The Past, Present and Future of Gastronomy?

Posted on: September 26th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood


We discuss the history of gastronomy; the leading lights of the past, review the current state of play and assess the possibilities for the future.  Should you ask many of the Michelin Starred chefs of today – “Who is the godfather of modern Haute Cuisine?” – you are likely to get but one answer; Escoffier.

Georges Auguste Escoffier was born on 28th October 1846 and died on 12th February 1935. His seminal work – Le Guide Culinaire (1903) – remains close to the hearts and minds of chefs of today. His contribution to the chef world was enormous on several fronts – far beyond that of a modernising recipe and textbook on food. He essentially lifted the field of cooking to an art form, gaining it genuine, across the board, respect as a true profession.

He was also the first to introduce a structured brigade system into the kitchen – the one we know and understand today: Head Chef, Sous Chef, Chef de Partie, Commis and so on.  In acknowledgement of his contribution to cooking he was recognised in France with the Cross of the Legion d’ Honneur and before his death promoted to an Officier of the Legion. This was a truly extraordinary feat for a chef.  Instigated in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion d’ Honneur (in five categories) remains today as the highest accolade that can be bestowed upon a civilian.

While some might argue that Escoffier spent the peak of his career cooking at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, he was probably more famous for the time he spent cooking at The London Savoy (in other words, outside of France).  It was during this time that he further developed an association with Cezar Ritz – who would go on to found the Ritz Hotels.  While at the Savoy, Escoffier is credited with having created Peche Melba in honour of the opera singer Nellie Melba and Tournedos Rossini in honour of the composer.

The Michelin brothers creation – Guide Rouge – did not start awarding stars until the mid-1920s, perhaps they too were inspired by the feats of Escoffier. Since this advent was somewhat after Escoffier’s prime, it is hard to tell how many protégés were spawned with multi- Michelin stars to their name.

The proliferation of Michelin starred chefs today demonstrates how far gastronomy has come, both as a respected and recognised profession and one that is accessible to a wider audience.  An interesting observation of the Michelin starred chef community of today, is the predominance of interlinked backgrounds: Like sharing the same school in common, except in this case the schools are Michelin starred kitchens of mentor Michelin starred chefs.  You could view an organisation chart or matrix of the backgrounds of today’s Michelin Starred community and you would find a myriad of links, where each link reflects a period of work experience with one another. Perhaps the best way to view this is as a kind of family tree.

An extraordinary factor is that to achieve the necessary heights of recognition a chef must go through the barrier of self-development.  Training by a mentor is one thing and being able to reproduce somebody else’s work precisely is an achievement. However, it is the artist, not the forger that receives the accolades.  Each chef, having completed the first part of the journey in a mentor’s kitchen, must “find their own cuisine” and “express themselves” as food on a plate. This can prove the longest part of the journey and to achieve two Michelin Stars, one imagines a fully developed ‘unique’ approach is utterly essential.

Before we move on, let us consider two other chefs from the history of Gastronomy and consider their contribution. One before Escoffier, who some have argued inspired the great man and one slightly after.

“The king of chefs, and the chef of kings” Marie Antoinne Careme was born on 8th June 1784 and died on 12th January 1833 and was perhaps the first true celebrity chef. He cooked at the Congress of Vienna (after the fall of Napoleon) and was also chef de cuisine for George IV, Tsar Alexander I and banker James Mayer Rothschild.  Careme’s level of influence is debated – did he invent serving one dish after another instead of all the food arriving at once? Did he invent the chef’s hat (toque)? Did he actually (eventually) inspire what Escoffier much later called Tournedos Rossini?  He certainly officially categorized sauces and made a step change in gastronomy from where it had been in France – fresh vegetables, fewer ingredients, sauces and sauces that were lighter (sound familiar?).

Now for one final chef from the history of gastronomy – Fernand Point. Point was born in 1897 and died in 1955. His main restaurant was La Pyramide, south of Lyon. Point’s recipe book Ma Gastronomie was produced after his death and remains a collectors item.

Point mentored many great chefs – Alain Chapel, Paul Bocuse, The Troisgros brothers, Louis Outhier and Georges Perrier.  In fact at one time, seven of the eighteen Michelin Three Star restaurants in France were headed by chefs that had been through his kitchens.  Fernand Point is often cited as the godfather of what became known as nouvelle cuisine.

It has been argued that authors Henri Gault and Christian Millau (of The Gault & Millau Guide – which remains a leading guide in France today) coined the phrase when describing the style of cooking employed by the leading chefs that were commissioned to cook for the maiden flight of Concorde in 1969.  Gault & Millau went a step further and described a list of ten characteristics that defined this latest application of the phrase – nouvelle cuisine. While many may remember, during the 1980s, the application of nouvelle cuisine as going to an extreme of tiny courses and as a ‘fashion that faded.’  However, just take a look at the defined criteria of that time and see how they hold up in the present.

What follows is taken directly from the Wikipedia entry for nouvelle cuisine:-

• A rejection of excessive complication in cooking.

• Cooking times for most fish, seafood, game birds, veal, green vegetables and pâtés were greatly reduced in an attempt to preserve the natural flavours. Steaming was an important trend from this characteristic.

• The cuisine was made with the freshest possible ingredients.

• Large menus were abandoned in favour of shorter menus.

• Strong marinades for meat and game ceased to be used.

• They stopped using heavy sauces such as espagnole and béchamel (originally defined by Careme as ‘Mother’ Sauce Groupings), in favour of seasoning their dishes with fresh herbs, quality butter, lemon juice, and vinegar.

• They used regional dishes for inspiration.

• New techniques were embraced and modern equipment was often used.

• The chefs paid close attention to the dietary needs of their guests through their dishes.

• The chefs were extremely inventive and created new combinations and pairings.

There has certainly been a continued trend in the modern era to cook food to optimise clean, clear and deep flavours of the main ingredients, avoiding heavy or cloying sauces and using the best, freshest possible ingredients.

There too, has been a continued trend in making interesting combinations that excite the palate.

So where are we in the modern era? Perhaps we experience greater diversity as many more chefs have exploded onto the restaurant scene bringing their own interpretations of the past while adding their own unique signature to the present and future.  Do we have a Careme or Escoffier or Fernand Point in our midst? The likes of Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi are among the men of the moment.

What was once described as ‘molecular gastronomy’ is certainly very interesting – it demonstrates, what could be argued, as a natural link between cooking and science. A link that can only grow over time.  The fact that we can now understand that long, slow cooking at lower temperatures protects the molecules of meat and in so doing optimizes taste and texture can only be a positive step forward – or too that chemically, certain combinations can be proven to have an enhanced effect on the palate.

It is also fascinating that engagement of the other senses can improve the eating experience above and beyond enhancing taste.  Likewise, science will have a part to play with obtaining the optimum level of nourishment from a dish (its ‘bioavailability’) and what we understand of as ‘healthy’ in a menu today may be redefined over time by science.

Michelin Chef’s have certainly made natural strides in the modern era to present dishes that are significantly more ‘healthy’ than their forebears but are we due to see a step change here?  There is on going and significant research being conducted into foods, the combining of foods and the associated health impacts.

Only time will tell. In spite of the fact that man has been eating since the dawn of man – top end gastronomy remains a relatively young art or should we say, science?