He may have inadvertently paved the way for McDonald's, but the original celebrity chef, Auguste Escoffier, was so slight a man that he even couldn't reach the stove. He had platform shoes made and went on to cook his way into culinary history. In a time before Twitter or even phone service, Escoffier, who was born in 1846, quickly rose to become known as the Ambassador of French cuisine and was eventually knighted for it.
Kaiser Wilhelm II once remarked to Escoffier: "I am the emperor of Germany, but you are the emperor of chefs." Escoffier was not only an astonishing chef, but he simplified French food, co-created the Ritz Hotel chain, and wrote classic cookbooks ("Le Guide Culinaire" and "Ma Cuisine") that inspired Julia Child and changed the way we look at cooks, cooking and food forever.
Open a jar of tomato sauce for dinner recently? Escoffier was the first to commercially can tomatoes. Is your favorite gravy enriched with fresh mushrooms and bouillon? As a consultant, he helped create both dried soups and the cultivated mushroom industry. Ever dine a la carte? That was Escoffier's idea. He also lobbied to make it legal for women to dine in public.
Escoffier created hundreds of dishes named after both the lowly and famous (though not for his own wife), including Peach Melba (for Australian opera star Nellie Melba), Cherries Jubilee (for Queen Victoria's Jubilee) and Dauphine Potatoes (for the French court of the Dauphine, which included Marie Antoinette).
But his most important culinary contribution was the creation of veal stock. When mixed with foods, it imparts natural MSG (monosodium glutamate), which enhances natural flavors and creates what Escoffier named "deliciousness." At the same time the chef was working on his theory of what is now called the flavor of "umami," a Japanese chemist was proving it.
Modern restaurants, where anyone can order food - as opposed to taverns and inns that serviced travelers only - began in 18th-century France. It wasn't a very popular idea; most had no reason to eat anywhere except at home.
And so, when Escoffier became a chef, the industry was still in its infancy. Cooks worked in small windowless rooms filled with coal and wood smoke. Wine kept them hydrated. Add sharp knives, stress and shouts over the din of clanging pans and you can begin to imagine what a brutal place kitchens were.
Escoffier changed all that. In his kitchen, no anger or shouting was allowed. His staff drank a special malt brew that kept them hydrated and sober. Chaos was lessened by Escoffier's "brigade system." Unlike the old model where chefs cooked everything and then moved to the next order, in the brigade there were stations - fish, meat, sauce, vegetable, etc. - and the plate moved from station to station. This newfound system created an assembly line akin to Henry Ford's industrialization of automobile manufacturing. At the Ritz Hotel's lunch service, he could do 500 plates an hour.
Most colleagues called him "Papa," because he treated his staff like family. He fought for the rights of all kitchen workers to receive medical care and pensions. It was his staff that perished in the Titanic; he had designed the elaborate menus for that ill-fated voyage. After the tragedy, he personally saw to it that the widows and children of that staff were well taken care of.
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