Convivium: Les Dames d’Escoffier at Sandrine’s (Cambridge, MA)

May 28, 2007 in Behind the Scenes, Food Porn, Les Dames d'Escoffier, luxury

Escoffier Sawn serving napkin

Convivial: Late Latin convivialis, from Latin convivium banquet, from com- + vivere to live. circa 1668:

  • relating to, occupied with, or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company.
  • conviviali·ty /-"vi-vE-'a-l&-tE/ noun
  • convivially /-'viv-y&-lE, -'vi-vE-&-lE/ adverb

Conviviality is not a complex or obscure concept; it has been practiced for millennia in the richest and most humble of homes. Its spirit can be hard to come by in modern times as few of us experience much of it first hand and may mistake it for stuffy, expensive occasions where conviviality will most definitely wilt. I have known hospitality and conviviality, but I do not necessarily expect it or hope to find it on any ordinary day.

Happily, I recently experienced conviviality embodied and was quite moved by it. I was welcomed into the relaxed, much practiced art form of the feast – excellent food, excellent wine, and much good company during a dinner given by Les Dames d’Escoffier of Boston at Sandrine’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in honor of Michel and Marc Escoffier, the great and great-great grandsons of Auguste Escoffier. I was invited by the gracious Dame Laura Sapienza-Grabski of Dole & Bailey. I can not thank her or Dame Nancy Matheson-Burns, CEO of Dole and Bailey, enough for this amazing experience.

There is a rich history behind Les Dames and the Escoffiers, and there are so many delicious details from the dinner that this post has been long in the writing.

Auguste Escoffier

If you are not familiar with Auguste Escoffier, allow me to make a small listing of information about him and his accomplishments:

  • He was a popular French chef, restaurateur, food writer, entrepreneur, and innovator who lived from 1846 to 1935.
  • He is considered the father of modern French Cuisine in both form and function. He simplified the Grande Cuisine of Marie-Antoine Careme, who was known for the extravagance and complexity of both his food and presentation and also as the premier opinion leader in the French food world of the early 1800s and beyond.
  • He was an army chef during the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and came back a changed man. He learned the critical importance of food preservation via canning and was the first chef of considerable renown to study these processes in the preservation of meats, vegetables, and sauces.
  • In response to the chaos that typified commercial and estate kitchens (where there were several autonomous kitchens preparing different types of foods without inter-coordination, resulting in great inefficiencies), he took his military training and experience and applied it to the kitchen, organizing them by the brigade system or chef de parties.
  • He changed the popular serving style of service à la francaise (the royal style of serving the meal all at once – meant for maximum visual impact but negatively impacted the quality of the food) to the service a la russe style where courses were brought out separately.
  • He invented the dessert Peche Nellie Melba (1890) in honor of the Australian opera diva Dame Nellie Melba. It is said that he first served this dessert, composed of lovingly sauteed peaches, ice cream, and raspberry sauce, in a bowl placed between the wings of a swan ice sculpture. It seems Miss Melba was a veritable foodie muse as Melba Toast and Melba Sauce (pureed raspberries, red currant jelly, corn starch, and sugar) were named in her honor by Escoffier, a great lover of the theater.
  • Amongst other illustrious professional positions, he and Cesar Ritz opened the Hotel Ritz in Paris (1898), the most modern hotel of the day, including electricity and elaborate in-suite bathrooms. These two later opened the Charleton Hotel in London (1899), where Escoffier reigned for some 20 years.

His writings include:

  • 1886 – Le Traite sur L’art de Travailler les Fleurs en Cire
  • 1903 – Le Guide Culinaire
  • 1910 – Les Fleurs en Cire (a new edition)
  • 1911 – Le Carnet d’Epicure (A Gourmet’s Notebook)
  • 1912 – Le Livre des Menus (Recipe Book)
  • 1919 – L’Aide-memoire Culinaire
  • 1927 – Le Riz (rice)
  • 1929 – La Morue (cod)
  • 1934 – Ma Cuisine

Les Dames d’Escoffier

The history of Les Dames d’Escoffier is one of strong professional women of the culinary world banding together to encourage one another and to help the next generation. The origins lay in the Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier, the female-centric branch of the prestigious Les Amis d’Escoffier. Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier was founded by Grand Dame Eda Saccone and Charles L. Banino (Executive Chef and Managing Director of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Boston, and Chairman of Les Amis D’Escoffier, Boston, at the time and the last student of Auguste Escoffier) in 1959. Populated by both female culinary professionals and chef’s wives, Les Dames des Amis d’Escoffier was primarily devoted to convivial feasts in the Escoffier tradition as well as fundraisers for aspiring culinarians, but it was not a group specifically for female culinary professionals. A group geared toward the support of women in the food industry was championed first by the same Grand Dame Eda Saccone in the early 1960’s.

