The culinary revolution

06 January 2000
The culinary revolution

As the 20th century dawned, Britain - and in particular London - was undergoing something of a culinary revolution. Until the latter part of the 19th century, there were few restaurants of note in the capital - and certainly hardly any outside. The Café Royal in Regent Street had opened in 1865, but was largely patronised by Europeans, while elsewhere in the capital there were Romano's, Kettners, Rules and Wiltons - and, of course, the grand hotels.

Serious entertaining was more likely to be done in private houses, where most professional chefs were employed, or in gentlemen's clubs - there were 200 at the turn of the century, compared with about 40 today. Restaurants were frequented mostly by aristocrats and the gentry. Women, of whatever class, were rarely seen in such establishments.

The Escoffier effect

But much changed with the arrival in London in 1889 of Auguste Escoffier on his appointment as head chef at the newly opened Savoy hotel. Together with the general manager, Cesar Ritz, he encouraged a more relaxed approach to eating out and in particular welcomed the attendance of women in the hotel's restaurant - highlighted by the numerous female guests he honoured by creating a new dish for them (most notably pêche Melba for the Australian opera singer Nellie Melba).

Escoffier was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. He had a great understanding of the balance of flavours - he reportedly said that a sauce must fit a roast or fish as a tightly fitting skirt fits a woman - and was at the forefront of serving a lighter, simpler style of food.

He thought about the impact of his food on both his customers and his brigade and, as a result, revolutionised the working of a professional kitchen and the way food was served. As well as introducing the partie system, he was the first to take seriously the pronouncement by Brillat-Savarin that "the order of food in a dinner is from the more substantial to the lighter" and turned against the tradition of serving all courses at once on the table, replacing them with an ordered succession of dishes.

After the Savoy, Escoffier went on to open the Carlton hotel with Ritz, and worked there until 1921 when he was 74 years old. He died in 1935, at the age of 88, in Monte Carlo.

After such an exceptional start to the century, events slowed down during the First World War and in its immediate aftermath, particularly with the onset of food rationing in 1918. In France, meanwhile, 1923 saw the opening of what was to become the focal point for a new style of cooking - nouvelle cuisine. Fernand Point, then aged 26, launched Restaurant de la Pyramide at Vienne.

Back in London in 1937 the best food was to found in the top hotels - the Savoy, the Connaught, Ritz and Claridge's - all serving Escoffier's classically inspired French food, interspersed with the occasional British dish, such as chicken pie à la Ritz.

Occasionally, a great restaurant emerged, as it did with the opening in 1937 of A L'Ecu (later renamed A L'Ecu de France) in Jermyn Street. At the stove was French chef Herbodeau, the last of the great London chefs to have worked with Escoffier.

Post-war London

Rationing was reintroduced in 1940, a year after the outbreak of the Second World War. It continued until 1954, casting a shadow over any real culinary progression. Post-war London's leading restaurants were almost entirely run by Continental Europeans. Alongside A L'Ecu de France, the restaurants of the day included the Mirabelle (where Marco Pierre White's version stands today), Coq d'Or (now the home of Langan's Brasserie) and L'Aperitif.

Outside the capital, though, the general state of food being served in most restaurants was abysmal, apart from rare exceptions such as Sharrow Bay in Ullswater (which opened in 1949) and the Bell at Aston Clinton. But, with the new-found influence of food writers, things began to improve. With the publication of her first book, Mediterranean Food, in 1950, followed quickly by French Country Cooking, Elizabeth David, in particular, inspired people to experiment and use fresh, quality ingredients.

At the same time, the Good Food Club was launched by gastronome Raymond Postgate and journalist Stephen Potter with the intention of elevating the standards of British cooking. In 1951 Postgate launched the first Good Food Guide with 500 recommended entries. It sold 5,000 copies.

Among those early Elizabeth David-inspired chefs were George Perry-Smith, who opened the Hole in the Wall in Bath in 1951, and his protégé Joyce Molyneux, who went on to open the Carved Angel in Dartmouth 23 years later. Dishes such as Provençale fish soup and salmon baked with currants remained on the Carved Angel's menu for some years and are testimony to David's lasting influence.

