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Professional Encyclopedia of Haute Cuisine
on June 16, 2006
For this new translation, the dust jacket proudly proclaims 'Here, for the first time, is presented to the English-speaking public the entire translation of...' The copy on these dust jackets is usually just ad copy written by the sales department, and I would not take what it says too seriously. When I was much younger, I had the Crown version of this book as I happily puttered around in my kitchen. I no longer have it, and am unable to verify claims as to the superiority of this new translation over the older version (according to the editorial page, this translation dates to 1979 and is based on the 1921 French edition).
Escoffier was today's equivalent of a master chef in the finest hotels in England and France during the days of Edwardian elegance. That is the best quality ingredients, time, and resources used in unlimited amounts, costs be damned. He is also credited with formalizing classic, haute cuisine. The dedicated cook (home or professional) can always learn from such a talented chef as Escoffier, but Escoffier's roots must be taken into account when attempting his recipes. This is cooking for restaurant kitchens, not home ones.
Just for fun, I costed out a recipe for pheasant and truffles. I estimated the labor and ingredient cost for a service of 4 at $200. Assuming an industry average for food cost of 35%, this entree would go for $150 per person, not including soup, salad, appetizer, wine, dessert, beverage, or gratuity.
For the amateur home chef or foodservice professional, this book is an important one to have on your shelf. Many of the recipes are no longer current, but up until a couple of decades ago it was a standard professional reference book everyone was expected to have and be familiar with. Even today, it is an invaluable source of culinary information and is still very relevant (forcemeat and garnished consomme, to name just two important but often neglected restaurant items). Cooking your way through this book would be a culinary education all by itself (not that I am advocating such a silly thing, of course). It is enlightening to compare how things are done today and Escoffier's instructions; some things have changed, others have not. For example, in the soup chapter there are classic haute cuisine recipes that have since passed on to bistro cooking: Potage Garbure a l'Oignon and Soupe a la Grand-Mere. If you need a (restaurant) haute cuisine recipe or a garnishing plate presentation for a dish, you will probably find it here.
For the average home cook, however, the situation is more difficult. Many of the recipes are beyond the horizon of a home cook, and even beyond all restaurants except major, four star, international hotel chains (e.g. in the sauce chapter, any sauce based on Espagnol or demi-glace). Other recipes are actually easy to do and should be used with abandon in the home kitchen (e.g. in the sauce chapter: sauce Bourguignonne, cream sauce, butter sauce, sauce Mornay, sauce Soubise). Problem is, being able to identify which is which. The recipes assume a good amount of skill and experience; this book is a simple encyclopedia of recipes, and there is no explanatory material. It is not an educational tool. The recipes are a 100 years old, and they do not take into account today's ingredients, tools, cooks, or home kitchens; one usually has to adapt the instructions at least a little, sometimes a lot. Many recipes call for other components, but in some cases it is not easy to figure out what that other recipe is. The rice and potato chapter has many recipes that even a home cook can do (Escoffier's recipes for these are superior to most that you will find in current, best-selling cookbooks); his versions of bookmaker's sandwich, mulled wine, lemonade, and iced coffee are simple for anyone to do, yet they are absolutely correct and the best versions of these recipes you will find anywhere. On the other hand, you should avoid all recipes that include: cock's comb, marrow, truffles (here, Escoffier uses the $1000+ per pound white, winter truffles, not the black summer ones we can get here in the US for a mere $300-400 per pound), salt ox tongue, demi-glace, veal gravy, meat glace, or any sauces that derive thereupon. Escoffier often uses salt pork, but it is invariably just a covering for cooking, and is always discarded at the end and never served.
The culinary subjects it covers are comprehensive. It has chapters on sauces (280), garnishes (192), soup (440), hors-d'oeuvre (377), eggs (257), fish (628), meat (841), poultry (506), game (251), composite entrees (naught), cold preparations and salads (109), roasts (71), vegetables and farinaceous products (355), sweets, puddings, and desserts (414), ices (197), savouries (46), compotes, jams, and drinks (50). Total recipe count (which is easy to tabulate because all recipes are numbered): 5012. It has a glossary, actual menus served by Escoffier, and an unusual index that includes both recipe # and page # but can be confusing to use.
Main complaint: the table of contents lists sub-chapters, but only the name thereof and not the page number to flip to, so you are more or less obligated to leaf through an entire chapter to get at a specific sub-section.