How does classic French Escoffier inspired cuisine match up to today's modern menu degustation? Food critic Richard McComb eats his way through 18 courses to find out.
We are sitting down to the sort of decadent, protein-packed, heavily sauced dinner that would have been served as standard at the turn of the century – that’s the 20th century, not the 21st.
There are plump chicken mousses with a sauce mornay, asparagus and truffle; towers of meticulously cut chartreuse-style vegetables accompany crayfish and Nantua sauce; roasted venison has a rich Grand-Veneur sauce; and, of course, there is the classic Belle Époque dessert, la pêche Melba.
The place settings are authentic, as is the glassware and crockery. We are having a Downton Abbey moment. All that’s missing is the roaring fire and a string quartet.
It might surprise you then to learn that me and my fellow guests, including leading Birmingham chefs and hoteliers, are sitting not in a Palladian mansion or a grand Parisian dining room but in a meeting room at University College Birmingham in the heart of a city famous for its modern British cookery and baltis.
The occasion is a two-stage dinner series laid on by a team of skilled mature students on UCB’s new MA in Culinary Arts Management, a course designed for chefs who want to develop careers at the sharp end of cuisine.
The contrasting dinners form part of a module, called Culinary Artistry and Classical Technique, that seeks to trace the development of styles, cooking methods, preparations and ingredients from the start of the 20th century to 2012. In effect, we are guinea pigs, but never have guinea pigs been so well fed.
A nine-course classical dinner inspired by master chefs such as the legendary Auguste Escoffier, the “emperor of chefs,” is compared with a version of today’s modern gourmet tasting menu, again offered as nine courses. The dinners are held a week apart, otherwise we would pop.
Nigel Davis, programme manager for the MA, is keen for the first intake of course students to look at, and take inspiration from, the origins of classical cooking.
Davis says: “We are looking back to the beginning of the 20th century from a practical perspective based on the work of Escoffier and other great chefs.
"We are also looking at it from a management and business perspective, looking at the demise of kitchen skills, the increases in labour costs. In days gone by, you would employ a big kitchen brigade with people having different specialist skills. Nowadays, kitchens employ less people because labour is so expensive.”
Lavish restaurants that employ almost as many chefs as they serve customers are a rarity today. It took one of Davis’s team three hours just to prepare the vegetables for the chartreuse, or tower, of carrot and turnip for 12 diners at the “classic” evening.
The chartreuse were then filled with crayfish tails bound with a terrific Nantua sauce (shellfish, brandy and cream) and topped with spinach.
The classical repertoire enjoyed an outstanding lease of life. Escoffier himself moved to the Savoy Hotel in London in 1890. Davis says: “Classical cooking started with Escoffier and continued until the 1970s. It was only then that people started to be more creative and innovative. Nouvelle cuisine came about. Until then, people had been restricted by classical rules.”
Davis, who started cooking in the 1960s at a Cotswolds hotel, recalls how chefs were deemed to be “cowboys” if they did not stick rigidly to the rules of Le Repertoire. That meant mastering dishes such as Tournedos Rossini and fillet of sole Véronique.
The chef lecturer wanted the classical dinner to be authentic both in the methods of cooking and the style of presentation. Davis found a few classic “marmite” casserole dishes in UCB’s old crockery stores and used them to serve a wonderfully powerful and clean consommé double Niçoise. (The modern version was a beet bouillon with a Niçoise ravioli.)
But he had to buy several other marmites on eBay. He also had to shop around for the saucers in which to serve the Champagne sorbet, a dish presented after the creamy mousselines de volaille and before the saddle of venison (la selle de chevreuil poêler Grand-Veneur). For authenticity, the venison was carved at the table.
The lasting impression of the classical dinner was the sheer scale of the eating. People had truly outstanding appetites. Before the main meat course, there were five courses involving the use of rich ingredients such as foie gras and shellfish.
The serving of a savoury course after the dessert, which would have been the traditional way of doing things, received a mixed reception on the night, but I loved it.
The cassolette epicurienne comprised of a small, deep-fried breadcrumb basket filled with fragrant morels, wild mushrooms and a glace de viande (a powerful beef essence).
It was designed to reprise the earlier savoury triumphs of the meal, so the delights of the meat and seafood were not forgotten in the wake of the sweetness of the dessert. The meal was completed with fresh fruit, nuts and, for those hankering after a final sugar hit, fruit glacés.
Davis said: “We did nine courses but you could have had 14, 15 or 16 courses. The modern equivalent is the tasting menu. The old-fashioned menu was heavier. The sauces were richer and were roux-based whereas today they tend to be concentrations and reductions.”
The idea for the modern menu, devised by the MA students in their theory classes, was to use similar ingredients to the classical dinner and demonstrate how cooking styles and presentation have evolved. “It is a matter of taking the same products and redesigning them into a modern style, lightening them up significantly,” says Davis.
This meant foie gras still figured as a starter, but instead of a whopping slice of terrine (which you would probably portion into four today), it was pan fried and served on toasted pain d’épices (spiced bread) with a quince syrup and a veal glaze.
The crayfish course, reinvented as a tian with baby spinach and truffle oil, featured that 21st century chef’s essential, a foam.
The venison, like all the courses, was pre-plated in the kitchen with the garnishes rather than being carved at the table. The meat came in perfect medallions rather than more irregular slices. Escoffier’s peach Melba, created in honour of Australian singer Nellie Melba in the late 19th century, was deconstructed and given a modern spin, materialising as oven-roasted peaches with a vanilla panna cotta and a raspberry fondue.
Which of the two menus did I prefer, the old or the new? The classical dinner, without a doubt.
I felt the dishes packed more flavour and the cooking, although burdensome in technique and chef hours, seemed more effortless, more natural.
Could I eat like this every day? No way. I think most diners today, bombarded with apocalyptic health advice, would struggle both physically and psychologically to tackle a feast of Escoffier proportions more than once a month.
But it strikes me that there is much in the classical canon that still makes tremendous sense – and makes for great eating – even though the style is perceived as outmoded and unfashionable.
A mid-dinner “palate-cleansing” (there’s a phrase from the 80s for you) sorbet is seen as painfully naff, but the sorbet au Champagne was a delight.
The consommé was arguably the highlight of the two dinners (yes, soup) and Nellie’s peach Melba was a knock out, timeless, the Paul Scholes of puds. The raspberrry sauce was delicious.
But I am also aware that a fondness for the classic dining menu may have something to do with the emotional pull of nostalgia. This is the food I remember on high days and holidays from childhood. Times move on, I know, but what a wonderful experience to raise a glass and join in a glorious hurrah for the era of gastronomic gluttony.
As Davis points out: “The general consensus was the classical menu was better. I think maybe there was more novelty to it because people are not so used to it.”
But what about the chef who put the whole thing together? Which side is his bread buttered? “Honestly, I think I still prefer the modern cuisine because it is lighter and more imaginative,” says Davis.
“People were stuck in a rut with classical cuisine. There are fewer rules and rigidity today although people can go over the top. It needs to be controlled.”