A taste of what was later to develop into the nouvelle cuisine era of the 1970s was first apparent in the cooking of Ray Parkes, a former architecture student, who ran his own restaurant in Beauchamp Place, London. Sadly, Parkes died in 1963 and it was to be another 10 years before his style of cooking, inspired by Point, was to hit the headlines. Other chefs starting out at this time included the likes of Richard Shepherd and Brian Turner, who were among the first British chefs to break into the previously French, Italian and Swiss-dominated kitchens of five-star London hotels (both working as commis chefs under Silvino Trompetto and Louis Virot at the Savoy).

The 1960s brought something of a restaurant boom, fuelled by the new-found wealth of Britain's middle and working classes. Italian restaurants, in particular, came to the fore, with the likes of Mario and Franco's Tiberia, which opened in Queen Street, London, in 1962, serving a choice of 15 pastas as well as sea bass stuffed with almonds and flavoured with basil, chicken stuffed with grapes and truffled rice cooked in Muscat wine and cream, and duckling braised in honey with a sauce of Curaçao, almonds and orange.

Enter the Roux brothers

One of the most significant openings of the century was Le Gavroche in 1967. Thirty-one-year-old Albert Roux and his 26-year-old brother Michel, both of whom had previously worked in private service, opened their restaurant in London's Lower Sloane Street offering a total of just 17 dishes, including soufflé Suissesse and sablé aux fraises. The relatively short menu was something of a novelty in those days, but was absolutely vital to the Roux's intention of using only the very best and freshest produce available each day. Later, in 1982, Le Gavroche relocated to Upper Brook Street.

In 1972 the brothers opened the Waterside Inn, in Bray, Berkshire. Two years later the relaunched British Michelin guide (it had previously been published in the UK from 1911 to 1930) awarded both Roux restaurants one star, along with 23 other establishments in the UK and Ireland. Both restaurants later went on to win the three Michelin stars that so many chefs aspire to today. To date, only five British restaurants have been awarded the coveted prize.


Nouvelle cuisine, the antithesis of the heavy, flour-based sauces that predominated earlier, became popular during the 1970s. While it has since become a much-maligned term, it did have many positive spin-offs, not least the increased awareness of presentation, and the media attention it brought to cooking in this country. Minimalism reigned, and it was not unusual for a piece of fillet meat the size of a walnut to be served on a pool of jus, adorned by no more than a solitary raspberry, grape or slice of kiwi fruit. Chefs found themselves in a catch-22 situation. As the media hype flourished, they felt even more compelled to make their food as pleasing to the eye as to the palate, giving little consideration to the eating qualities of their increasingly bizarre combinations of ingredients.

During the 1980s the supply of ingredients improved with the birth of many small, local suppliers, who specialised in native produce. This produce filled the kitchens of the increasing band of "home-grown" chefs, who had trained under the likes of Anton Mosimann, Raymond Blanc, Michel Bourdin and the Roux brothers. The "Brit pack" - which included Alastair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh - took British restaurant food into new realms of recognition with their revival of traditional dishes as well as an eclectic take on classically French and Mediterranean cooking.

As a direct reaction to the "pictures on a plate" era which had emerged more than a decade before, the 1990s have seen a return to a more robust, honest approach to cooking, with the adoption of slow-cooking methods and a more widespread use of cheaper cuts of meat and offal. Taste is once again paramount.

British favourites

British dishes have become trendy, with the likes of Gary Rhodes's faggots and braised oxtail and Paul Heathcote's bread and butter pudding capturing the public's imagination - although regular visitors to the Savoy Grill and the Connaught will know that these dishes never came off the menu.

More than anything, the last decade of the 20th century has ensured that there is something for everyone. Restaurants offering simplicity and integrity have flourished. Food served at the likes of London restaurants Clarke's in Kensington and the Italian-inspired River Café in Hammersmith will often arrive unadorned by sauces, with the ingredients selected for their flavour and enhanced by no more than a simple drizzle of the very best olive oil.

While, at other establishments, what often appears to be a bizarre collection of ingredients from a mix of cultures are being fused together on one menu. At the Sugar Club in London's Soho, New Zealand chef Peter Gordon serves the Spanish-inspired dish of chorizo with piquillo peppers, chillies, garrotxa (goats' cheese), almonds and capers alongside sashimi of Iki Jimi yellow tail with black bean and ginger from Asia.

Strong foundation

The rock-solid foundation that Escoffier laid down 100 years ago has been steadily built upon throughout the century. While some of the original recipes from his Le Guide Culinaire are unlikely to be prepared today - their ingredients have either become too difficult to obtain or have simply been outpriced - many others have been taken, reinvented and updated. It remains to be seen whether any of today's chefs - including the highly lauded Roux brothers - will have the same long-lasting legacy on how food is prepared and served as Escoffier himself.

