1950s Archive

Classes in Classic Cuisine

Originally Published August 1955

A plaque set in the lobby wall at the Paris Ritz tells you that “Cet bôtel fut créé par César Ritz en 1898.” If you arc familiar with the Ritz tradition, you know how well chosen is that word créé. This hotel was not merely built. furnished, staffed, and opened. Mais non. This hotel was in the true sense of the word treated by a man of impeccable taste, imagination and practicality. César Ritz was forty-eight years old when the Ritz opened its doors, and that fabulous hotel fulfilled his lifetime dream. The Ritz was the first of the many hotels which César Ritz, with an almost religious fervor, dedicated to an elegance characterized by beautiful décor, extravagant service, and a magnificent cuisine. There were eventually to be Ritz hotels in many of the important cities of the world, and in three of them—Paris, London, and New York—I was to play a part. In 1898, however, this possibility had not occurred to me.

This year was, nevertheless, a memorable one for me, for it was the year that I went to Moulins to begin my apprenticeship as a chef. The die had been cast; I had chosen my career. Three years later, my apprenticeship completed, I made yet another decision, and went to Paris to work for a while at one of the great hotels there and ultimately to go to the kitchen staff of the Ritz. My first position at the Ritz was not a very important one, I admit. After all, I had not reached my seventeenth birthday. But I was not unimportant either, because to César Ritz anyone who worked for his hotels became important for that reason alone. Monsieur Ritz made a point of stopping on his daily rounds to say a kindly bonjour to each of us. But woe betide the employee who did not live up to his employer's lofty Standards!

Monsieur Ritz was everlastingly alert to everything that went on. No laxity in workmanship or service escaped his vigilant eye.

I got my job at the Ritz because Emile Malley, who was assistant chef des cuisines there, came from our little town in the center of France. His mother was my mother's best friend, and it was he who had suggested that I go for my initial training to the Maison Calondre in Moulins. But friendship or no, Malley would not consider me for the Ritz until I had first proved my worth. So he helped me to get Into the Motel du Rhin, and watched to see how I made out there.

The lime finally came when the Ritz needed another potager, and thanks to Malley I got my chance to become a soup chef in that famous kitchen. I was ambitious, all eyes and ears to learn how everything was done, and, when I finished my own work, eagerly offered to help the other chefs. In that way I learned how to handle shellfish. The fish chef did his work near my range and, after my soup Stocks were made and clarified, and my garnitures read)', I had plenty of time to watch him and to lend him a helping hand. I know now that I received my instruction from a master. Cassagnac, who is still at the Ritz after fifty-five years' service there, is probably the best fish chef in the world.

Eh bien, I was fortunate to have such a wise teacher, because I had practically everything to learn about shellfish. In inland sections like mon pays we saw few shellfish, except for the écrevisses, the local crawfish, which I knew well, naturellement. They abounded in the sluggish little stream that worked its way between marshy banks into the Allier River. We boys used to beg the butcher for old sheep's heads or smelly pieces of meaty bone. Very early in the morning, before the sun was up, or late in the day when the sun had gone down, we would tie the bait with strings and set our traps. In an hour we would return to take our catch, and the nets were always full of crawfish.

I may not have seen many shellfish in my Bourbounais countryside but, when I started to work at the Paris Ritz. I certainly saw my fill of them! Baskets and baskets of squirming lobsters, black mussels, scallops in their decorative shells, oysters, and shrimp in all sizes came in daily from Les Halles, the great food market. Within no more than twenty-four hours from the time these shellfish were pulled from the water, they appeared on the tables of fine Parisian restaurants. They were so popular that no chef could expect to get anywhere in Paris unless he knew dozens of ways to prepare them. I knew this fact well, and was not the one to overlook the opportunity I had been given by my assignment to a range that happened to be next to Monsieur Cassagnae.

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