filling the empty nest with food
Auguste Escoffier. French haute cuisine. Words to make any cook tremble in fear who considers herself pretty good but has never been trained. I have been lucky to be able to turn out decent food from my kitchen over the years–thanks to watching my talented mother cook and then having the fortune of cooking for a family with big appetites and a generous willingness to try anything. But, after several decades in the kitchen, I have got it in my head that I need some professional help. It’s time I learned about French classical technique.
Georges Auguste Escoffier is commonly acknowledged as the central figure in the modernization of haute cuisine and one of the creators of what we now call classical French cooking. He organized and codified for home cooks the foundations of classical French cooking in his famous book, Le Guide Culinaire, first published in 1902. (There is an English translation and an American version called The Escoffier Cookbook.)*
I wasn’t sure, at first, what cooks, or chefs, mean when they talk about technique. Does it mean knowing how to chop fast and fancy with those scary chef’s knives and melt butter over leaping gas flames until it foams, or other tricks like that? And don’t we all have our own individual techniques when it comes to chopping or roasting or sifting? And, if your dish turns out all right, doesn’t that mean your technique must be okay?
Although Monsieur Escoffier doesn’t talk about “technique” but rather about the fundamental elements of cooking, what he meant by French classical fundamentals is “the perfection of preparation–in other words, the best ingredients cooked with the utmost finesse.”*
Ah, that’s why I love the French. They elevate what can be daily drudgery to an elegant art form. Who wouldn’t want their soup cooked with the utmost finesse? Which makes you want to put on your starched white apron and spend the next 12 hours boiling beef bones to create the most delicious clear beef consommé you’ve ever tasted in your life. At least, it makes me want that.
I know cooking philosophy is trending in the opposite direction, what with the new New York Times cooking newsletter encouraging people to just get in the kitchen and cook. Plus our restaurants and TV shows are replete with all sorts of fusions and experimentations. And given America’s multicultural essence, there’s no way we’re ever going to aspire to the French version of purity in the kitchen. But sometimes I’m of the mind to learn some rules before I veer off and break them. So, here I go in an attempt to learn from the great Escoffier. (He looks kindly enough, doesn’t he? He won’t bite my head off if I make some mistakes or burn the butter?)
*From NYT articles of 1956 and 1994