Not everyone gets the chance to pay homage to a culinary hero. Especially when that hero is often referred as le roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois, or “king of chefs and chef of kings.” It’s a bit intimidating to try to fill those shoes. But James Holmes, owner and executive chef of Olivia and his chef de cuisine Andrew Francisco pulled it off last month with a king-size meal of 10 courses all in tribute to the great Georges Auguste Escoffier.
Escoffier was a French chef and restaurateur in the early 20th century who refined traditional French technique, which led the charge for what would become modern French cuisine. Before his death in 1935, he was also the first to develop the brigade de cuisine system, which was the organization of a professional kitchen where titles such as Executive Chef, Sous Chef, and Chef de Cuisine emerged.
Perhaps most importantly, Escoffier wrote the esteemed Le Guide Culinaire, which most well trained chefs, like Holmes and Francisco, use as a trusted reference book today.
The dilemma with French cuisine is not so much that it’s riddled with innumerable hard-to-find ingredients and laborious lists of instructions—just for a sauce—but it also relies exclusively on technique.
“Escoffier was the rock star chef of his time,” says Holmes. “His book is something we periodically go back to for inspiration when we’re stuck on something. We go back and see what he was doing 100 years ago and usually we can build on something from that.”
For the dinner, Holmes and Francisco spent days pouring through Le Guide Culinaire’s selection of 6,000 recipes. (That’s right, 6,000 recipes. While chefs might refer to this thing as a culinary Bible, others might prefer to use it as a doorstop.) “We scoured the recipes and did the best we could with what was in season from local farmers and purveyors,” says Holmes.
To put this in context, preparing a dinner like this for a restaurant full of people is akin to Stevie Ray Vaughan recreating “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix; like Roger Federer taking over the coveted grand slam winning record from Pete Sampras; like Mickey Mouse as an apprentice wizard trying to fill buckets of water with the Sorcerer’s wand.
It’s gutsy, but it’s worth the end result if you can achieve it. Holmes and Francisco not only tried to do it, they actually succeeded. Impeccably.
For the lay-foodies out there, the dilemma with French cuisine is not so much that it’s riddled with innumerable hard-to-find ingredients and laborious lists of instructions—just for a sauce—but it also relies exclusively on technique. Rough chop a bunch of vegetables for a delicate sole en papillote when the recipe calls for a julienne cut—fail. Add a tad too much water to your Pâte à choux or forget the pinch of salt—fail. Substitute butter for heart-friendly olive oil in just about any French recipe—epic fail.
The phrase “the devil is in the details,” should have been attributed to the meticulous accuracy required for French cuisine, but the brilliance and truth is in the finished product.
Waxing and waning poetic on the intricacies of the Gallic food culture aside, the dinner was, in a word, magnifique.
Coupled with a lively crowd, frenchy guitar-driven bistro tunes piped throughout the room and French wines including a bubbly blanc du blanc, a crisp white Burgundy, and a fruity-yet-earthy red Cote de Roussillon, by the end of the evening, we were all Escoffier converts. Especially with tomato consommé with peppers and plump kernels of rice; a perfectly cooked morsel of beef tenderloin with an angelic béarnaise, rich with flavors of lemon and a bold veal reduction; and fluffy clouds of meringues bathing in a sweet pool of velvety crème Anglaise. Below is a taste of the rest of the menu.
“We feel like we’ve really gotten to know Escoffier even better over the past few days as we’ve prepared this dinner,” says Holmes. By the cheerful gleam and ruddy cheeks shared throughout the room, it was clear everyone in attendance shared the sentiment.
Hors-d'oeuvres de luxe
anges a cheval (bacon wrapped oyster, cayenne)
caroline foie gras (foie gras eclair, chaud froid)
huitres (raw oyster, pumpernickel, butter)
caviar et blinis (caviar, crème fraîche, blini)
consommé carmen (tomato consommé, peppers, rice)
filets de soles judic aux escargot chablaisienne (sole, mousseline, lettuce, mornay, snails, meat glaze)
filet mignon avec sauce foyot et pomme de terre et champignons farcis (beef tenderloin, béarnaise sauce, veal reduction with potatoes and stuffed mushrooms)
aubergines a l'egyptienne (eggplant gratin, braised lamb)
galantine de poulet avec ris de veau et artichauts a la grecque (chicken galantine, ham, sweetbreads, aspic jelly and marinated baby artichokes)
salade Americaine (tomatoes, shaved potato, celery, eggs mimosa)
ouefs a la neige (poached meringues with crème Anglaise)
glace au chocolat (chocolate ice cream)
mignardises (petit fours)