Revising the Classics: Culinary Sin?

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In life there are always people we never meet who somehow they have an influence on us. The first time I picked up Escoffier's cookbook in the early seventies, when I read inside the dust jacket cover that he was one of the greatest chefs of all time, I had an immediate respect for him. The more I read about him and his recipes, the more my admiration grew.

Escoffier took the French "Guide Culinaire" which had long been considered the Bible of the culinary arts, and translated it into a user-friendly index of the basics of French cooking. I elevated him into someone I would respect and refer to for my entire career. So much so that when the bracelets with WWJD ("what would Jesus do?") became a trend several years ago, we used to joke in my kitchen that we were going to have WWED bracelets made ("what would Escoffier do?"). He covered so much of what we use as the basics in our kitchens. I think the only thing he did not cover was a beurre blanc, which was invented by a woman named Clémence Lefeuvre.

The over-complication of particular dishes seems to me to be a frequently committed sin in today's kitchen.

Lately, however, I have been asking myself: how much liberty are we taking with the traditional names and preparations of classic sauces and dishes? I am torn between admonishing and self-admission. I remember having such a constant feeling of frustration with many of the younger cooks at my restaurants throughout the years (especially those who had attended culinary school) who did not have a grasp on the basic techniques, and, even worse, did not know the proper names of the most basic sauces. I imagine Escoffier would turn over in his grave if he read any American menu from 1980 until now, and he may want to spank me for adding my own style or twist to any classic sauce he cataloged.

My dilemma: when I make a minor change to a classic, to enhance it or make it more my own style, often with a Southern flair, I typically find a subtle way of keeping the name of the dish but adding something to note the changes. Am I as wrong as those I admonish?

Several weeks back, when I wrote about New Year's celebrations and provided my recipe for "Southern-Style Cioppino," one reader wrote, "Why bother to call this 'Cioppino'? The original Italian-inspired dish had neither a roux, chorizo nor saffron. This is a seafood gumbo. Why not call it that, and not mongrelize a San Francisco classic?" This criticism made me start to think about my responsibility as a food writer. I felt I was making it clear by the name "Southern-Style Cioppino" that it was not the traditional version. When he compared it to gumbo, I thought right away he did not know about real gumbo because the ingredients are so different than my version of cioppino. This is not a rebuttal to his criticism, and I am genuinely grateful because it has given me much to think about. It never hurts for us to experience a bit of humility (a bit).

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Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of Regina's Table at Twin Oaks. More

Regina Charboneau is the owner of Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. She is the author of two cookbooks: A Collection of Seasonal Menus & Recipes from Regina's Kitchen and Regina's Table at Twin Oaks.

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