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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

On the Origins of the Myth that Escoffier is the Father of the Brigade de Cuisine



Lieutenant Colonel  Nathaniel Newnham-Davis (1854-1917)

   Since this blog is loosely devoted to demonstrating that the brigade de cuisine is many centuries older than Escoffier (1836-1933) [See earlier posts on the topic post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4], I have been searching very diligently for the origins of the myth. This is especially important since I will defend my dissertation this autumn. I was hoping to pin down the origins of the myth before the defence (It is not essential since I focus on the brigade de cuisine between 1350-1650, but it is a compelling, relevant question that I was hoping to understand more about). 

   Alas, all my searches were coming-up empty; years worth of searches. One place I had high hopes for was in the pages of the periodical that Escoffier himself edited: Le Carnet d'epicure. Although Escoffier does mention cooks and some aspects of kitchen management, he seems to have been overly concerned with discussing the ethos of working in a kitchen, more than discussing the nuts-and-bolts of its function. Extracts from the publication have recently been published by Escoffier's great granddaughter-in-law, Laurence Escoffier, wife of Escoffier's great grandson, Michel Escoffier. Extracts of the new publication can be found here. None of Escoffier's other publications mention the brigade de cuisine, nor do they offer anything in the way of substantial commentary in kitchen management; this includes in his largest publications: Aide-mémoire de cuisine pratique, 1903, and  Ma cuisine, 1934.

   I have found some books and publications dating back to the 1950's or so, mentioning Escoffier as the father of the brigade de cuisine, although none of them seemed authoritative enough to have instituted the myth. The hospitality industry was booming after WWII, so, I thought, maybe the myth developed sometime during that period. 

    Things changed recently. I came across Lieutenant Colonel Newnham-Davis's (1854-1917) The Gourmet's Guide to London, 1914. According to his Wikipedia entry, after a career in the British Army, 


Newnham-Davis was best known for his writings about food and wine. His Dinners and Diners – Where and How to Dine in London was published in 1899, with a second edition in 1901. In 1903 he published The Gourmet's Guide to Europe, written in collaboration with Algernon Bastard. A second edition was published in 1908 and a third in 1911. The New York Times wrote of him: "He is not of a domestic turn. The people of the gay world he affects breakfast at a café, lunch at a club, dine in the palm room, or the ivory room, or the gold room of a 'swell' hotel." The Gourmet's Guide to Europe was published in an American edition in 1908, when The New York Times called it "a veritable masterwork of its own genre". In 1914 Newnham-Davis published The Gourmet's Guide to London.


   Newnham-Davis was one of the fathers of modern gastronomy in the English-speaking world. For many years, he told the British - and by extension, those who mattered throughout the British Empire - what to think about food and cookery from his position as the food editor of the Pall Mall Gazette; a London evening newspaper whose restaurant reviews were highly influential.

     Now, I will not say that Newnham-Davis invented the name "brigade de cuisine" - we will never know who did - but he was the earliest, most famous food writer who occupied a position of immense influence and who used the word "brigade" when describing  kitchen management structures. We should note, too, that beyond the army and the kitchen, the fire "brigade" also used the term during this period, and, in fact, was simply referred to as "the brigade" in stories about building fires (some including cooks!) from newspapers published at the turn of the 19/20th centuries.

   Newnham-Davis's use of the term "kitchen brigade" was not restricted to Escoffier's kitchen, nor did he ever mention anything about Escoffier inventing the idea; this despite being one of Escoffier's greatest fans. When describing Escoffier's kitchen in 1914, this time at the Carlton Hotel, he notes that Escoffier "has organized his brigade of vociferous cooks of every nation as thoroughly as Crawford organized the Light Division of Peninsular Fame" - a notion clearly drawn from the Lieutenant Colonel's own sphere of interest. Later in the book, Newnham-Davis applies the concept of brigade de cuisine to the kitchens of the Hotel Cecil, under direction of Chef M. Jean Alletru, the kitchens of the Ritz hotel under Chef M. Malley, The kitchens of the Savoy, and the kitchens of the Cavendish Hotel about which Newnham-Davis noted, "all the members of her [Mrs. Lewis, proprietor]kitchen brigade are girls ... and she further declared her entire belief that it is more satisfactory to have an accomplished woman cook than an accomplished chef in the kitchen; for the women are more resourceful, less apt to make difficulties ..."   (Gourmet's Guide to London, 1914)

   Therefore, we can at least say that the concept of developing the brigade de cuisine was never attributed to Escoffier in his lifetime, even by some of his greatest admirers like Newnham-Davis. Where did the concept come from? As we know from the earlier posts, the concept came from the noble households of Europe. The name, however, seems to have developed out of the post-Opium Wars / Franco-Prussian War period (1830's-1870's) period, where many Europeans, Escoffier and Newnham-Davis both, were drawn into military service for their countries. As well, the fire brigade had an association with the concept of brigade-style organization that was entrenched in the British press of the period, more so than the kitchen brigade, so certainly it is clear that the concept had already bled out of the military into various professions before the 20th century. 

     In the end, Escoffier's contemporary cooks and chefs knew he was not the first to develop a kitchen brigade, and was likely not the first to call it a "brigade". What we can now say, however, is that the earliest English-speaking food writer with a wide panorama of influence and who publicized the notion of brigades of cooks, it seems, was Newnham-Davis. He did not credit Escoffier with the idea even though he admired and listed many other of Escoffier's accomplishments. How could he have missed crediting the structure's development to Escoffier? Especially a fellow veteran - one would think Newnham-Davis would have mentioned something about Escoffier developing it, if that were the case. 

    Instead, it seems, that this aspect of Escoffier's contribution to French cuisine is the product of modern (post-WWII or so) myth and legend. Escoffier did refine and codify early twentieth-century cuisine, and contributed greatly to developing a textual ethos for gastronomic concepts in Le Carnet d'epicure, but Escoffier never mentioned the word brigade in the Carnet, in the Aide-mémoire, nor in Ma cuisine, and neither did Escoffier's most verbose contemporary fans attribute it to him. The brigade de cuisine is, in fact, many centuries older than Escoffier. 



(Image Credit: Wikimedia)