Escoffier and Melba: Chef of Kings meets Queen of Divas

In the second half of the nineteenth century, fifteen years and over sixteen thousand kilometres apart, two stars were born. They had each reached the pinnacle of success following meteoric trajectories in their respective fields.

When they met in 1892, both were internationally renowned, immensely wealthy, and they enjoyed the adulation of the world. Superstars among the movers and shakers of the day: George Auguste Escoffier and Dame Nellie Melba

The Chef of Kings: Georges Auguste Escoffier

Georges Auguste Escoffier, the famous chef gave a particularly French perspective on the importance of good food when he said:

la bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur,
good food is the foundation of genuine happiness.

Escoffier: master of the French sauce
George Auguste Escoffier
Chef of Kings meets Queen of Divas

Born in 1846 Escoffier popularised and updated traditional French cooking methods.

He saw his mission as simplifying and modernising the traditional French focus on an elaborate and ornate food preparation.

He made the five ‘mother sauces‘ his own and promoted:-

  • béchamel,
  • velouté,
  • espagnole,
  • hollandaise.
  • and tomato sauces

All to add moisture, richness, complexity, and colour to almost any dish.

They were his starting point for a wide range of delicious sauces used to complement vegetables, fish, meat, casseroles, and pastas.

Escoffier codified the maxim that’s become today’s kitchen mantra:

faites simple.

Escoffier established his reputation in London and Paris during the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century when he formed a partnership with early hotel chain founder César Ritz. The two soon rose to prominence together in their roles at the prestigious Savoy and Carlton hotels in London and the Ritz in Paris.

Their patrons included almost everyone who was anyone. Major and minor royals from across Europe and Russia and the rich and famous from around the world were regularly seen in their restaurants.

Whether Escoffier cooked the books as deftly as he presided over his famous kitchens, is still an open question. But he found himself involved in a scandal involving bribes and kickbacks from suppliers — a practice which was apparently commonplace at the time.

However, charges were never brought, possibly to avoid the scandal becoming public and reflecting on the standing of their restaurants’ high profile customers.

The Queen of Divas: Helen Nellie Porter
Dame Nellie Melba
Chef of Kings meets Queen of Divas

On the other side of the world, fifteen years after Escoffier was born, Helen Nellie Porter Mitchell arrived in Richmond, Victoria, Australia in 1861. She first sang at the age of six in a local concert hall. Because she was so young, the organizers stood her on a chair so the audience could see her perform. When she asked one of her school friends what he thought, all the boy could think of to say was:

Nellie Mitchell, I saw your drawers!

But Nellie went on to become the late Victorian era’s most famous singer. She was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician.

The pseudonym she chose was ‘Nellie Melba‘ from her hometown: Melbourne.

Escoffier and Melba
Dame Nellie Melba
Chef of Kings meets Queen of Divas

Auguste and Nellie met when she was lunching at the Savoy in London. She’d tasted a dessert he’d created with poached peaches and vanilla ice cream. ”It’s delicious,” she exclaimed. “Ask Monsieur Escoffier what it is called.”  

Word came back that it had no name, but that the famous chef would be honoured if he might call it:

pêche melba

It was an overnight smash hit in London and was soon on menus in top restaurants all over the world.
Dame Nellie Melba
Chef of Kings meets Queen of Divas
Pêche Melba

The recipe is featured in Escoffier’s book Le Guide Culinaire which is still regarded as a standard reference for aspiring chefs. Here it is.

6 ripe peaches
Light vanilla syrup (3 cups water, ¾ cup sugar, 1 tsp vanilla)
Raspberry sauce (1 tblspn lemon juice, 1 cup raspberries, 2 tblspn sugar)
Vanilla ice cream

Gently poach peeled peaches in light syrup for five minutes. Place 2 peach halves in a glass dish. Top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzle over with raspberry sauce.

Disclaimer: Although I have not tested this recipe myself, rest assured, millions upon millions of chefs, cooks, gourmets and all kinds of foodies, have tried it and vouched for it for over a century.

As with all recipes, good ingredients make for good results. And good peaches are essential, but are not available to everyone all year. But peach season will be worth waiting for.

And remember that only top quality vanilla ice cream will provide the cherry — oops! — the peach on the top.

Bon appetit!

Et finalement, bon courage, bonne chance, et joyeux Noël.

Escoffier and Melba: did these names previously mean much to you? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Image credits:
1. Bust of Eskoffier via wikipedia
2. La terrasse de l’Hôtel Ritz de Paris, en 1908 via wikipedia
3. Drawing of Melba by Frank Haviland via wikipedia
4. Drawing of Caruso, Melba, Pavarotti, Bonygne Sutherland by Horner via National Portrait Gallery
5. Peach melba via wikipedia
6. Escoffier Books, Amazon

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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