filling the empty nest with food

Learning Fundamentals and Finesse from Escoffier

640px-Auguste_Escoffier_01 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?

Apparently not.

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


6 comments on “Learning Fundamentals and Finesse from Escoffier

  1. ruthsmason
    January 25, 2015

    What a wonderful idea. To pursue a French tradition all but swallowed up in the current craze for fusion. Have good fun with it and please post your thoughts. We count on Butter Chronicals for inspiration!

  2. Shaun McElhatton
    January 25, 2015

    I have had the good fortune to be able to taste your delicious cooking on a regular basis. Sadly, I’ll miss the beginning of this grand undertaking, but I look forward to hearing about your new efforts in the kitchen.

    • Catherine
      January 26, 2015

      With any luck, I’ll have some new skills by the time you get back.

  3. E.
    January 27, 2015

    Just once I used a huge pot of soup bones from the St. Joe Meat Market to make stock for soup and it is still memorable.
    Right now I’m on the quest to make a memorable Irish scone–not flat and sweet but high, crusty on the outside, soft and raisiny inside. With clotted cream and good strawberry jam (homemade, of course).

  4. Caroline
    January 29, 2015

    What fun! I look forward to reading about your tasty creations!

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2015 by in Haute Cuisine and tagged , , , .

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