top of page

What did Auguste Escoffier invent? | The modern restaurant

Luncheon at the Savoy Hotel in London was at its height, and in the restaurant some more than 500 elegant diners were tucking into their lovingly prepared and mouth-watering meals.

What did Auguste Escoffier invent? The modern restaurant.

The food was the creation of the celebrated French master chef Auguste Escoffier, who sat in his glass fronted office in the nearby kitchens, from where he kept an eye on his 80-strong army of cheſs, under chefs, pastry cooks, wine, soup, meat, fish, sauce and vegetable specialists - as well as dish washers and apprentices.

When the 42-year-old Escoffier - who had perfected his culinary skills in restaurants and hotels in Nice, Paris and Monte Carlo - arrived at the newly opened Savoy in 1889, the preparation and serving of food still followed the dictates of the late Antonin Carême, chef to several crowned heads of Europe. He believed in serving meals à la française, that is, placing several different main and side dishes on the table at the same time. This gave an impression of a sumptuous banquet, and allowed the diners to sample a little of whatever took their fancy. It also blunted the palate, allowed the food to get cold, encouraged gluttony and caused indigestion.

Auguste Escoffier: the inventor of the modern restaurant.

A Russian revolution

Escoffier swept all this aside and introduced service à la russe: the Russian way', in which only one main dish and its accompaniment was served at a time properly heated, correctly proportioned and perfectly balanced. During a meal of, say, sole in white wine sauce, pheasant with pâté de foie gras, and a crayfish soufflé, diners would be served a fruit or champagne sorbet after the strongly flavored game course to refresh their palates. Each course was complemented by a carefully chose wine. In addition, Escoffier did away with heavy, flour-based sauces in favor of lighter, easy-to-digest meat extract.

As the Savoy's first-ever Director of Kitchens, Escoffier set fresh standards in obtaining the best possible supplies. He personally shopped for fish such as turbot, sole, trout and Scotch salmon in London's Billingsgate Market. Much of his meat, with the exception of Scotch beef, came from France, along with fruit and early vegetables from Les Halles, the great market in Paris. In addition, there were truffles from Périgord in south-west France, ducks from Rouen, butter from Brittany and Normandy, aubergines from the Italian Riviera, tomatoes from the Channel Islands, peaches from the Rhône valley, frogs' legs from the river Seine, and live turtles for making turtle soup - a favorite dish for Victorians from the West Indies.

In the kitchens, Escoffier introduced working methods new to British hotels. He organized his staff, who worked in shifts from dawn until the small hours, on military lines. His workers, under the overall command of a chef de cuisine, were split into several parties, or groups. Each of these was responsible for a particular commodity, and each was run by a chef de partie, or assistant chef.

As the twice-daily rush hours - lunchtime and dinnertime - built up, and waiters dashed in and out carrying trays of piping hot food, tempers often became frayed. To avoid this, Escoffier devised yet another series of innovations. First of all he replaced the traditional, loud-mouthed aboyeur, or 'barker', who bellowed out the orders, with a softer-voiced annonceur, or 'announcer'. He forbade swearing and bullying, cracked down on gambling and smoking, and tackled the long-standing weakness of many chefs: alcohol. Instead of constantly swigging from bottles of wine, beer or spirits, kitchen staff at the Savoy slaked their thirst with draughts from a huge cauldron of refreshing cold barley water.

Keeping up appearances

A dapper dresser - who, because of his small stature, wore high-heeled shoes to raise him above the level of the stoves, with their intense heat - Escoffier encouraged hitherto slovenly workers to take a pride in their personal appearance. Their white hats and jackets were expected to be spotlessly clean, their shoes polished till they shone, and when off-duty they had to wear respectable suits.

Known as the king of chefs and the chef of kings', Escoffier later retired to Monte Carlo. He maintained his interest in cooking, and died there in 1935 aged 88.

bottom of page