Celebrity chefs seem to be everywhere today. If you are a foodie, you can probably name a handful off the top of your head. They have their own TV shows, books, and websites. Entire networks are built upon the idea of bringing you the next celebrity chef. Reality shows feature aspiring chefs competing to be the best. Each of these chefs owes a debt of gratitude to the founder of modern cuisine, Auguste Escoffier.
Even today no chef has contributed more to modern cuisine than Escoffier. In his day he was called “The Emperor of Chefs.” He is responsible for more than 10,000 recipes. He took the work of Careme and updated it into a framework still used today. He designed the “Brigade de cuisine” which serves as the model for all modern kitchens. He worked at restaurants with names that are familiar to most people a century later. Escoffier did not invent cooking, but no one before or since has had a greater impact on what we eat.
Escoffier was a cook in the French army before pursuing cuisine as a career. He opened his first restaurant with Cesar Ritz, a famous hotelier, and founder of The Ritz Hotel. In 1890, Ritz and Escoffier were invited to be the first Manager and Chef at the famous Savoy Hotel in London. Escoffier’s dining room became such a hot spot that royalty and the social elite for the first time dined in public. After being fired, the pair moved on to the Carlton Hotel in London. Escoffier’s arrival at the Carlton was followed by the arrival of his elite clientele from the Savoy. This move also allowed Ritz to begin a management company that later went on to become the well-known “Ritz-Carlton” brand. His name became synonymous with class leading to commonly used terms like “ritzy” or “putting on the Ritz.”
Four years after arriving at the Carlton, Escoffier released his greatest work, “Le Guide Culinaire.” This book contained over 5,000 recipes and came in at just under 1,000 pages. In it Escoffier streamlined and codified the work of Careme and his four “mother sauces.” Escoffier altered Careme’s list by removing the Allemande sauce and replacing it with two others. Escoffier’s five “mother sauces” were:
Bechamel: White sauces. Cream with white roux as a thickening agent. Add cheese for Mornay sauce. This is the base of most cream sauces.
Velouté: Blonde roux and white stock. This is the only mother sauce used only as a base and never on it’s own. Most lighter white sauces are based in this including white wine sauce, Normandy sauce, and Allemande sauce.
Espagnole: Brown sauce. Brown roux and brown stock. The basis of demi-glace, brown gravy, and Madeira sauce.
Hollandaise: Emulsified sauces. Egg yolks and butter form the basis of this sauce, but the category is used as catch all for emulsified sauces in general. Emulsification is a process by which two ingredients that would normally repel each other are blended at such a rate they actually bond. Other Emulsifications include egg yolk with oil (mayonnaise and aioli) and vinegar and oil (some vinaigrettes)
Tomato: Red sauce. Tomatoes thickened with a roux or reduced. This is the simplest base and seasoning primarily determines the type of sauce it becomes.
Escoffier’s system is still used today. Most every common sauce from ranch dressing (emulsification) to white gravy (Bechamel) can be traced back to one of these sauces. Knowing these sauces will help you speak the language of the chefs you work with and dine from. Understanding the basis of a particular sauce in a special allows you to be able to imagine it without seeing or tasting it. This also comes in handy as a server to know which sauces are safe for someone who is a vegan, lactose intolerant, or allergic to gluten.
That concludes our trip through the classic French sauces. After that bit of learning, a laugh is in order. Check out the most famous blogger who used to work on my block. You can’t start a blog in my hometown without hearing the story of the Frothy Girl getting fired. Her most recent post is a far more funny take on a topic I addressed in my post Servers vs Dentist without the annoying narrator voice. She makes me laugh and mutual acquaintances speak highly of her so go check her out.