Books

An Appetite as Big as the Ritz

A new book explores a partnership that helped define modern cuisine

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“If we really wanted to do this properly,” Luke Barr says, half serious, “we should have gone to the Ritz in Paris.”

We’re sitting in the Auden Bistro & Bar at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South. The hotel sits on some of New York’s prime real estate, so close to the oaks of the grand park you can hear them rustle, and the awning over the entrance is made of individual panes of glass, fit together like iridescent dentures. The bistro is an old-fashioned-feeling kind of place with leather seats, teak-wood walls, and a dim, soft yellow light falling on a scant few weeknight clients. Barr has just written a fast-paced biography of César Ritz, the hotelier whose name, more than a century after he opened his eponymous hotel, remains emblematic of luxury. Ritz’s chef and business partner, and the second subject of Barr’s new book, was the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier — author of an authoritative tome on French cooking, Le Guide Culinaire, whose influence still simmers through saucepans of béchamel worldwide. Together, the two were the architects of that kind of luxury — swank hotels and culinary overkill — that you might, to this day, call “ritziness.”

Barr is right, though, about the setting of our interview: The Ritz-Carlton in New York has precious little to do with César Ritz himself. As is briefly explained in the afterword of Barr’s Ritz & Escoffier, out this week from Random House, Ritz-Carlton was a licensing agreement that sought to use the prestige of the most famous hotels among the dozens Ritz developed — the Ritz and the Carlton, in Paris and London respectively — and was initially the name of a restaurant on a German steamship. A century or so of complex corporate history later, tourists blithely clip past in horse-drawn carriages, and a chandelier the size of a stegosaurus presides over a plush, cavernous lobby. One wonders if any of the guests, whose rooms start at nearly seven hundred dollars a night, know or care about the story of the striving Swiss hotelier who created the idea of luxury they now so avidly consume.

“To me, they were very modern,” Barr says of his two heroes. “These working-class people struggling to make it, taking kickbacks, getting fired, making good again. I’ve worked in restaurants and hotels, and they remind me of people I could have known.”

The book is as much a celebration of luxury as it is the tale of two scrappy, high-achieving men, and Barr intertwines their biographies with the lush social environs they created. Ritz and Escoffier both grew up poor, in tiny villages; Ritz, born in 1850, had a lifelong preoccupation with the large size of his hands and feet, emblematic, he felt, of the peasant stock from which he came. Both men worked in restaurants before they ran them. And most formatively, both had witnessed the new upper class in its formative years: at the turn of the twentieth century, the ranks of the international élite were beginning to expand to accommodate not just titled nobles, but celebrities, American millionaires, even (wealthy) Jews. In Barr’s telling, Ritz’s fixation on reinventing luxury stemmed, in no small part, from his humble origins. “Ritz had grown up on a farm, herding livestock on an alp in Switzerland from a very young age,” he writes. “Everything Ritz had done in his life he had done in order to escape that fate. He had seen too much of the hardscrabble, desperate life of peasants to romanticize it.”

Escoffier, born in 1846, had been apprenticed in his uncle’s restaurant in Nice at the age of thirteen; by nineteen, he was an apprentice roast chef in a fashionable restaurant in Paris. Ritz and Escoffier first worked together at a hotel Ritz managed in Monte Carlo, a seasonal destination for the moneyed. But it was the Savoy Hotel, which opened in London in 1889, that made their name, and would change the definition of luxury forever.

Turning defiantly away from his peasant upbringing, Ritz romanticized the aristocracy, even as his hotels transformed their traditions. By the late 1890s, the Savoy and subsequent hotels the pair developed were the chief destinations of an evolving international élite. In Barr’s telling, the signature innovation Ritz made was personalizing service: moving from the “polite, dutiful, and slightly unfriendly” service of aristocratic gentlemen’s clubs to an unobtrusive but obsequious “customer is always right” sensibility. As our waiter drops off an entremets of fried zucchini blossom with aioli, it’s clear that this, at least, endures.

Barr himself is craggy and magisterial, and his fierce hazel eyes scan the menu with self-possessed authority. Both of his books to date — the first is Provence, 1970 — revolve around the cuisine of France, but his voice has the slow, rolling sound of a childhood spent in California. He tells me about his arrival in New York of the 1990s — waiting tables while working on a magazine of his own creation, the arts-focused zine KGB — and the decision, years ago, to write a book about foodie American expats in France. One of them was his great-aunt, the legendary food writer Mary Frances Kennedy (MFK) Fisher.

“She never talked down to me as a kid,” Barr said. “And there were great lunches. But MFK — she was a great writer, but my grandmother was really the cook in the family.”

Following in Fisher’s footsteps took him to France; tracing the influences of mid-twentieth-century French cuisine drew him to Escoffier, who, as Barr writes it, created the modern restaurant kitchen: efficient, modernized, and streamlined. The book, a chronicle of decadence which is nonetheless streamlined to the point of austerity, is peppered with Escoffier’s luxuriant fin-de-siècle menus, which catered individually to the celebrities and royals he adored. It’s difficult not to drool on the pages at the thought of foie gras, truffles, Escoffier’s legendary Pêches Melba (named for the famed Australian soprano Nellie Melba), or timbales of crayfish mousse. The book goes down light as an aperitif, and lays down the work of crafting luxurious dreams in spare, workmanlike prose.

“Until the nineteen-sixties in America, good food meant French food,” Barr explains, downing a glass of Pinot Noir. “And it was Escoffier who invented what French food was.” Le Guide Culinaire, published in 1903 after the smashing success of the Savoy, codified the legendary “mother sauces” that signify French cuisine — béchamel, velouté, hollandaise — and dominated gourmet cooking for half a century or more; subsequent generations, bristling at its traditionalism, created their nouvelle cuisine in reaction to its stifling influence. But any Brooklyn brunch attendee can tell you some things don’t fade away: eggs everywhere still arrive in pale, trembling baths of hollandaise.

Tenuous as the Ritz-Carlton’s connection to Escoffier might be, the menu at the Auden Bistro betrays some traces of his influence, still. The celebrity chef of his day, Escoffier was continually searching for novel and luxurious dishes with which to tempt his wealthy clientele, and found some of them in Russia: sturgeon caviar, borscht, and the very notion of service à la Russe, the novel idea that dishes should arrive in the order they are requested, and not all at once. Filet mignon, foie gras, and truffles featured in many dishes (Sarah Bernhardt favored breaded veal sweetbreads with foie gras and thinly sliced truffles when she dined at the Savoy in London). At the Ritz-Carlton in 2018, tiny blini topped with caviar (paddlefish, or sturgeon at market price for the deep-pocketed) and a pat of tangy crème fraîche start the meal, as Escoffier might have served them in the 1890s. The single most decadent dish on the menu is filet mignon topped with foie gras and truffle pearls; Barr — who quite literally wrote the book on luxury — orders it, of course.

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