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Friday, 19 July 2013

 The Brigade de Cuisine: Part I

A view of the cooks working at the field of the cloth of gold in 1520. In 1520, King Henry VIII of England hosted King Francis I of France to a feast that was held over three weeks in a field south of Calais, France. Here we can see a tent setup to house cauldrons, another for a roasting, sideboards for serving, and a baking oven tended to by bakers  (Anon., The Field of the Cloth of Gold, c. 1545, The Royal Collection, London, detail) . 

One objective of this blog is to extend the temporal parameters currently applied to the use of the term brigade de cuisine (see the first post for an outline of the concept). I have always been a bit mystified by the traditional narrative that Escoffier somehow instituted a system of kitchen management at the Savoy Hotel, Paris, in 1898 and at the Carlton Hotel, London in 1899, that revolutionized European and American kitchens after his time. 

In fact, Escoffier said nothing of the sort. In his books (especially his personal papers that were collected and published as Memories of My Life by his great granddaughter in-law, L. Escoffier) he comes across as an honest, straightforward writer with quite candid remarks about kitchen life considering the society in which he was immersed. He did discuss the organization of the kitchen in some of his books, though his seminal work, A Guide to Modern Cookery (1907), kitchen management, cooks, and chefs are not mentioned. I have not been able to trace the origins of this myth, but it seems to have developed quite some time after Escoffier's death.

A visit to Wikipedia offers the traditional historical narrative of Escoffier's contributions: "Alongside the recipes he recorded and invented, another of Escoffier's contributions to cooking was to elevate it to the status of a respected profession by introducing organized discipline to his kitchens.". The French aren't immune to this myth either; French Wikipedia notes: "Il a également développé le concept de brigade de cuisine, en rationalisant la répartition des tâches dans l'équipe et en veillant à l'image de marque du cuisinier (propre, méticuleux, non-buveur, non-fumeur, ne criant pas)." Not that Wikipedia means much, but in this case it is an accurate reflection of the types of things Escoffier is noted for, both within the profession as well as in some authors' works. 

Many cooks take pride in the history of our profession, despite the craft attracting little historiographic attention. Escoffier's influence is a charged topic, too. His introduction of the brigade de cuisine is part of the corpus of almost every culinary school on the planet. When I worked as a cook at the Fairmont Royal York, once or twice I mentioned to the other cooks that I think the brigade de cuisine is older than Escoffier, and was prepared to mention a few examples of the phenomenon from before Escoffier's time, only to be met with "pft - I'm pretty sure he did. Get back to work bookworm!", in true cook fashion. 

It offends cooks to hear it, and I'm secretly glad. We treasure our traditions despite all the foams, liquid nitrogen and even ultrasound machines that grace some modern kitchens. A fundamental element of learning the craft during the apprenticeship is disciplining one's self to respect the guidance of more senior chefs. The granddaddy of all senior chefs is Escoffier and his memory is one that cooks are taught to treasure and revere.    

And so we do.

But Escoffier didn't lay claim to the brigade and we should be proud to embrace and explore the very intricate kitchen management systems that existed in large European noble households further back in history. If we were to believe most sources, the kitchen before Escoffier was a place of utter chaos. No systematization, no order, no hierarchy; a mess of a place that somehow produced fine food pleasing to the most refined palates of the day. 

In fact, things were not so. Since the thirteenth century at least, a formal brigade system existed in many large households, especially royal ones. The Archives Nationales, Paris, possesses an early household ordinance book from the French royal household (JJ 57 F. 1-1. Paris et Bibliothèque nationale, latin, 12814 F. 61-69 anc.49-57).The manuscript is kept in a collection of early household ordinances of the French royal household. It has been transcribed in the original Middle French and is available online

In it we can see the systematization of the French royal kitchens in a manner that is not unlike the division of labour in a large modern hotel:

King’s Household
Queen’s Household





Pantry (bread)

Buttery (drink)







Pantry (bread)

Buttery (drink)



In the Ordinance of 1286, this is the following division of labour listed for the main kitchen:

French King’s Kitchen and the

“Grand Commun” in 1286 under Philip IV



-“4 autres queus, dont li 2 seront devers le roy et li autre 2 devers le commun”

-Aideurs : 4, c'est assavoir 2 pour le roy et 2 pour le commun

-Hasteurs : 4

-Paiges : 4

-Souffleurs : 2

-Enfans : 4

-Li saussiers du commun

-Li saussiers devers le roy

-Li garde mengiers

-Sommiers : 2

-Li poulailliers

-Huissiers : 2

-Les 2 grans charettes de la cuisine auront chascune a 4 chevaus

-La charette du petit disner a 3 chevaus


-The Master Cook Ysembert

-4 other cooks, of which two serve in the king’s kitchen and two in the “commun”.

-Helpers: 4; 2 for the king; 2 for the commun

-Rôtisseurs: 4

-Pages: 4

-Broth Cooks: 2

-Scullions: 4

-Sauciers of the commun

-Sauciers of the king

-Garde mangers

-Sommeliers: 2

-Poultry cooks

-Porters: 2

-2 large wagons and 4 horses

-1 small wagon with 3 horses

Unfortunately some job titles were not associated with a specific number of workers (garde manger, sauciers etc.) so it is difficult to arrive at an estimate for total number of workers, though 40-50 or so seems an accurate guess. We can, however, see both a similar division of labour to the much later brigade de cuisine attributed to Escoffier, and also some of the same names: "saucier",  "garde manger". 

Ysembert was a famous Master Cook associated with the French Royal household from before the time of Taillevent's oversight of the kitchen. 

In many cases the "hasteurs" or roasting chefs were of more senior rank than the "souffleurs" (soup, broth, meat and veg blanching) or "poulailliers" (poultry cooks) as often reflected in pay accounts. 

The "enfans" (kitchen children) were usually children or relatives of existing household servants and were usually engaged in menial prep tasks, though it was from among these children that more senior cooks would often be drawn.

The "Grand Commun" was the department of the French royal household, throughout the Ancien Régime, that oversaw foodservice to senior household officials, the entourages of important guests, as well as most other in-house servants. Here we can see some repetition in job titles since the main kitchen oversaw foodservice to both the king and the commun. The queen had a separate household, with her own kitchens, that will be examined in a later post (along with the bakeries and fruiterie).

Overall, this is just a sample of the data from one ordinance, but it clearly shows the existence of the brigade nearly 700 years before the time of Escoffier. The brigade was crucial to running an elite household in the thirteenth and later centuries, and it was crucial that their work be governed and organized hierarchically as we see here. Some aspects reflect life in a large medieval household (wagons and horses) though most of the positions are familiar to us today. 

I will present more evidence as I have time, but this should begin the long process of extending the role and evolution of the brigade de cuisine much further back in history than strictly during Escoffier's lifetime.

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