Understanding French Sauces (Part One)

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Looking back over the years, I would have to say my favorite serving job was at a little French restaurant in Springfield, MO called Le Mirabelle.  Christian Finance was a classically trained French Chef and his wife Bobbi ran the front of the house.  The food was incredible and it was arguably the best restaurant in Springfield, MO.  It also was Brad Pitt’s favorite restaurant in his hometown.  I attribute so much of the respect I have for this business to them and their headwaiter, Jim.  It represented so much of what was right about this business in my mind.  To this day when I take a shortcut I sometimes get a chill expecting to see Christian or Jim with their arms crossed giving me a disapproving stare from across the room.

One day Chef asked me in his French accent (which after two decades of living here I always suspected was artificially strong) a simple question.  He asked if I knew why the French smothered their food in sauce.  I admitted to both my lack of knowledge and curiosity.  He explained France has a long history of being a battlefield.  During wars high quality meat is hard to find.  This led the French to come up with thick powerful sauces to cover up the flavor of the low quality meat.

While I will not vouch for the accuracy of his story, I will say that the French sure love their sauces.  Americans have taken this to a new level (“Can I get some ranch dressing for my steak?”), but lack the creativity of the French.  For this reason French sauces still pop up all over restaurant menus.  As a diner or a server, a basic knowledge of these sauces will drastically improve your food IQ.  With that in mind, here are the basics of French sauces.

Two basic terms to know:

Roux: A combination of flour and butter or fat to create a thick base. A roux can range from white to brown based upon the type of fat, amount of flour, and cooking time.  The whiter the roux the greater it’s thickening value.

Stock: Stock can be made with a variety of meat bones or meatless.  Vegetables, seasonings, and meat bones (optional) are added to water and slowly reduced over hours.  A stock is light (white) or dark (brown) based on whether the bones are roasted in advance.

From these two items the “mother sauces” are born. In the 19th century, Marie-Antoine Carême first created the concept of a “grand” or “mother’ sauce.  These are the sauces others are created from.  His classification listed four main sauces that formed the basis of French cuisine.  Careme’s four mother sauces were:

Béchamel: White roux with cream

Velouté: Blonde roux and white stock

Espagnole: Brown roux and brown stock

Allemande: Veloute sauce thickened with egg yolk and cream.

Some of you reading this are asking the question, “how can Allemande be a mother sauce if it is based on Veloute?”  Others are probably wondering where tomatoes and aioli come into the mix.  My regular readers were probably already expecting this, but you will have to come back tomorrow to find out.  Tomorrow, we will enter into the 20th century and meet a chef named Auguste Escoffier who created the modern list of mother sauces and designed the modern kitchen.  If you work in a kitchen, near a kitchen, or eat in restaurants, Escoffier is someone you owe a debt of gratitude to.  Come back tomorrow to find out why.

On a side note: if you came across this post by searching for Le Mirabelle, I would love to hear from you.  Any great memories of Christian’s sweetbreads or Beef Wellington?  Anyone else still remember how to de-bone a Dover Sole tableside by candlelight?  Know where I can hunt down Jim or the Finance’s for an interview?  Please leave a comment.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is the creator of The Hospitality Formula Network, a series of websites dedicated to all aspects of the restaurant industry. He is also the author of the book Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips and Building Your Brand With Facebook.

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10 comments on “Understanding French Sauces (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Understanding French Sauces (Part Two) « Tips on improving your Tips

  2. Kristen on said:

    Ah the memorys… Yah has anyone heard from Christian?

  3. I’m from Springfield originally and I loved Mirabelles! I loved their food and a friend of mine worked there as well. Anyways, it was nice to see that you mentioned it – I miss it when I go back.

    (pssst! I also write for frothygirlz.com with my friend CJ who linked to your site recently – loved your video!)

    • tipsfortips on said:

      I was there from ’97-’99. I have friends who worked there til the end. The twins and Jim were there forever. The other two server spots rotated. Five person server staff. Not sure there are too many spots like that left.

  4. Pingback: The Index « Tips on improving your Tips

  5. Pingback: Ranch Dressing and Why We Love It « Tips on improving your Tips

  6. Christina Baublitz on said:

    My instructor always makes us prepare and create items (at times feels like going back to the 1800’s) by hand whenever he can get away with it. We learn better by doing it the traditional way first, it helps to create a better understanding of the food we work with and the food that we are creating. Sometimes totally different things.

  7. Robert Danecki on said:

    I first began working for Christian, Bobbie and Bobbie’s father in 1976 when they bought a old building (f/k/a Jud’s steakhouse) serving steak and lobster on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Some 20 years later, I went back for another wonderful meal and learned that during the past 20 years,, they moved to Springfield and then back again to Hot Springs. I would really like to see them again, but been unable to locate them. Anyone have any idea what happened to them?

    • David Hayden on said:

      I worked for them in Springfield from ’97-’99. One of my hopes when I wrote this was to try and connect some of the people who worked there (and hopefully have Christian or Bobby find it). The other two commenters so far are people that worked there during my time there. As I understand they closed in 2001. Christian often talked about having a big blow out on Y2K to close it, but i guess they decided to keep going a while longer. The place was doing great business right up until the end. The last i heard was that Jim (who started with them in Hot Springs, but worked at the Spfld location till the end) was still serving in Spfld. Tom (their son in law and sous chef) had a place down their too. I am going to have to take a roadtrip down there soon and see if I can’t locate them and post an update.

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