Michel Roux Jr on Escoffier, his food hero and Britain’s first celebrity chef

"His legacy is everywhere from high-street chains up to Michelin-starred restaurants..."

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We live in an age of celebrity chefs, but don’t think it’s a 21st-century television phenomenon. This week Michel Roux Jr pays tribute to the life and legacy of his all-time culinary hero, the “granddaddy of gastronomy” Georges Auguste Escoffier. In the late 18th century “he was fêted all over the world. He cooked on ocean liners. He opened hotels in Paris, London, New York – he was everywhere, he put his name on everything. He trained chefs in his methods and placed them, under his name, in various restaurants. He had a tomato-canning factory in the south of France so that he could use beautiful, rich tomatoes anywhere he cooked and he also had a line in bottled sauces.”

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Born in 1846, Georges Auguste Escoffier, a blacksmith’s son from Villeneuve-Loubet (on the Côte d’Azur) rose to international fame as the king of chefs and the chef of kings. “He was also a remarkable innovator and entrepreneur who revolutionised the professional kitchen and popularised the notion of haute cuisine.”

“He had a wonderful history,” says Roux. “He served his apprenticeship in his uncle’s restaurant in Nice at a time when chefs weren’t regarded as professionals. They worked in infernal conditions.” Kitchens were unventilated and full of toxic fumes; chefs had a life expectancy less than that of coal miners.

“Escoffier changed all that. As he rose in his career, he was like a shop steward for the profession. He designed kitchens with proper ventilation and sunlight and organised chefs into a disciplined ‘brigade’. He wouldn’t allow swearing or the consumption of alcohol in the kitchen, but made sure his chefs were well fed and had plenty of liquids while cooking. He was the first to insist on ‘chef’s whites’ – to show up the dirt, with proper neckerchiefs and hats for hygiene. They had to look smart in their uniforms, and that in itself instilled a respect, not just for themselves, but for their position. In short, he brought dignity to the job of being a chef.”

As a French-English chef upholding the highest tradition of French cuisine in his London restaurant, Le Gavroche, Roux feels an affinity with Escoffier, who, in partnership with Cesar Ritz, created the “destination restaurant” of the Belle Epoque at London’s Savoy hotel. With an A-list clientele including the Prince of Wales. Escoffier made eating out fashionable. This change was to reach every stratum of society.

“He was one of the pioneers who brought great food to the masses in Britain,” says Roux. “We see his legacy everywhere, from high-street chains up to Michelin-starred restaurants. Anything from double-cooked ‘French fries’ to flavoured jellies that are all the vogue at the moment. It’s all in Escoffier’s seminal book, Le Guide culinaire and it’s such an inspiration. His motto was faites simple – make it simple.”

“That motto rings true even now. Even if you look back on some of his recipes and think, ‘My word, that’s a bit complex,’ they’re actually simplified recipes of what was going on before. He was concerned with seasonality and structure and with the chemistry of cooking – he would let a classic velouté or béchamel cook for hours and hours so that the sauce would become creamy rather than starchy. From nouvelle cuisine to ‘molecular cooking’, the roots are all there in Escoffier. You just have to look for it.”

Escoffier’s career in England came to an ignominious end when he was discovered to be fiddling the books on a massive scale. But for Roux he remains simply a food hero. “He changed chefs, but he also changed diners. He created a vibrant restaurant culture and turned Britain into a true nation of food lovers.” 

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The First Master Chef: Michel Roux on Escoffier is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4.