In November, Indagare is joining forces with chef Marc Murphy for an Insider Journey at the Ritz Paris, with unparalleled access to chef Auguste Escoffier’s legendary cooking school. Ritz & Escoffier, Luke Barr’s engaging new dual biography, chronicles the partnership of the master hotelier and the original top chef, whose influence on the hotel experience and food is still felt today. An authentic evocation of Belle Epoque London and Paris and the intricacies of French culinary traditions, it reads like great fiction and plays out like an episode of Downton Abbey. Here, we asked Barr to give us the inside scoop on the book and César Ritz and Escoffier’s lasting impact on the way we travel now.
Your last book Provence, 1970 had a personal connection. How did you land on César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier for this one?
Totally by accident! With Provence, 1970, my great aunt M.F.K. Fisher was a central figure, so I was able to use her diaries to help tell the story. But I was reading about Escoffier and came across the fact that he and Ritz had been longtime business partners and had gone to London together in the 1890s to open the Savoy, and then to Paris to open the Ritz. They effectively invented the modern hotel and restaurant together. Then there was the scandal: Ritz and Escoffier were fired by the Savoy in the mid-1890s, which was intriguing.
In what ways did Ritz and Escoffier influence approaches to “modern” luxury?
Ritz and Escoffier invented modern luxury as we know it. Escoffier modernized French cooking, simplifying recipes and speeding up service, and brought a new lightness to his recipes. “Toujours faits simple,” he said—always keep it simple. Ritz, meanwhile, was always aware of the theatricality and drama of a hotel lobby and a restaurant—the importance of making an entrance. The restaurants at the Savoy and the Ritz were places to see and be seen, and that was something new in 1890s London and Paris. In terms of service, Ritz’s goal was to anticipate guests’ needs before they did. He kept careful records of his regular clients’ whims and desires—who required what kind of pillow, who preferred a particular brand of whiskey, and so on—all things top hoteliers continue to do today.
Related: Healthy Food in Paris: Top Tables
How did Ritz and Escoffier usher in “the new brand of cosmopolitanism” and the “alchemizing of food and luxury into a new kind of glamour” and how is that still felt at places like the Ritz Paris and beyond?
So much was changing in the 1890s—politically, socially, culturally. Women were eating in public restaurants in increasing numbers, entertaining in public rather than at home; wealthy Americans were traveling to Europe; aristocrats were eating in the same restaurants as bohemian artists and opera stars and the nouveaux riches. Ritz and Escoffier created the hotels and restaurants that catered to this new cosmopolitanism—and food and cooking were at the center of it. And indeed: the formula they invented was a powerful one and survives to this day. A great hotel is a fantasy, a world unto itself, a place where your every need and desire are anticipated, where you are treated like royalty no matter who you are—as long as you can pay the bill. It seems almost oxymoronic to talk about the democratization of luxury, but that’s really what Ritz and Escoffier achieved, and there’s no better example, then or now, than the Ritz Paris.
What can you tell us about Escoffier’s legacy at the Ritz Paris and how it impacted the way we experience food today?
Escoffier designed the kitchens at the Ritz Paris exactly the way he wanted them: well lit, with (then novel) electric lighting; dishes and silverware made to his exact specifications. He also designed the menu, which included many of the innovative dishes he was known for. As for his legacy: the very idea of knowing the name of the chef at the restaurant you’re visiting dates back to Escoffier. He wasn’t a celebrity, exactly, but he was celebrated. He would walk through the restaurant, stopping by the tables of important guests. He did his part in bringing the chef out of the kitchen and into the restaurant.
Your favorite hotel and restaurant in Paris?
The Ritz really is a special place, full of history and glamour and style, and having written this book I feel a special attachment to it. And the food at the hotel’s L’Espadon restaurant is suitably brilliant—the chef there, Nicolas Sale, is a genius.
Related: First Look: The Ritz Paris