Ritz & Escoffier

The Hotelier, the Chef, & the Rise of the Leisure Class by Luke Barr


In August 1889, a young César Ritz set out to create the world's greatest hotel. He found himself in charge of the newly constructed Savoy Hotel in London, the first hotel in Europe to have electricity and elevators. Alongside him was Auguste Escoffier, the chef that chefs today look back to as the godfather of French cooking, and the inventor of pretty much everything we know about the modern kitchen. Together they created the genre of fine dining, and embarked on a journey of  success and scandal. Highly recommend this to anyone in the hospitality industry.

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pg 11

[Richard] D’Oyly Carte had spent five years building the Savoy Hotel, and now was the moment of truth.

The Structure itself was a technological marvel: seven stories hight and built entirely of fireproof materials. The lighting was all electric, in every room, available twenty-four hours a day. Indeed, one could turn the bedroom light on or off, using a conveniently placed switch, without getting out of bed. D’Oyly Carte loved telling people this.

There were six American-made elevators, four for service and two for guests, all running twenty-four hours a day. The guest elevators were the largest ever seen in Europe, and were luxuriously appointed. D’Oyly Carte referred to them as “ascending rooms.” the use of elevators erased any distinction in status or convenience between floors: the seventh-floor rooms were equal in height and in every other way to the rooms on any floor—and cost the same, too. (This was unusual: most hotels charged far less for the rooms on higher floors, which had traditionally been servant’s quarters.) Also, there were speaking tubes, pipes that would carry voices over long distances, connecting every floor of the hotel to the kitchen, so guests could order breakfast, lunch, dinner, or supper and, within a few minutes, be served, D’Oyly Carte proudly exclaims, “in the most perfect manner in their own rooms.”

There was a total of four hundred guest rooms in the hotel, two hundred fifty of which were suites, with sitting rooms and varying numbers of bedrooms. Many of the suites had their own private bathrooms and toilets, with hot and cold running water. In fact, there we sixty seven bathrooms in all—and astounding number. When D’Oyly Carte showed the plans for the hotel to his builder, Mr. G.H. Holloway, he’d been met with incredulity. Was he planning to host amphibious guests at his hotel? the builder asked sarcastically. Sixty-Seven bathrooms was unheard of—the Hotel Victoria, for example, recently opened on Northumberland Avenue, had a total of only four bathrooms for five hundred guests. Each room had a flat bath stored under the bed, and guests would ask servants to bring large canisters of hot and cold water to the room. The Savoy did away with such inconveniences; it was entirely modern.

pg 14

Beyond electricity, the Savoy Theater had been groundbreaking other ways, pioneering standards that D’Oyly Carte knew would make the show better but that took some getting used to. For example: reserved seating and an organized queue. No longer would there be a rush to the best seats, leave the less agile at the back of the house. There would be order. He also forbade tips of any kind, offered programs and coat check service free of charge, and served decent-quality, nonwatered-down whiskey and real coffee (not chicory) at the theater bars. 

He had, in other words, modernized not only the theater but the theatergoing experience itself.

pg 51

In the traditional kitchen organization, cooks were separated into sections, and each section was responsible for certain dishes, which they prepared independently. This was how it had been in kitchens in Europe for centuries, going back to the aristocratic households of seventeenth-century France, where the office, responsible for hors d’oeuvres and desserts, was a completely separate department from cuisine. Modern kitchens maintained this separation, relying on self-contained teams turning out cold dishes and soups, grilled meats, fish, sautéed dishes, and desserts. This meant, inevitably, that there was a certain amount of duplicated labor, as multiple teams prepared basic sauces and stocks they’d need, for example.

Escoffier would require his staff to work more closely together, collaborating across sections, with each section led by a chef de party. This would allow the kitchen to prepare dishes with greater speed.

Now, as he gathered his staff around him in the large kitchen at the Savoy, he explained that this was a new day, a new beginning. The room was filled with sunlight, streaming through the windows and onto the white brick walls. This was, all by itself, a powerful sign that the Savoy would be different. Every kitchen Escoffier had ever worked in had been dark, smoky, and underground. It was a luxury for the cooks to be working on the first floor. there was electric lighting illuminating the stoves. All the equipment was brand new. It was a beautiful kitchen.

