The History of Fine Dining
Like all of us, I have become so accustomed to the omnipresence of restaurants that I find it impossible to imagine living in a world without them. It may surprise you to hear that the restaurant is a relatively modern invention, the first ones opening after the French Revolution in the late 1700’s. The fine dining restaurant as we would recognize it is an even newer invention, taking its form in the latter half of the Nineteenth and early part of the Twentieth Centuries. The man largely responsible for our modern style of food and service may be unknown to the layman, but his name is commonplace in circles of chefs and culinary students: Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).
Until the French Revolution, public eateries consisted of inns and private residences. The only people that we would recognize as chefs worked for the elite class as cooks in private homes. With the fall of the upper class and rise of the working class in France after the Revolution, these chefs found themselves without employment. Restaurants (places to be “restored”) opened in French cities, primarily Paris, and served little more than soups considered restoratives of good health. These establishments were the forerunners of modern fine dining restaurants.
The Era of Escoffier
In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, a French chef, restaurateur, and author named Auguste Escoffier brought restaurants and restaurant food into the Modern Era. Considered the Father of Haute Cuisine, Escoffier started working in restaurants in his teens. He served as Chef and owner of a string of restaurants before his most famous stint as Chef and Partner with the legendary Cesar Ritz at the Savoy Hotel in London, beginning in 1890. Escoffier is credited with updating and simplifying French cuisine, lightening sauces, reducing the number of different dishes served at a meal, and emphasizing the use of seasonal ingredients. His restaurants employed Russian Table Service, where food is brought to the table is separate courses in the order that they are listed on the menu. Previously, French Table Service called for all food to be brought to the table at the same time. He also introduced a menu concept that we take for granted as a part of any fine dining experience today, a la carte service, where the diner chooses individual dishes from a menu instead of dining on a pre-set succession of courses. Escoffier introduced the Brigade system of kitchen organization, whereby each cook (Chef de Brigade) is responsible for one type of food, such as a Saucier (sauces), Rotisseur (roasted meats), Poissonier (fish), and Grillardin (grilled meats). He also recorded and invented many recipes, with Le Guide Culinaire his greatest achievement. “The Escoffier Guide”, as it is often called, lists and catalogues over 5000 recipes, and was meant as a guide for young cooks. Even today, it is required reading in many culinary schools. Le Guide Escoffier also introduced many original recipes that are well loved today: Peach Melba, Tournedos of Beef Rossini, and Crème Brulee among them.
Following are my interpretations of two recipes usually credited to Escoffier: Pissaladiere, a French flatbread using ingredients from Southern France, and Crème Brulee, the favorite custard of modern restaurant menus. The Pissaladiere recipe is more of a guide to its ingredients and methods, since your choice of sizes and ingredients may vary. Note that this “pizza” has no cheese or tomatoes. The crème brulee recipe can be modified if desired. Try substituting raspberry puree or melted chocolate for the maple syrup, or stir in some whole blueberries or chopped pecans.
- Pizza dough, homemade or purchased
- Extra Virgin olive oil
- Yellow onions, peeled and cut into thin strips
- Garlic, minced
- Fresh thyme leaves stripped from the twigs
- Nicoise olives, pitted and halved
- Anchovy fillets
- Black pepper
- Heat some olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onions, garlic, and thyme and cook over low heat until the onions have softened and turned a light golden color, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, spread, push, and stretch the pizza dough onto a baking sheet that has been well oiled with olive oil. Rather than a round shape, aim for a rough rectangle with rounded corners. It is not necessary to push the dough all the way to the edge of the baking sheet, but stop when the dough is about 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick, thicker than a typical Italian pizza. Brush some more oil on top of the dough to keep it from drying out. When the onions are done, spread them evenly over the dough. Criss-cross the whole anchovy fillets over the pizza, creating diamond shapes. Place half of an olive in the middle of each diamond. Sprinkle the dough with pepper. Bake according to the directions for your dough, maybe a little longer since the dough is thicker than a typical pizza. You can add other ingredients to your liking, such as a creamy white sauce, cheese, or other vegetables, but the traditional pizza is topped with only these ingredients.
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 1 whole vanilla bean
- 1/2 c. brown sugar
- 1/4 c. pure maple syrup (not imitation)
- 6 egg yolks
- sugar for topping the custard
- Preheat oven to 250 degrees and set large pot of water to boil. Cut the ends off the vanilla bean and split the bean lengthwise down the center with a small knife. With the back of the knife, scrape the vanilla seeds from each half (the seeds appear as a black paste). Add the seeds and the scraped vanilla bean halves to the cream in a sauce pot. Heat the cream until it boils (be careful that the cream doesn’t flow over the top of the pot as it comes to a boil). Set aside and let the vanilla steep for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the sugar, syrup, and yolks in a bowl. Add a little cream to the yolk mixture, whisking constantly so that you don’t curdle the eggs. Gradually add the rest of the hot cream and stir to combine. Pour the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a large pitcher. At this point, it is best to refrigerate the custard overnight, tightly covered, but it can be used immediately. Set some oven-proof ramekins in a shallow baking pan and place the baking pan on the opened door of the hot oven. Carefully pour boiling water around the ramekins, at least half-way up their sides. Fill each ramekin with custard almost to the top and carefully slide the tray of ramekins into the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the custards are almost set. Check by tapping a ramekin, or the whole tray, and observing how the liquid in each ramekin shakes. If the custard appears almost set, with only a very small amount of liquid movement at its center, it is done. Remove the whole tray and let it cool to room temperature. Cover each ramekin and refrigerate, or prepare for service by topping each with a little white sugar, tapping to spread the sugar evenly over the surface of the custard, and using a blow torch (yes, a blow torch) to caramelize the sugar, forming a crisp sugar crust over the top. Let sit a minute or two and serve.