Avant-garde: the Chef on the Culinary Frontlines

Andrew Yang
Mar 25 · 9 min read
Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

The heat, the intensity, the discipline and control, the uniformed chefs, huddled around their stations, working like mad to complete the evening’s service — the fine-dining kitchen is a battlefield. Every so often, a waiter will send in a set of orders, the orders will be announced, and, like a well-tuned orchestra, a sudden, uniform burst of sound: “Yes, chef.”

Explosions occur in both the kitchen and the battlefield. But in the world of scalding hot stovetops, copper pots, and complex sauce reductions, explosions happen on the palate. Victories and defeats are witnessed on the plate and felt in the mouth.

A Brigadier General and his Bayonet

Chefs of the modern kitchen are trained like soldiers. Both wear uniforms. Both are taught to communicate ruthlessly, to work as a team. Both require discipline, precision, finesse, and poise. Everyone starts out at the bottom of the totem pole. And indeed, there is a structured hierarchy for both professions, one that incentivizes and rewards as the private or culinary apprentice learns, specializes and succeeds.

The military chain of command is indisputable. An order from a superior officer is executed without question. It is no different in the kitchen. In fact, organization in the kitchen is military by nature: it’s called the Brigade System.

The executive chef is the General, the authority that manages, but never holds a rifle or touches a knife. Under him, there is the chef de cuisine, the Brigadier General that manages closer to the frontlines. Below him, there is the sous chef, the Colonel that connects the higher authorities with the events of the battlefield. Under the sous chef, there are the chef de parties, the Captains who specialize in a specific cooking station. Typically, there is the saucier who makes the sauces, the grillardin who mans the grill and cooks the meat, the poissonnier who is in charge of seafood, the potager who makes the soups, the patissier who makes the dessert, the boulanger who makes the bread, and the legumier who is responsible for vegetables.

The chef de parties have their own hierarchy within the larger Brigade System. The saucier is the most respected chef de partie. Particularly in French cuisine, the sauce is the star of the dish, the component that ties different textures and flavors together on the plate. And making a good sauce is hard; if it takes a year to perfect a sauce in all its elegance and subtlety, it takes years more to replicate it for the masses. Good sauces imbue a harmony of the parts.

Under the various chef de parties, there are cuisiniers, the Sergeants that prepare ingredients for specific dishes at specific stations. Underneath the cuisiniers, there are the commis chefs or junior cooks, the Corporals that assist the chef de partie. Finally, under the commis chef, at the bottom of this towering totem pole, are the apprentis and the plongeurs, the privates and fresh recruits of the culinary world who gain experience in the kitchen by scrubbing pots and peeling potatoes.

The kitchen is an operation of military standards, and the comparison is certainly applicable. Napoleon Bonaparte said that “an army marches on its stomach.” But nowadays, satisfied stomachs depend on the army in the kitchen. The Brigade System, the white uniforms, and the discipline and intensity are not just evidence of the battlefield-like conditions of the kitchen; they are the result of the battlefield. And it all begins with the man who created the Brigade System and revolutionized food as we know it: the French chef Auguste Escoffier.

Escoffier’s culinary career began in 1859 at the age of 13 as an apprentis for his uncle’s restaurant in Nice. He would grow to become a culinary revolutionary; the Brigade System, among many other culinary innovations that permeate the culture of food and cuisine today, is his doing. But the most crucial period of his life in the kitchen didn’t even happen in a kitchen. It happened on the battlefield and in war-torn farms and townships where Escoffier fed soldiers as an army chef.

An army marches on its stomach, and among a number of other problems, the French army was getting hungry. The Ministry of War was low on cooks and Escoffier, a reservist during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), was plucked from his kitchen in Paris and became the chef de cuisine for the Army of Rhine. Although he was just an army cook, he was by culinary standards a Brigadier General. His experiences in battle would inform the radical changes he introduced in the kitchen.

Escoffier was a “French cook down to his military bootstraps.” Even in wartime conditions, the Frenchman was devoted to cooking good food for hundreds of soldiers. Despite the rigors of the battlefield (killing cavalry horses for meat) and the depleting food reserves (there was never any salt), there was always soup, a second course, and a roast. “Nothing Sardanapalian,” he notes, “but it seemed good at the time.”

Even amidst the rumble of artillery explosions, Escoffier did not forgo his French propensities. His prized ingredients were his stocks of wine and brandy that he used for his indulgent sauces. For senior officers, he would serve onion soup, tinned sardines, an assortment of cheeses, and Turkish coffee to finish. Not a bad meal to share surrounded by the sound of exploding shells.

Right up to the last day, despite depleting food reserves, Escoffier resourcefully maintained his culinary standards and remained devoted to French cuisine. Most likely on some hill facing some destitute farm somewhere in the French countryside, he created an entremet called Riz a la Lorraine, a dome of rice cooked in goat milk, laced with kirsch, layered with jam, and topped with an apple compote and crushed army biscuit. On the last day of his career as an army chef, he had one chicken, one pot of beef extract, one tin of tunny fish, and one goat. Apparently, he sold the goat.