Escoffier continued: He wanted an atmosphere of calm and cooperation, he said. He wanted serenity. There would be no vulgar language, no swearing. There would be no shouting. In fact, he said, the aboyeur, the man who called out orders from the waiters in the restaurant, would now be called announceur, and he would not shout. Never. He would speak. Aboyeur, the traditional term, means “barker.” Announceur was a more civilized title—and if the “announcer” did not shout, then everyone in the kitchen would need to stay quiet in order to hear him.

pg 57

Every morning, Ritz gathered his staff for a meeting, looking at the day ahead. Who was checking in? Who was coming to dinner? Were there any special events, private parties to be planned? Ritz had established this formal, all-hands morning meeting at both the Grand and the National, and made it the foundation of his management. It was a novel concept: to include the entire staff, and to welcome anyone to raise any pertinent topic or question. It was a democrat meeting in which all were heard. With one exception: Ritz did not invite accounting or finance staff. The morning meeting was not a venue for talks about budgets and money.

pg 57

As he promised, Escoffier instituted and refined his signature level of specialization in the kitchen. The staff of eighty was already specialized to a degree—the chef pâtissier and the chef poissonier and the chef rôtisseur  all did very different things, taking charge of pastry, fish, and roasts, respectively. But they needed to learn to be less independent, more collaborative.

All the cooks in the kitchen had learned their trade in the traditional was, coming up as apprentices working for one of the chefs de partie, the senior cooks in charge of each of the stations. the commis, the junior cooks, worked for their chefs and paid little attention to the rest of the kitchen, as each unit worked independently. Each chef de partie listened to the orders coming in, dividing the labor for his station’s dishes among his group of cooks and then delivering the finished dish to the chef de cuisine for inspection before it went out into the dining room.

Or, more likely, waited for its counterparts to arrive—the rest of the order. The timing was never right.

Of course, the chef de cuisine knew that a filet of sole would be ready faster than a stuffed, roasted breast of chicken, and he might indicate to the chef poissonnier to hold off on the fish when he knew it needed to be served alongside the chicken. In practice, though, the rush of orders meant that every station turned out its dishes as fast as it could, which was not very. A single station producing all components of a single dish was inevitably slower than multiple chefs de partie taking on the job, subdividing the cooking of that same dish.

In order for Escoffier’s system to work efficiently, it required the chefs de partie to manage the orders coming into their stations, while also coordinating seamlessly with their counterparts at the other stations who were working on the same dish. It also required the commis at each station to specialize in different tasks. (They would rotate as part of their training.) Timing was everything. s Escoffier explained, they had to work together like a perfectly balanced machine—to work in synchronicity, to work with precision. This was why they needed the kitchen to be as quiet as possible: so that they could all communicate.

Apart from Escoffier himself, there was his sous-chef, who helped manage the chefs de partie. There were six of them:

  • The chef saucier prepared all sauces.
  • The chef rôtisseur roasted and braised meat. His station also took charge of grilling and frying.
  • The chef poissonnier cooked fish and shellfish, including doing all necessary cleaning and boning.
  • The chef entremétier prepared vegetables, eggs, and soups.
  • The chef garde-manger was in charge of cold dishes and hors d’oeuvres, including salads, pâtés, and charcuterie, and also oversaw the pantry.
  • The chef pâtissier made desserts and sweets, including ice cream.

There would now be far more collaboration among the chefs. When an order came in from the annonceur, it would not simply go to whatever station seemed appropriate. Instead, Escoffier or the deputy chef would divide the job right from the start, so that an order of Deux ouefs sur le plat Meyerbeer, for example, would go simultaneously to the chef entremétier, the chef rôtisseur, and the chef saucier. Each of these stations would assign an assistant commit to the task: the eggs were cooked in butter, the lamb’s kidney was sliced and grilled, and sauce Périgueux was made with meat glaze, Madiera, and truffles. The chef entremétier would then put the cooked eggs on a plate and pass it to the chef rôtisseur, who would place the grilled kidney between the eggs and then pass it to the chef saucier, who would pour the truffle sauce over it. This dish would then be inspected by Escoffier before being sent out to the dining room.

This assembly-line process achieved two things, both enormously important: speed and quality. The time it took to get a dish out, from order to delivery, dropped from fifteen minutes to five. Meanwhile, the checks and balances of the interlocking responsibilities demanded a high level of cooking precision. Dishes were more uniform, and subject to more oversight by the chefs de partie. The difference was nothing short of revolutionary: better food, served faster, and at the right temperature.

pg 67

She said he (Escoffier) made the nest scrambled eggs in the world. (His secret, which he never told her, was stirring them quickly over low heat with a garlic clove speared on the end of his fork.)

pg 83

The garlic in the eggplant à la Provençal was also noteworthy—it was a controversial ingredient, long considered unrefined and repulsive. Escoffier spent years upholding what he called “the cause of garlic” against ignorance and “inexplicable contempt.” He loved garlic.

pg 169

Ritz was scrambling, calling on possible investors in Paris, when he remembered his friend Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle. He was the inventor of an orange cognac liquor called Curaçao Marnier, which Ritz had immediately ordered for the Savoy. More important, Ritz had proposed a new name for the product: Grand Marnier, “a grand name for a grand liqeuer.” At the time, everything was being called “petit”—“le petit journal,” le petit café,” “le Petit Palaise.” grand Marnier went brashly against this convention, and was hugely successful.