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Published: Tuesday, 7/17/2012

Escoffier's closing an end of an era

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

It is the end of an era. The Culinary Institute of America has closed its famed Escoffier Restaurant.

The repercussions of this action extend far beyond the simple shuttering of a single restaurant. It effectively means the American death of fine French cuisine, a culinary tradition universally considered to be the best and most highly developed in the world.

And now it is over, or it will be soon.

The CIA -- that's the Culinary Institute of America, not that other CIA -- is the premier institution of culinary instruction in the country. It is the Harvard of cooking schools, as well as the Yale and the Stanford. Some other schools are very good and some are excellent; but they are not elite.

The CIA is the biggest dog with the loudest bark, and it sets the tone for the rest of the nation.

Now it has closed its formal French dining room, one of several teaching restaurants on its Hyde Park, N.Y., campus. The room will be given a $3 million renovation (you read that right, a $3 million renovation) and turned into a sleek and modern brasserie.

Brasseries are the high end of casual French dining. On their menus you will always see filet mignon and steak frites, a small broiled steak served with crispy fries. Steamed mussels are a must, and delicious hamburgers, and pan-seared scallops. And of course a brasserie wouldn't be a brasserie without French onion soup.

At their best, brasseries are delicious and wholly satisfying, the kind of places you want to return to again and again for a pate or a late-night omelet. What they are not, however, is spectacular.

Fine French dining is spectacular. At Escoffier, the waitstaff (all of them budding chefs) bring out the dishes under silver domes which are removed at precisely the same time. They bone fish and carve meat right at the table. It is elegance personified.

The menu, too, is spectacular, and it is a step up from brasseries: an appetizer of braised sweetbreads in acacia honey demi-glaze with sauteed mushrooms and truffled salad, entrees of canard à l'orange (braised leg and pan-roasted Pekin duck breast in orange sauce) and braised lamb shoulder with carrot-ginger puree.

Until now, Escoffier was the final campus restaurant where the students would work before graduation. Its closing is important because the most promising students at the best culinary school in the nation will have no experience cooking fine French cuisine. And that means they will not in the future be opening restaurants that serve fine French cuisine. Before long, this complex and sophisticated art -- long considered the pinnacle of culinary achievement -- will vanish from the country.

This has been coming for a long time. Ever since the 1960s, Americans have been disdaining formality and turning being casual into a national obsession. Any hint of dressing up, any extra effort given to a social occasion is now looked upon as haughty and unbearably stuffy. Fancy food has become reviled and almost feared. As a result, only a few places in the country still serve haute cuisine, including Chez François in Vermilion, Ohio.

In place of Escoffier, the CIA will open a new restaurant in the winter of 2013, the Bocuse Restaurant, named for the great chef Paul Bocuse. It will emphasize collaboration among the cooks in the kitchen (in the traditional French model, one person does nothing but make sauces, another does nothing but prepare the vegetables). More important, it will follow the current trend toward finding the freshest and best-quality produce and making a meal out of that rather than following strict formulas using food that may not be at its peak.

This idea of allowing the ingredients to dictate the menu is perhaps the most invigorating and exciting movement in the culinary world over the last few decades, and it certainly should be taught to cooking students.

But it's hard not to miss what once was.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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