The author even took some time to compare his fellow English food writer Elizabeth David to/with Escoffier. Come on, you English should be grateful! David is not in Escoffier’s boat.

Escoffier was a very likable man and his unparalleled career is an example for cookery students to follow and mold themselves after.

Notable Honors

> Awarded the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française (3rd class, bronze)

> First chef ever to receive France’s highest accolade, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

> The first artiste-artisan to receive the Cross of Denmark

> Promoted from Chevalier to Officier de la Légion d’Honneur




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