The military formation of the brigade kitchen is matched only by the white-clad chefs that constitute it. In one instance, at the height of battle, Escoffier received orders to immediately relocate to a rural commune in north-eastern France. He had no time to even change out of his chef’s whites into military uniform. But this is, in essence, how the classic double-breasted white jacket became a chef’s uniform. When chefs were servants that were expected to serve both in noble households and in battle, the white jacket fulfilled both duties. In any case, Escoffier was worried more about his food supplies than his clothing; he had to leave behind most of his precious stocks but managed to load in his wagon a large piece of beef. After all, we remember Escoffier not for his military exploits but for his culinary successes.

A Culinary Vanguard

After the war, Escoffier returned with a new vision for a kitchen run with the precision and structure of a well-oiled military machine. And like the state of affairs in Europe after the war, there was much to change.

Young Escoffier, apprenticing in Nice as a teenager, experienced the abhorrent conditions of the 19th-century kitchen. At a time when dining at a restaurant was only an aristocratic privilege, the kitchen was loud, dirty, and violent, and the eating was slow; the evening’s meal was delivered banquet-style on massive platters and only the titled elite could afford to spend hours and hours “at table.” Dismayed by the chef de cuisine’s tyrannical treatment of the staff and the blistering temperatures they suffered in, the young chef set about changing those conditions and methods.

The typical 19th-century restaurant kitchen looked nothing like a kitchen at all. It was characterized by three things that should never be associated with fine dining: soot and fumes, drunk men with knives, and a culture of crudity and indecency. This hellish atmosphere was the product of coal furnaces that spread ash everywhere and heated kitchens up to unbearable temperatures. Chefs suffered; compounded by 12-hour shifts, the smoke parched their throats. Under such conditions, constant hydration was a must, but the uncouth, vulgar behavior of chefs was understandable when beer was the chosen beverage. So, Escoffier banned alcohol in the kitchen (except for what was needed in cooking) and even commissioned a doctor to concoct a barley water to stay cool and combat dehydration. To reduce noise in the kitchen, Escoffier introduced one simple change: the name of the person who read the orders was no longer the aboyeur (barker); he became the annonceur (spokesperson) who announced, but would not shout. Kitchen staff had to be quiet to hear the orders.

With these changes, Escoffier’s kitchen was noticeably more pristine, more professional, and more efficient. Service at Escoffier’s restaurant was three times faster than his competition.

Compliments to the Chef

Today, the kitchen is a precise, focused operation, a result of Escoffier’s changes. Work surfaces are clean, communication is clear, and the military efficiency of the modern Brigade System means that all dishes for one table can be served at the exact same time. Easier said than done.

If, for example, at a table of two, one person orders the lamb and the other orders the salmon, how can the kitchen serve both dishes simultaneously despite different cooking times? The answer lies in the Brigade System. After the order for lamb comes in, the chef de cuisine allocates work to each station. The chef de partie assigns tasks to each commis (supply the lamb, start the sauce, prepare the garnish, et cetera). Components of the dish are created separately and are unified on the plate. The sous chef inspects the lamb and a waiter takes it away. Except this must all coincide with the salmon; if the salmon cooks faster than the lamb, the entire chain of command must shift. The chef de cuisine must communicate with the poissonnier and the grillard to ensure that salmon begins cooking as the lamb is searing so they finish at the same time. This is for the orders of one table for one course. One kitchen brigade must account for all orders of salmon and lamb for all tables, plus dessert. When successful, the modern kitchen is a logistical miracle. When the system fails, so does the service of the food, regardless of what’s on the plate.

The state of cookery and cuisine today is a product of Escoffier’s improvements. The Brigade System and the discipline he instilled into his kitchen raised both the standing of chefs as a profession and the standards of food for their patrons. Before Escoffier, only the elite could dine at a restaurant; one cook would be responsible for one dish, and the presentation of the food was as much for the food itself as it was for the entertainment of the guests. In his New Yorker article about French cuisine, Adam Gopnik observes that these large platters of food “looked a lot like architecture, with the dishes fitted into vast, beautiful neoclassical structures.” But these elite patrons took their time, and the food wasn’t much faster either. Escoffier realized that with a more efficient kitchen and by serving meals in courses, he could reduce the time at table from six hours down to only one or two so that even the middle class could work a full day and have time to spend their money at a restaurant. With a more pristine kitchen, a higher quality of food, and the efficiency of the staff, the profession of chef went from mere servitude to a legitimate, respected position.

Escoffier fought the culinary battle on multiple fronts. On a very literal level, he was an army chef, cooking meals for men under fire. He witnessed the depravity of wartime conditions and still maintained his standards. He borrowed the hierarchical organization and efficiency from his time in the military and applied it directly to his kitchen. With the development of the Brigade System, among numerous other improvements, Escoffier sought to redefine the culinary experience for his chefs and patrons. Chefs enjoyed better working conditions, and more people had access to better, faster food.

The kitchen is a battlefield for every chef. If you ever find yourself sitting in a restaurant and your first course arrives, the plate in front of you is a product of the Brigade System. The timing of your dish’s arrival is a precise operation, a product of discipline and collaboration colored by Escoffier’s military career. But the most important victory — for the customer, for Escoffier, and for every rank in the kitchen brigade responsible for the dish in front of you — is the artistry on the plate, the explosion of the first bite, and the triumph that ensues.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

Andrew Yang

Written by

Montreal-based journalist and poet.

One Table, One World

People coming from different cultural backgrounds sharing seats at the table to dine, to laugh, to cook, to heal and most of all to share the stories of their unique journeys all over the world.

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