Haute Cuisine

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Haute Cuisine might be presumed cookery for the high-ups, or perhaps cookery with haut goût, a term much used in the 17th century (in England as well as in France) to describe seasoning in a modern, courtly manner. But prosaically, it just means higher cookery, much as some mathematics is higher or more complex, or haute couture (and even coiffure) is up a notch on common or garden dressmaking. And the term is of recent coinage, mainly dating (as does its couture cousin) from the turn of the 20th century, though the phrase is used by grimod de la reynière. Usually, fancy French cooking was la grande cuisine, or was described in terms of social hierarchy as in Massialot’s Le Cuisinier roial et bourgeois of 1691, translated into English (and redefined by location) as The Court and Country Cook (1702). The phrase, however, is the concrete expression of a distinction in kind between styles and methods of cookery within a single larger, perhaps national, entity. While in simpler societies all groups may eat according to the same rules, even if sometimes distinguished by greater or lesser wealth and extravagance, increasing social complexity will be reflected in cookery as much as in any other civil characteristic. This has been well explored by Goody (1982). The critical moment in Western Europe was the 17th century, and the chief field of action France: here arose a self-consciously new and different style of cookery in royal and aristocratic circles best expressed in the work of la varenne. It rid itself of medieval high flavours, drawing on more delicate seasonings such as mushrooms, truffles, and artichokes, and native herbs; it separated the sweet from the salt and acid; and it based itself on a regular kitchen system founded on stocks and refined sauces. There was a method to the new cookery, much as Descartes had adopted a method to his new philosophy. Furthermore, it was socially exclusive, demanding great resources and organization. Cuisine bourgeoise (for which see france and french cook books) might borrow some of its precepts in simplified form but made use of what was available locally with fewer layers of culinary construction: a regional or bourgeois dish, if it climbed the scale to grande cuisine, would shed its vulgar ingredients (garlic, for instance) and gain many garnishes (truffles perhaps) and building blocks (stock or essences). What was laid out by La Varenne would be refined through the 18th century, culminating with carême’s great distillation of the system. Where one might perceive a step-change from grande cuisine to haute cuisine came with the shift of the most extravagant cookery away from the private kitchens of the court and aristocracy to the giant hotels and restaurants of the new plutocracy. escoffier contributed a new method of production to the mix: single dishes were composed by accumulation as they passed through the several parties of a commercial kitchen. His work was really the foundation for international haute cuisine, a deracinated method of cookery that could be executed anywhere in the world and which has had much impact, though at present declining, on global tastes. The individuals manning the stoves in Hong Kong or New Orleans may be more likely German, Austrian, or Swiss, though deferring to the French origins of their craft. As Goody rightly stressed, higher cooking (a more neutral phrase than haute cuisine) exists wherever social hierarchies give it room: in China, India, the Middle East, Russia, and elsewhere. But the French model is a significant one and has had the widest consequences.