You don't have to be in France long to realize food is taken seriously. As the saying goes, when a Frenchman sits down to eat, the only thing allowed to disturb him is a poor meal. Maybe that's why it's not surprising to find that there actually is a Musee de l'art Culinaire, a museum dedicated to the art of adding heat to food.
Situated on a crooked street in the center of this crooked old Riviera village, the three-story museum comes by its fame naturally -- it was the birthplace and one-time home of Auguste Escoffier, the man whose name is probably as synomymous with modern French cooking as Picasso's is with modern visual art.
"Escoffier was the master," said Joseph Rameaux, director of the museum and curator of the Escoffier collection there. "At the beginning of his career, cooking as a profession was not well regarded. It was partly due to the laxity that had crept into so many kitchens and partly due to the rigorous conditions of kitchen work. Escoffier fought that slackness and improved those conditions. His examples are still widely followed today. He created new methods of cooking to fit a post-Edwardian period in which leisurely dining was modified by a time element, and where methods stressed simplicity without sacrificing quality. As a result, French cooking today is not as complicated as it was before Escoffier."
According to letters and notes in the museum that Speak of Escoffier, he was a man of impeccable taste and "a greate believer in the virtue of remaining calm under all circumstances." He is described as lively, precise in his movements and a man who lived for his work. He also, as one note claims, had "small, skillful hands."
Born in 1846, he started his carerr in Nice. He went on to Paris, and then did a stint in the army, in which, not surprisingly, the chef did not work as a chef. After that he spent time in the kitchens of several well known hotel restaurants, until he met Cesar Ritz in 1890. Ritz brought him to London and to the Savoy Hotel. Escoffier ran the kitchen. Ritz ran the hotel.
"By that time." Rameaux said, "Escoffier was 'the king of chefs and the chef of kings.' He was an iconoclast. He changed the cuisine of the day. The emphasis then was on quality. He lightened cuisine, replacing heavy sauces with reductions. He avoided complications in dressing and garnitures. Under Escoffier's direction the amount of food diminished without losing its attractiveness."
Probably the most famous Escoffier dish is the ice cream dessert he invented for Dame Nellie Melba -- "peaches on a bed a vanilla ice cream in a silver goblet between two swans' wings on a block of ice that is covered with a sail of fine sugar." That's the way he first served the dessert, according to his own notes in the museum. It was only after the meal that he confessed his disappointment in the dish. He wrote that he felt something was missing, that the dessert was not noble enough. The next time he served it, he added red currant jelly to the top of it.
While his diaries and memos, all housed in the museum, include one which says. "La bonne cuisine est la base du veritable bonheur," (good food is the basis of true happiness). It isn't until you dig deeper through some of his menus that you see just what he means by "La bonne cuisine." And one of the museum's treasures is the three-volume set of Escoffier's menus from 1905 to 1907, when he was chef at the Carlton.
Clients came to see him several days in advance of their dinners to plan the evening. He logged these menus and then added his own thoughts to them. In the back of each volume there is a cross-reference by name. The names are mainly Lord and Lady and Duke and Duchess and Viscount and Princess. However there is one listing simply for Edward, but it is probably that Edward. Another is for Baden-Powell, almost certainly that Baden-Powell.
Typical of the meals in the books is one Escoffier did for a man named M. R. Rapp, Esquire, party of eight, on the evening of Nov. 21, 1905. The quests were to be seated promptly at 8:30 p.m., and the first dish was caviar sur blinis. It was followed by a choice of either rossolnick (consomme de volaille with cucumbers) or tortue claire (tutle soup).
The fish course was turbotin au chambertin. Then there was supreme de poulet aux truffes fraiches (chicken with fresh truffles.) Here Escoffier jotted down that someone asked if there might be a side order of concombre au veloute poulet, which meant more cucumbers. Of course it was served.
The meat dish was selle d'agneau de Gelles (saddle of lamb with green beans and potatoes). Another handwritten note was made to remind Escoffier that someone then wanted a side of tomatoes au gratin.
Following the meat was more seafood, this time mousse d'ecrevisses (crayfish). After that came becassines flanquees d'ortolans or two types of small game birds prepared together. And with this there was a green salad.
Next came asperges de France (asparagus) and parfait de foie gras.
Dessert was souffle en surprise (baked Alaska) followed by a basket of fresh fruit.
Four wines were served with the meal, coffee and cognac came at the end of it, and in the corner of the menu there's a small note that says Escoffier priced the affair at slightly over $2 a person.
All told, Escoffier spent 62 years working to making eating memorable. He died in Monte Carlo in 1935.