How César Ritz & Auguste Escoffier Created the Modern Hotel Restaurant
In his new book, journalist Luke Barr delves into the intertwined history of these two legends.
Auguste Escoffier was a few years older than César Ritz, forty-three to Ritz’s thirty-nine. A disciplined and scientific Frenchman—calm, quiet, and thoughtful—he was a brilliant and innovative cook, inventing new dishes and always keeping careful notes of what he served to important guests, so as never to make them the same thing twice. He and Ritz had worked as counterparts since the mid-1880s, at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo and at the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, making their names together.
They were an odd couple, and ideal partners. Like Ritz, Escoffier had grown up poor, in a tiny village—he was the son of a blacksmith, and had been raised in Villeneuve-Loubet, in the hills of Provence near Nice. They’d both left home at an early age to work as apprentices, Ritz as a waiter, Escoffier as a cook.
Ritz was outgoing, debonair, and excitable, while Escoffier was cerebral and methodical. Ritz was extravagant, ambitious, and prone to self-doubt, while Escoffier was self-assured and precise. He had organized the kitchens at the Grand and the National hotels according to an entirely modern brigade system, with specialist chefs working in parallel, allowing for far faster service. He was imperturbable, soft-spoken, and wore a carefully trimmed, professorial moustache. He was a small man, and quite handsome.
They had crossed paths by chance. This had been back in 1884. Ritz was managing the Grand in Monte Carlo and had great success attracting a fashionable clientele. But his talented chef, Jean Giroux, had just been hired away by the hotel’s main competitor.
Giroux had been good, but Ritz remembered something: the chef had often sung the praises of his master in Paris, at the Petit Moulin Rouge restaurant, a man named Auguste Escoffier, who’d taught him everything he knew. And so Ritz tracked down this Escoffier and hired him.
Ritz had come to the realization that his success in the luxury hotel business depended in large part on having a superb restaurant at the hotel.
Escoffier, meanwhile, had also come to a realization: he was a brilliant chef, and he needed an appreciative audience. Working with Ritz had solved that problem: Ritz was on his way to being the premier hotelier in Europe. His clientele included opera stars and princesses.
Quite apart from their own self-interested reasons, it turned out that Ritz and Escoffier worked exceedingly well together. Ritz loved to give encouragement and suggestions in the kitchen, tasting new sauces and preparations. He was as enthusiastic about new dishes as Escoffier was. And their collaboration extended to the dining room, where Ritz welcomed Escoffier’s suggestions about décor and dishware.
Escoffier and Ritz were a team, each contributing crucially to the other’s triumphs. They were also friends, and had stayed in touch even after Ritz left the Grand and the National the previous year to go out on his own.
But the Savoy would bring them together again.
“I am counting on your support in this affair, Auguste,” Ritz said, when he came to Monte Carlo to make his case. “I want you to take on the organization and management of the kitchens.” He then launched into a long discourse about the Savoy, how brilliant and modern it was, how glamorous and wealthy its clientele. This was their chance, he said, to open the best restaurant in the world.
Ritz could not do it without Escoffier—not only because Escoffier was a great chef, but also because he had perfected the modern organization of the restaurant kitchen. For all the problems Ritz had seen at the Savoy restaurant (the slow service, the merely decent food), Escoffier was the solution.
Still, Escoffier resisted the idea of going to London. He didn’t speak a word of English. He had just bought an estate in Monte Carlo, the Villa Fernand, where he planned a more settled life for his wife, Delphine, and their two sons. He had no interest in leaving his family behind. But Ritz was persuasive, as only he could be. Just come for the summer season, he said, to set things up. This was their opportunity to do something on a larger stage—on the international stage.
Escoffier finally agreed. He told the Pfyffers, the owners of the National Hotel in Lucerne, that he wouldn’t be coming that year, and they understood.
So it was that in April 1890, Ritz and Escoffier were on their way. They would take London by storm. They were going to change the world.
Reprinted from Ritz & Escoffier. Copyright © 2018 by Luke Barr. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.