SOURCES: The Food Chronology by James Trager; Kit Chapman's Great British Chefs; the Mosimann Academy; the Horizon Cookbook - an illustrated history of eating and drinking through the ages; and Caterer & Hotelkeeper.

The Rise of Exotic Flavours

A significant factor in the diversity of food styles that have developed in restaurants during the 20th century has been the explosion of eateries serving cuisine from Asia.

Britian's colonial attachment to India sowed the seeds for the opening of the first Indian restaurant, the Salut e Hind in Holborn, London, in 1911, an establishment largely used by the Indian community. However, it wasn't until the launch in 1926 of the Veeraswamy in Regent Street that the British began to frequent such restaurants with any great enthusiasm.

Today there are more than 7,600 Indian restaurants in the UK, 75% of which are Bangladeshi in origin, serving an Anglicised version of the region's food. It is only comparatively recently, with the likes of the Bombay Brasserie (launched in 1983), Chutney Mary (1990), the relaunch of the Veeraswamy (1997) and Quilon (1999) that the indigenous population have had the opportunity to taste authentic regional food from India.

Chinese immigrants

The number of Oriental outlets (both restaurants and take-aways) are even more extensive - 8,400 by the end of 1997. By far the largest proportion are Chinese (90%), the first opening in 1908 in London's Soho (Maxim's). An initial wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in Britain in the second half of the 19th century following the Opium Wars, later followed by a second flow of immigrants from Hong Kong as a result of the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, helped fuel the boom.

The other Oriental eateries are largely made up of Japanese restaurants (arriving in 1967) and Thai (1969), with fewer offering the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Korea.

Alongside the development of Asian restaurants, the growth in foreign travel to all corners of the globe has ensured that British chefs have been exposed to ingredients that would have been unobtainable a century ago. Perhaps because of the lack of a strongly identifiable national cuisine, British chefs - more so than their European counterparts - have readily assimilated the flavours of the Far East and elsewhere into their own dishes.

These cuisines, together with influences from eastern Mediterranean, North African and South American cultures, have made almost as great an impact on the cooking of the modern British chef as the culinary traditions of France and Italy.

Nam pla (Thai fish sauce) and lemon grass are examples of what were once only to be found among the exotic, but which are now almost commonplace. Chefs such as Antony Worrall Thompson, with his green mango scallops, and Nick Nairn (marinated roast langoustine with crispy vegetables and soy and lime sauce) were among the first to incorporate these ingredients into their cooking.

Source: Foodservice Intelligence

The Most Inspired Food and Cookery Books of the Century

Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire is the top food book of the century, according to Caterer & Hotelkeeper's poll among leading chefs. Published in 1903 and containing 5,000 or so recipes, the book has had an enormous impact on the development of the style of cooking this century. Striving to lay down the foundations of classical cuisine, he published his book in 1902, writing in the introduction: "My intention is to offer my colleagues a tool rather than merely a recipe book… that would leave them free to develop their own methods and follow their own inspiration."

In joint second place are three books: Larousse Gastronomique, Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking and Cuisine Minceur by Michel Guérard. Originally created by Prosper Montagne in 1938, Larousse Gastronomique is the classic encyclopaedia of food, recipes, nutrition and gastronomic history, which has been revised and updated in recent years. David's book, published in 1951, shone a ray of light on to a depressed post-war Britain, and inspired both the domestic and professional cook. In total, she wrote eight food books during her lifetime - all highly regarded. Guérard's Cuisine Minceur (published 1976) probably did more than any other to spread the gospel of nouvelle cuisine.

The Most Influential Chefs of the Century

Albert and Michel Roux are the chefs who have had the greatest impact on food and cooking in this country during the 20th century, according to a Caterer & Hotelkeeper survey among today's leading British chefs. The Roux brothers are recognised for their success in raising standards throughout the industry via their own inspirational restaurants and their support in encouraging countless numbers of young chefs - who have passed through their kitchens or been awarded one of their scholarships - to pursue their careers. Among the most notable former Roux employees are Marco Pierre White, Steven Doherty, Paul Rankin, Rowley Leigh and Gordon Ramsay.

Auguste Escoffier was voted into second place, while Anton Mosimann and Pierre Koffmann were placed joint third.

Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper Millennium Supplement, 23 December 1999.

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