Book Review — Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class

Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class by Luke Barr

Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class
Luke Barr
Penguin Random House, 2018

In his autobiography, renowned chef Auguste Escoffier refers to his dismissal from The Savoy Hotel as “a misunderstanding”. While some people obviously knew the reasons why Escoffier and partner César Ritz were let go, it wasn’t until documents were unearthed in the 1960s that the full extent of the payola and embezzlement the pair were involved in came to light.

Author Luke Barr traces the full history of the Ritz/Escoffier partnership, starting with the opening of the Savoy. The pair had worked together before at some of Ritz’s existing hotels in France and Monaco, but the move to London marked the beginning of their great influence on the hotel and fine dining world. While they built up the Savoy to be internationally-known their departure was but a blip as they had both moved on to other projects including the Ritz in Paris and then the Carlton Hotel in London.

While Barr does make use of the clear drama of the embezzlement and dismissal situation in 1898, this work is really about the huge influence the two men had on European and international culture. Escoffier’s dishes changed how kitchens were run and how food was cooked and served. Ritz’s innovations marked the beginning of the luxury hotel industry (imagine the decadence of a private bathroom when a typical hotel stay would have you sharing a bathroom with up to 60 other suites!)

The pair rubbed shoulders with royalty and celebrities and should have found happiness and satisfaction within their myriad accomplishments. Sadly Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown after the postponement of King Edward’s coronation in 1901 and never fully recovered. After decades of working tirelessly, along with keeping secret the embezzlement he had committed at the Savoy, he was too stressed to continue to run his empire. Escoffier wrote Le Guide Culinaire and continued to be the face of the hotel empire until his retirement in 1920.

The Ritz-Escoffier story is one that has always intrigued me and Barr does a great deal of research here to cover every detail. While the work is clearly non-fiction, Barr’s descriptive prose makes it feel like a carefully woven story with characters, a plot arch, and denouement. He does a great job creating anticipation from a story where the basic facts are already well-known.

The inclusion of menus and details of important parties and events should keep every Escoffier fan happy and fulfilled. Just imagining the sheer quantity of truffles and foie gras that came out of Escoffier’s kitchens during this era is enough to take the breath away. Barr’s details and style really satisfy this aspect of the story, and move it past being a dry, historical detailing of facts to paint a picture of fine dining in the late Victorian era.

Loved this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a love of food and restaurant history.