Culinary History… snoozefest, right? That was the general consensus on the first day of culinary school. I’m a bit of a nerd so I’m a little ashamed to admit that it didn’t bore me. If you wonder why chefs always tout French food or if you want to know who that Escoffier guy is (I’ll reference him a lot), you’ll get your answers here. Unlike culinary school, there will not be a test over this information, although that’s not a terrible idea. Kidding.

There really are a few things you need to know about the history of western cuisine to fully understand this blog. I’m giving you the abridged version of what I learned in culinary school and through my own research. I’ll make it quick. I promise.

  • Prior to the French Revolution, what we know as modern restaurants didn’t exist. Most prepared food sold in public occurred at a “public house” and was an accompaniment to the main event, a beverage (wine in France and Italy, beer in England, tea in China, etc.). 
  • For hundreds of years, fine food in France was reserved for royalty and aristocrats who staffed well-trained chefs with unlimited culinary imagination. Royalty from countries all over Europe hired French chefs and thus their culinary and dining culture spread. 
  • There was a great divide among the classes in France at this time. The upper class was extremely wealthy, there was no significant middle class, and the lower class (over 90% of the population) was very poor. A series of political events led to a revolt of the common people, starting with a massive crowd “storming the Bastille” (a prison in Paris that housed a huge stash of guns and ammunition) on July 14, 1789. Now known as Bastille Day, it’s celebrated annually in the same way we celebrate our Independence Day. This was the beginning of the French Revolution which brought a temporary end to their monarchy and led to the eventual establishment of a modern European democracy. These events influenced other European nations who followed suit.
  • When French monarchs and aristocrats lost their lives, French chefs lost their jobs. They moved into the streets of Paris and while establishing the first true restaurants, they introduced elevated cuisine and fine dining to the public for the very first time. Their techniques quickly spread throughout the Western hemisphere.
  • Hotels and restaurants evolved for years but took a radical turn in 1865 when a man named Auguste Escoffier moved from Nice to Paris. He had a magnificent career and he brought unprecedented order and technique to the professional kitchen. He recorded all his recipes and techniques over the years and in 1903, published the first comprehensive culinary textbook. Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire contained every culinary technique used in the western world. Some of the techniques were centuries old and others were recorded as he developed them. He created hundreds of famous dishes but the way he organized his kitchens and recipes is what has made him the godfather of western cuisine. Le Guide Culinaire was translated into English in 1941 and is still the quintessential reference for professional chefs. 

See, not so bad. Escoffier is still revered among professional chefs. He’s to the culinary world what Babe Ruth is to baseball and what Vince Lombardi is to football. I tried to think of a non sports-related example but I came up short. Sorry. 

You’ll hear me reference Escoffier and French cooking a lot and you’ll learn a number of French techniques that you can apply to your everyday cooking. And so you know, the French waste nothing and neither will we.

I have two copies of Le Guide Culinaire, one is the latest print and the other was printed in 1941, the first English translation. While the recipes are the same in the two copies, the descriptions and organization of the book are quite different. Whenever I look up a new recipe, I always start with Escoffier. I have a few other books I use when researching recipes; most are textbooks from culinary school, some I picked up while traveling to other countries, some are ultra modern cookbooks put out by some of the world’s best chefs, and the rest are county cookbooks my grandmother has picked up over the years. 

Do you have a favorite cookbook you always go back to? (Bonus points if you bought it in another country or for a fundraiser, those are my favorites!)

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