Art de la Table: From Baroque to the Industrial Era

EHL Editorial Team | 11 Jan, 2017

With the arrival of Auguste Escoffier on the culinary scene in the late nineteenth century, European art de la table had come to the end of a centuries-long transition. No longer was it fashionable to arrange dozens of dishes at a time before guests in a dazzling display; instead, servers brought out a succession of courses, serving them to guests in a counter-clockwise rotation.

The transformation from service “à la française” to service “à la russe” paved the way for the modern hospitality industry in more ways than one. 

"Escoffier's famous reorganization of the kitchen into different chef's stations allowed hotels or restaurants to serve dishes with greater speed and efficiency, and the introduction of small portions of food put the focus on taste and culinary expertise which seams a given today" explains Mr Anthony Durand,  EHL's Senior Lecturer - Events & Boutique Manager

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A meal served in eighteenth century Europe, at the height of “service à la française”, must have been a sight to behold. Dinners were at least three courses, each one consisting of up to a hundred or more unique dishes that were brought to the table simultaneously and arranged in a symmetrical pattern. The host did not expect guests to finish or even sample everything. In fact, the food was often cold before the guests sat down to dine. It didn't matter. The main point was for guests to awed by the artistry of the display.

According to Cathy K. Kaufman, the author of "Structuring the Meal: The Revolution of Service à la Russe", this “rule-bound choreography of dishes” originally came from the medieval belief in the four humours. In the Middle Ages, hosts felt obliged to serve a variety of dishes so that each person at the table could eat the food best suited to their humoral disposition. The transformation of a health-based custom to the baroque excesses of the seventeenth century gastronomic table was a reflection of the culture of the time. Obsessed with convention and the appearance of good taste, wealthy hosts could afford to prepare sumptuous feasts in which much of the food went to waste.

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"Service à la française encouraged community among the guests. Many not only helped themselves to food from the table but also assisted other guests in plating and carving. The main role of servants was to bring and clear the dishes from each course, and once they had delivered the dessert course, servants left the guests alone in the dining hall. Because there were so many dishes for each course, meals stretched out for many hours at a time, allowing the guests to socialize and linger." continues Mr Anthony Durand,  EHL's Senior Lecturer - Events & Boutique Manager

In June, 1810, the Russian diplomat Prince Borisovitch Kourakine broke with “Service à la française” in favor of a new method of table service that came to be known as “Service à la russe”. Rather than present guests with a vast choice of dishes and allow them to compose their plates at their leisure, “Service à la russe” had servants deliver a succession of courses to his guests, one dish at a time.

This method diverged from the French style in many important ways. First, “Service à la russe” focused less on the appearance of the food and more on its taste, changing the role of cooks from one who primarily arranged the food to one who invented recipes and experimented with flavors. Plating the food away from the table also gave the cook more authority over the food and foreshadowed the rise of professional chefs. And because guests were unable to see the food in front of them, “Service à la russe” gave rise to a new practice, that of the written menu.

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One of the biggest changes in this style of service is that meals served “à la russe” more closely resembled factory assembly lines than works of art. It was possible, Kaufman notes, to serve as many as eight courses in little more than an hour, a practice that kept the food piping hot. Escoiffier is credited not only with creating stations that allowed dishes to be plated more efficiently; he also encouraged the careful timing of meals so that guests were not still eating one course when the next arrived.

"Today, even in France, the “Service à la française” is not prevalent anymore. Except for venues like the Palais de l’Elysée during official dinners. Furthermore, the “Service à la russe”, also commonly called “Service au guéridon”, was slowly replaced by the “Service à l’anglaise”. However, high-end restaurants have retained this type of service for spectacular dishes, such as flambours or lobsters for example." concludes Mr Anthony Durand,  EHL's Senior Lecturer - Events & Boutique Manager

The transformation of European table service from à la française to “à la russe” makes today's hospitality industry possible. The new table service is faster, wastes less food, and encourages the development of skilled specialty chefs and professional servers. Nor has the art of the table itself been neglected. No longer a "groaning board" of food, the dining table has become a place for decorations that reflect an establishment's unique brand.

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