When Ritz met Escoffier
Jean-François Mesplède on the unique chemistry between two giants of the hotel and culinary worlds that combined to luxurious effect
The partnership between César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier, sealed in Monte Carlo, was one of the most fortunate events in their lives,” said Ritz’s wife Marie-Louise. She goes on to say that although Ritz had fully grasped the importance of exceptional cuisine during his years at the Grand Hôtel de Lucerne, he constantly ran up against obstacles when attempting to put the theory into practice.
As for Escoffier, his lack of understanding prevented him from fully exercising his considerable talents. From the moment they met, their compatibility worked its chemistry. So while César Ritz knew exactly how to taste a new sauce and give useful advice on making it, Auguste Escoffier could advise him on the size of dishes and bowls.
Both innovators, Ritz was brimming over with ideas on building and furnishing hotels, the choice of staff uniforms down to the smallest details, and Escoffier was already reflecting on the indispensible reorganisation of the kitchens, an operation he carried out a few years later.
To quote Marie-Louise Ritz again: “they both adored simplicity.” With one man intent on getting rid of ridiculous baubles and faded fabrics, the other was eliminating indigestible garnishes that enhanced nothing, simplifying the menus, going so far as to turn his back on some of Antonin Carême’s edicts from the previous century that he now considered obsolete.
While César was studying the hygienic measures to establish in hotels, Auguste was reflecting on the digestive and nutritional aspects of the food he would serve to his clients. A veritable revolution was taking place in the hotel and restaurant businesses, with the two men who welcomed the most illustrious personalities to their establishment taking the lead.
In the Guide culinaire, subtitled Aide-mémoire de cuisine pratique, begun in 1898 and finally prefaced on November 1, 1902, Auguste Escoffier gave a wealth of know-how and recipes to cooks. He stressed the importance of simplifying the outward trappings of cuisine. This would not mean that it would be devalued –quite the contrary. Since tastes are perpetually becoming more refined, cooking must become more refined to satisfy them.
And now to the Ritz we must go. At the Savoy, Ritz and Escoffier introduced the English to the art of fine dining. Gourmets flocked to the stylish dining room. Benoît-Constant Coquelin and Bernhardt, the well-known actors, made a point of patronizing the restaurant whenever they were in London. “Boni” de Castellane, politician, writer, dandy, and esthete, had his usual table there.
It was said that thanks to its very capable management and excellent kitchens, the Savoy was pushing the borders of France as far as London. There, Escoffier created the filets de sole Coquelin, homard aux feux éternels, la volaille à le Derby, and les cuisses de nymphes à l’aurore, which had the Prince of Wales himself tasting frogs’ legs. It was there, too, that he created the famous Peach Melba that would appear on the Ritz menu.
Yes, the Ritz. For many years, César Ritz thought longingly of Paris, a city he had fallen in love with at a young age. It was his hope to create the perfect hotel there, one that would be different from all those he had managed until then. At place Vendôme, the building adjacent to the Ministry of Justice had just been put up for sale. What Ritz wanted was to establish his hotel there. It would be the ne plus ultra of elegance, combining every refined amenity that a prince could dream of having in his own abode.
This was a fine idea but one on which the partners of the Ritz Hotel Company were not too keen. The price for the “small building” was too high for what they wanted. Ritz did not give up, and in the end, the day was saved by nothing other than a liqueur. It is a story worth telling... When he was at the Savoy, an industrialist by the name of Marnier Lapostolle introduced himself to César Ritz one day. He had just created a liqueur, which he wanted his opinion on. Ritz approved heartily of the drink, complimenting the man who, pleased with himself, asked him if he could suggest a name for it.
César Ritz eyed Marnier Lapostolle, a short, pretentious gentleman, and, with just a hint of irony, said, “Why not call it ‘Grand Marnier’?” Lapostolle agreed enthusiastically. Many years later, the liqueur was earning him a fortune. So when Ritz, Lapostolle’s good angel, asked him for help, the rich man readily advanced him the money he needed to finance the eight-day option.
César Ritz then resigned from the Savoy, retaining the right to found hotels anywhere he pleased, on either side of the Atlantic. For the moment, he was starting in Paris. Escoffier was of course embarking on the adventure with him. He still had to find a good architect. Ritz knew precisely what was required to fit out a hotel with the greatest elegance, but he admitted that he had no idea where to begin.
By chance, Charles Mewès crossed his path. He was just the right man. Ritz explained to him that he wanted his hotel to be the ultimate in elegance, the first truly modern hotel in Paris: “My hotel must be the last word in modernity. Mine will be the first modern hotel in Paris, and it must be hygienic, efficient, and beautiful.”
Ritz did not want the establishment to resemble a grand hotel; rather, it should have the atmosphere of an aristocratic home, one where several generations had been living happily. The smallest details that would provide comfort were given close attention; the kitchens were equally important. Escoffier provided his wealth of experience, and Ritz took a close interest in the ovens and iceboxes, asking the technician who was installing the appliances endless questions.
The main dining room, called the Régence, which opened onto a large garden, also involved lengthy discussion between Marie-Louise Ritz and the two men. They were well aware that the surroundings in which the cuisine would be served were nearly as important as the cuisine itself.
