Kitchen Calm: An Appreciation of Escoffier, Vol. 17, Issue 17

Delving into Georges Auguste Escoffier, the biography of the great European chef by two of his disciples, Eugene Herbodeau and Paul Thalamas, Etiquetteer was deeply impressed by their account of Escoffier's insistence on Perfect Propriety among his staff, and especially in his kitchens. They even cite this as one of his greatest reforms. Now we all know that hotel and restaurant kitchens are among the most stressful work environments possible. Hourly and less, tight deadlines as well as perfection are demanded - and yet how often do we think of those two things as mutually exclusive! Escoffier brought needed reforms, including worker respect.

The pre-Escoffier environment painted by the authors betrays a wood- and coal-stoked Hell filled with the clashing aromas of cooking, where overheated chefs blasted by heat, slake their perpetual thirst with liquor and pollute the surrounding air barking profanities at underlings. To prevent kitchen drinking, Escoffier devised, with a doctor, a barley drink that was available to all the kitchen staff. None of his staff could drink alcohol on the job.

"Intemperance," as the authors continue, "also provoked vulgarity . . . Escoffier was far too conscious of human dignity to allow such practices to continue." Etiquetteer doubts that he had to resort to a swear jar to get his staff to clean up their tongues, but imagines this might have taken some time. Those who needed their mouths washed out with soap would be taken aside and told "Here you are expected to be polite. Any other behaviour is contrary to our practice . . . " Etiquetteer just loves that, contrary to our practice. So dignified and so clear!

But surely, one wonders, M. Escoffier Himself couldn't possibly keep an even temper in a busy kitchen, could he? "Escoffier was a great believer in the virtue of calm," but when provoked past a certain point, he knew himself well enough to leave the room with a quiet "I am going out, I can feel myself getting angry." In a dispute between a hotel executive berating a cook to hurry a meal, and the cook who finally had enough and threw the executive's plate at him (thereby completely staining his clothes), Escoffier deplored the behavior of both, but sided with the cook, who was working at the proper speed.

Contrast this insistence on calm to produce good food, the best food, with today's celebrity chefs fostering climates of abuse in their restaurants and TV shows like Top Chef where the abuse of contestants is considered part of the entertainment. Etiquetteer is encouraged that so many waitresses, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, are now suing their employers over workplace misbehavior. But change requires more than lawsuits. It requires leadership like M. Escoffier's - leadership by example. In the 21st century workplace, whether a professional kitchen or an office, we need to do better.