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).

Should I have called it Southern-Style Fish Stew? I have not come up with a definitive answer, because we also name dishes for appeal.

I remember so often wondering, while reading one food critic's review as she was tearing apart a particular dish at a restaurant but not saying whether it was improperly prepared, whether she should have said, "This particular dish was not to my taste, but this does not necessarily mean it was ill prepared." Although not a critic, I have my own idiosyncrasies. The over-complication of particular dishes seems to me to be a frequently committed sin in today's kitchen. Too many competing ingredients and sauces all on one plate turn me off.

Something that has always bothered me is when a traditional sauce is not prepared properly from the beginning before adding all the new ingredients to update it, such as a beurre blanc, hollandaise, or a demiglace. You can add all kinds of great ingredients to make it fresh and exciting, but it should be prepared properly to begin with. I have endured many broken butter sauces in what are considered to be fine restaurants.

A complaint that I frequently hear from others is about the stacking of one food on top of another, which some consider a modern-day crime. I don't mind it if it is done well. I have had many versions of seared foie gras stacked with just about anything and had it work. I am not one of those people who eat each part of the dish separately: I love the addition of sauce or chutney to roast meat, and as a child I liked to combine my peas with my mashed potatoes.

Personally, however, I do not want salad greens mixed with my potato puree, with roasted meat with two competing sauces drizzled over this concoction. I am finding that the older I get the more of a purist I become. I would really like to think of it as having a greater appreciation for the intricacies of each ingredient. But I don't want to come off too "preachy." I love new restaurants and will try just about anything once. I also love that because of the Food Network, overall Americans are much more adventurous and knowledgeable.

Escoffier himself was a creator and innovator of recipes and set a standard, but he seemed set on calling a béchamel a béchamel. I believe in creativity and innovation, but especially when creative chefs know their basics. I would like to think I am in their company.

I would love to hear your thoughts.