With some upheaval, recounted through some great stories I had the fortune to hear from Eda herself at the Les Dames dinner, and the approval of Les Amis founder Joseph Donan, Saccone secured a charter for the nascent Les Dames – Boston in 1966, establishing the first ever all-female chapter in the world. Since then, chapters have opened across the globe, known as the Les Dames d’Escoffier International, providing a nurturing stronghold of women for the newer generation of female culinarians. Les Dames – Boston retains it’s unique founder heritage and raises funds for the yearly awarded Charles Banino scholarship, in memory of his dedication to culinary scholarship, a dedication he shared with Escoffier himself.

About that dinner at Sandrine’s

This remarkable feast was held at Sandrine’s in Cambridge, MA, in view of the Harvard campus. Chef Raymond Ost and his business partner co-owner and general manager Dame [Gwen Trost run this french bistro, named after Chef Ost’s daughter. Ost is of Alsatian origin and his kitchen prepares a very delicious yet accessible Alsatian cuisine. I had the fortune of getting behind-the-scenes access where I shadowed the sous chefs during their preparation for both that night’s dinner party and the usual Thursday evening crowd.

When Chef Ost came in, closer to the time of service, the pace changed from the quick and quiet focus of prep to smiles and completion of some of the dishes. Chef Ost’s friendliness is frank and easily given. He and his staff are clearly enjoying themselves and the general atmosphere is one of a well practiced performance. To reveal my naivete, my commercial food preparation experience, as a teen, is of the extremely high pressure microcosm at Wendy’s sandwich line. I knew only crotchety managers, customers, and grill masters as well as the sensation of always smelling like mustard.

Chef Ost’s world is a polar opposite, no surprise and not at all fair to compare what they do at any real restaurant to Wendy’s. It is with this experiential background that I watched Chef Osts’s kitchen with contentment as it seemed that they really enjoyed what they did. I also was fascinated by how the specials of the day were formulated. Each sous chef knew what was on hand (say, a few tender pieces of venison tenderloin or some plump sea scallops) and they stood before the servers and, apropos of nothing beyond the Alsatian context, concocted delightful sounding dishes (try avocado stuffed with lobster).

Then service began and all manner of dishes flew across the pass.

Foie gras terrine

Delicate salads

Venison Tenderloin

And other delights I only saw but did not catch the names of.

Chef Ost started the evening’s dinner party with a symphony of hors de oeuvre that each shared a common theme of new potatoes.

Some were wrapped in bacon, some stuffed with tuna tartar (topped with an olive tapenade), some with foie gras.

Chef Ost prepared little cloth napkin swans to adorn the hors d’oeuvre plates. He called them Escoffier swans, likely relating to his having used the swan ice sculpture for the first Peche Melba.

Next, with the tables set and hors de oeuvre completed, it was time for the main courses.

Our menu was as follows:

Warm Bay Scallop Terrine

Salpicone of Foie Gras, Maine Lobster, Truffle, and wild mushroom

Pinot Gris reduction

Pinot Gris, Trimbach, Reserve, 2003

Roasted Venison Tenderloin

Caramelized Celeriac

Brandy Morel sauce

Bordeaux Blend, Chateau Haut Deausejour

St. Estephe, 2003

Peach Melba

The scallop terrine was a resplendent manifestation of the sea. The scallops held a firm but creamy body and were enveloped by the velvet composition of the terrine. The Pinot Gris reduction formed a well-balanced base against which the terrine shone that much more. The roasted venison tenderloin was a revelation in the the potential that well prepared game has for being a melting and tender experience. It had a complex savory flavor that drew you further into the dish. I felt that I could probably eat many more of these delicious tenderloins. At our table, we paused in our conversation as we enjoyed the delicate venison, the sweet caramelized celeraic, all bathed in the multi-layered brandy morel sauce. I had watched that sauce simmer on the stove top earlier in the the day (with a sneak preview taste) and my palate had been keyed to it’s earthy brandy laced goodness.

The Peach Melba was a delightful ending to such a rich meal. A whole sauteed peach sat atop a creamy sauce, under that lay the raspberry Melba sauce and next to this all was the ice cream resting on a crispy tuille. As with the original dessert, a spiky cloud of spun sugar perched upon the peach. It was a nice contrast in textures and flavors.

The setting was romantic and the wine flowed invisibly and without the need to request more.

Grand Dame Eda Saccone

Michel Escoffier (left) talking with Grand Dame Eda Saccone.

Michel Escoffier and Dame Lucille Giovino

Michel Escoffier kissing Grand Dame Eda Saccone’s hand.

All evening, it seemed, Eda and Michel recounted stories from the long past of times that their two families shared. It felt very much like listening in on a family dinner.

I felt extremely welcomed by the many gracious members of Les Dame d’Escoffier. Our convivium lasted late into the evening, became quite loud at times (Gwen Trost assured me that most Les Dames dinners were like this, must be something about the wine), and I came to know some great new people, not the least of whom were the Grand Dame Eda, Michel and his son Marc, all of whom were very down to earth, friendly people.

My experience with Les Dames and the Escoffiers defined convivium for me, I will treasure that and hope that I too can convey some of that spirit in my own life.

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