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Escoffier Alive

The Escoffier name is alive and cooking. Mary Kirk-Anderson meets the great-grandson of one of the world's most celebrated chefs.

For a group aboard the Silversea's cruise liner Silver Whisper, which docked at Lyttelton for the day on Monday, culinary considerations are about more than just what's next on their shipboard menu.

The special 14-day Tribute to Auguste Escoffier voyage, from Sydney to Auckland, is celebrating the life and legacy of the great French chef, often referred to as the "Chef of Kings, and King of Chefs", who revolutionised French cuisine and the way professional kitchens operated.

Guests are treated to cooking demonstrations and special meals based around Escoffier's recipes, and, perhaps most importantly, they share their cruise with his great-grandson, French-born Michel Escoffier, vice-president of the Foundation Auguste Escoffier.

"I just enjoy myself, and I make sure our guests are happy," Michel Escoffier says. "It's pretty relaxed. I am basically a guest speaker, and I talk about Auguste not just a bio of his life, but anecdotes and so on."

Escoffier describes those who take the Escoffier voyage (mainly Americans) as "gastronomes".

"They are pretty knowledgeable about food and wine, and about Escoffier."

On this voyage, the group is relatively small, just 13 people, but on the other four Escoffier Tribute cruises, also presented by the American Institute of Wine & Food, there have been about 30 people. Those cruises were in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of Europe.

"This is the first to a faraway, exotic place," says Escoffier, who is joined on the cruise by guest chef Annie Neighbors (known professionally as chef Renee Kelly), of Renee Kelly's restaurant in Shawnee, Kansas.

Neighbors, who is a member of Les Dames D'Escoffier, is involved in planning the menus and the special Escoffier lunch and dinner, and presents the two cooking demonstrations on days when the ship is at sea, in this case on its journey from Australia to Milford Sound, its first port of call in New Zealand.

The demonstrations take place in the ship's theatre and the Escoffier meals in the intimate Champagne Room, one of three restaurants on the 380-passenger Silver Whisper.

Auguste Escoffier's contribution to modern cuisine is remarkable, especially given that he was at the height of his achievements around the turn of the 20th century, publishing his seminal work, Le Guide Culinaire, in 1903.

As well as creating classic dishes such as the Peche Melba and Tournedos Rossini, he changed for ever the way hotel kitchens ran, developing the efficient Chef de Parties system, and insisting on greatly simplified recipes and menus.

His collaboration with Caesar Ritz resulted in the founding of the first Ritz Hotel, in Paris, and, together with Ritz, he had enormous input into other great luxury hotels of the era (and of today), including the Savoy and Carlton hotels in London.

Michel Escoffier, who was born just over 10 years after his great-grandfather's death in 1935, describes Auguste's legacy as having three important facets he was a culinary visionary; at a time when cooking was not a profession held in high esteem, he set organisational and behavioural standards in the (professional) kitchen that are still in use today; and he was a humanitarian.

It is this latter, less well-known aspect of Escoffier's life that Michel Escoffier likes to highlight.

"The humanitarian aspect is what I insist on today. People know him as a great chef and organiser, but they don't know he was a great humanitarian, concerned with the welfare of chefs and the poor. He was the first to create fundraising dinners for chefs who were sick or retiring and so on, and there are many other stories of his efforts.

"When he was at the Savoy with Caesar Ritz, he would collect all the supplies that were not served and, rather than throw them away, he put this out every morning and the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor would come and collect these things with a horse- drawn carriage this is about 1891-92.

"One morning they did not show up. He went to see the Mother Superior and learned the horse had died and they did not have 5 to buy another, and 5 was certainly a lot of money then. So that night a young commis chef from the Savoy showed up at the Little Sisters of the Poor with an envelope with 5 in it.

"He continued (giving unused supplies to the poor) at the Carlton when he took over. He was there for 20 years, until he retired. Later, he was very sad to find that his successors had not continued the practice."

Michel did not grow up in thrall to his great-grandfather's story, but work as a business consultant and in marketing new technologies took him around the world. It was during these travels that he became more aware of his heritage.

"I noticed that every time I was in a large luxury hotel, I often had a little note from the director asking, 'Are you related to the famous chef', and when I would say yes, it was 'can I buy you a drink', and I got to talking to people about hotels and restaurants, so, around 1986-87, I started being more interested in the field of gastronomy and started to be more involved in the activities of the Foundation Auguste Escoffier.

"But if you want to know if I cook, my answer is, I love cooking, but only confidentially with friends. I am more interested in the teaching side of it and in new technologies, such as bringing multi-media to the Escoffier teaching."

It is a modern approach his innovative great-grandfather would likely approve of

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