On June 1, 1898, every detail was ready for a memorable inauguration. Up until the last minute, César Ritz bustled about, rectifying details here and there. He realised that if half the chairs were transformed into armchairs, guests would linger longer at the table, so he returned them to the cabinetmaker to add armrests and upholster them with the right fabric.
The tables were judged to be too high and uncomfortable. They were returned to the workshop to have their legs shortened by barely an inch and delivered in the nick of time to be installed in the dining room, where they were hastily covered with Damascus linen and laden with shining silver and delicately engraved crystal, certain to satisfy the crowd of eminent personalities gathered for this prestigious event.
Beef chuck in red wine beneath a Comté veil
- 1.6kg beef chuck
- 50ml peanut oil
- 200g onions
- 200g carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
- 1 stalk celery
- 1 clove garlic
- 750ml red wine
- 1.5l beef consommé
- 1 bunch mixed herbs (chervil, coriander, and tarragon), a few sprigs each
- 1 truffle (20g), sliced
- 8 thin slices Comté cheese
- 16 green asparagus
- 80g butter
- 6 artichokes
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 50ml olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Beef consommé ingredients (3 litres)
- 1.5kg beef chuck and blade
- 1 oxtail, cut into pieces
- 1.5kg beef bones
- 6l water
- 2 large onions, cut into halves
- Cloves, 2 carrots, 1 stalk celery
- 2 large leeks, 1 bouquet garni
- Black peppercorns and salt
For the consommé:
Place all the meat and bones in a large stockpot.
Pour in the cold water, and bring to a boil. Skim well.
Leave to simmer, skimming frequently, for 10 minutes.
Char the onion halves on the burner until black, and stud one half-onion with cloves.
Peel and wash all the other vegetables.
Chop the carrots and celery, and tie the leeks into a bundle. Add all the aromatic garnish to the pot, with the exception of the salt.
Simmer gently for 4-to-5 hours.
Season with salt after 1 hour of cooking time.
Skim the scum and fat off regularly. Finally, carefully strain the broth.
1. Brown the beef chuck in a pot with the peanut oil. Add the aromatic garnish (onions, carrots, celery, and garlic). Pour in the red wine and beef consommé. Add the herbs. Simmer gently, with the lid on, for 3 hours.
2. Remove the beef chuck. Strain the liquid, and reduce the sauce until it is thick and tasty.
3. Cut the beef into thick slices, and arrange the truffle and Comté cheese slices on top of each piece of meat. Cook under the grill for a few seconds. Cook the asparagus in salted boiling water for a few seconds. Refresh them; then sauté them in the butter in a pan.
4. Peel the artichokes, and dip them in water with the juice of 1 lemon. Cook them in a pan with the olive oil. They should retain their crunch. Season with salt and pepper.
5. To plate: Place a serving of beef with the melted cheese on each plate. Arrange the asparagus and sautéed artichokes on the side. Add a pool of the sauce.
Vanilla Mille-Feuille, Ritz-Style
For the puff pastry:
- 100g plain flour
- 350g butter
- 100ml cold water
- 7g sel de Guérande
- 200g stoneground organic flour
- 25g melted butter
- Icing sugar
Method for the puff pastry
1. A day ahead, prepare a beurre manié: use the dough hook of your mixer to combine the cake flour and the butter. Spread out the beurre manié to form a square. Cover with waxed paper, and chill.
2. To make the détrempe (the dough before the butter is incorporated): still using the dough hook, combine the water and salt, and then the stoneground flour with the melted butter. Do not overmix. Cover in plastic wrap, and chill.
3. The next day, envelope the détrempe (the second mixture) within the first (the beurre manié). Roll out, and fold over twice. Leave to rest. An hour and a half later, roll and fold two more times. An hour and a half later, repeat. An hour and a half later, roll out the dough to make an even sheet of puff pastry (less than 2mm thick).
4. Place this sheet of pastry between 2 sheets of waxed paper on a baking sheet. Set a wire rack over it, and bake at 175°C for about 45 minutes, until the pastry is a nice golden colour.
5. When done, cut out 12 rectangles, 15 x 3.5cm). Sprinkle with icing sugar through a small strainer, and bake at 240 °C for 2-to-3 minutes to caramelize the pastry. Remove from the oven, and leave to cool on a wire rack.
Method for the pastry cream
1. Scrape out the vanilla seeds into the milk, and bring the milk and butter, with the vanilla seeds and bean, to a boil. Whip the egg yolk with the sugar until pale and thick. Add the cornstarch and flour. Mix again until smooth. Pour the boiling milk over the egg mixture; then return mixture to the saucepan, and cook for three minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat, and add the gelatine, whisking so that no lumps form.
2. Transfer the pastry cream to a pastry dish. Cover with plastic wrap flush with the surface, removing any air bubbles, and place in the refrigerator to cool completely. When the pastry cream is cool, transfer it to a bowl, and whip again until perfectly smooth.
3. Beat the whipping cream, and carefully fold it into the vanilla pastry cream. Chill until needed.
To assemble the mille-feuille
Spoon the pastry cream into a pastry bag fitted with a 12mm tip, and pipe out two lines onto a rectangle of caramelized pastry. Repeat the procedure a second time, and sandwich four layers together. Top with a layer of puff pastry.