September 5, 2014

The Pantheon of French Chefs

By: Ryan Hodros, Culinary Arts Student

Considering the school we’re attending, we often hear about Auguste Escoffier and his many contributions to the culinary world while we’re in class.  But this week, Chef Jean-Claude introduced us to another legend in the pantheon of French chefs that helped build the modern restaurant world—Fernand Point.  Considered by many to be the father of modern French cuisine, he changed the world from his restaurant, La Pyramide in Lyons.  His book, Ma Gastronomie, is described by many, including the famous chef Charlie Trotter, as the world’s most important cookbook.

Chef Jean-Claude gave us a list of M. Point’s thoughts on cuisine and life that he had jotted down in his cream-colored notebook.  For M. Point, food and life were synonymous, and the notes can be considered a code of conduct for many young chefs.

The cuisinier loses his reputation when he becomes indifferent to his work.

Starting with Chef Suzanne in Pastry school, the instructors at Auguste Escoffier have all emphasized the importance of nursing your passion for food.  The amount of zeal you put into the food you make (or whatever you’re chosen passion is) is reflected in the quality of the product you put out.  A bored chef puts out boring food.  A tired chef puts out tired food.  But an excited chef puts out exciting food!

The timetable for the meals of the restaurant staff should be as strict as that of the railroads.

This is a rule that’s been eschewed by many modern restaurants, and that’s a real shame.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that many needs (hunger, thirst, sleep, safety, etc.) must be met in order for the higher creative functions of the brain to operate to their full potential, and this is most true in the kitchen.  How can you concentrate on a meal you’re making for someone else when your own belly won’t stop talking to you?  And if the staff is forced to sneak bites here and there, they will constantly feel like criminals instead of like part of a family.  Family meal is what builds a team in the kitchen—the staff’s needs are met and they feel cared for by the management.

Cuisine is not invariable like a Codex formula, but one must be careful not to modify the essential bases.

Being caught up in shows on the Travel Channel and the Food Network, it’s tough to not go completely off the rails when creating a new dish.  Creativity is the lifeblood of the chef, but at the same time, certain dishes are famous for a reason and shouldn’t be altered too much.  This is especially true of classic cuisines, be they from France, Italy, China, or wherever.  Make changes to turn a dish into your own, but don’t turn Beijing Duck into duck confit—it ceases to be the same dish.

Butter!  Give me butter!  Always butter!

Butter and modern cuisine have had something of a colored relationship over the past hundred years, with “fat” becoming a four-letter word to most dieting adults.  And with science bringing us certain “advancements” such as margarine and shortening (which you should never ever use), butter has taken a backseat as the less healthy, more expensive pariah of the kitchen.  But in an interesting turn of events, it turns out our outcast may not have been the villain in our food at all.  My personal opinion is that the laboratory and the kitchen should be kept completely separate, but that’s an article for another day.

What is béarnaise sauce?  An egg yolk, some shallots, some tarragon.  But believe me, it requires years of practice for the result to be perfect!  Take your eyes off it for an instant and it will be unusable.

Once again, food television has given the public the idea that the classics are tired or boring, not realizing that this is because watching a chef slowly become a master of a difficult-but-familiar sauce is not good television, but is good culinary education.  Knowing how to expertly do something difficult is the greatest testament to an artist’s skill—not how crazy and different they can make something taste.

An interesting sidenote—as a critic for 303 Magazine, it’s sometimes difficult talking to brewers and chefs (or brewers who used to be chefs) about their craft, because they are naturally suspicious of critics.  The average critic is not necessarily someone who knows how the thing they’re critiquing is produced; they only know how it is supposed to taste.  But when I tell them I’m a student at Escoffier, their demeanor changes entirely, like I’m a member of the club.  Suddenly, they understand that I know how hard their béarnaise sauce was to make, and appreciate just how perfect it really is.

All men fraternize at the table, especially when one has enchanted their souls.

This is especially true of people who love food.  I don’t know if it’s a modern development or not—I’m not a historian—but American culture has this myth where eating is a waste of time.  You cram food into your gullet in order to get back to the “really important things,” not realizing that mealtime is one of the most important activities you can take part in.  Not only is the food going to reflect how you feel later on, it is how you connect with your fellows and build social bonds.  There’s a reason why all our important milestones in life revolve around food:  You take a date to a meal to get to know them.  You hold a banquet when you get married.  You put out a buffet at a wake.  Even some of our most sacred religious and holiday rites revolve around food—the Eucharist, Passover, Thanksgiving dinner, Fourth of July barbecues.  Focus on your food to connect with the rest of humanity!

The quote I’m going to end on may be somewhat controversial:  “Before judging a thin man, one must get some information.  Perhaps he was once fat.”  With a waistline of over 66 inches, M. Point was suspicious of chefs and cooks who were thin, accusing them of not truly loving food.  In today’s fitness-obsessed culture, this is an interesting reversal of prejudices.  I’m not saying everyone should start gorging themselves in an attempt to bloat up to M. Point’s standards, but I am saying that different people focus on different things.  And while it’s important to be healthy, it is also important to be happy, and food makes most people happy.

Learning about another culinary giant and reading his thoughts on life and food was a real eye-opener, and got me thinking about a number of issues that revolve around the kitchen.  I appreciate Chef JC’s lecture on the man, and look forward to learning more about him.