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Change of the white brigade

The death of Escoffier’s traditional kitchen hierarchy vs modern kitchens. Getting food out to a table takes a certain degree of time management, organisation and planning. However, getting hundreds of different meals out to tens of tables still hot and on time, not to mention on a tight budget, requires nothing short of pure genius.

To help us achieve our goals with every service, most large kitchens will run a version of the ‘brigade’ system; a distinct hierarchy, somewhat reminiscent of a military organisation, so that everyone knows what is being done and by who. For this we have to thank the late and great Auguste Escoffier, chef of legend and creator of the Brigade de Cuisine. But how similar is today’s modern kitchen environment to the one Escoffier designed back in the 1800’s, and what does that say about our kitchens?

The brigade back then

Not so long ago, the world was divided into two distinct classes: the aristocracy and the rest of us. The elite were more than happy to spend hours drinking and chatting, waiting for the chef to serve the next course of food. In fact, they had very little else to do with their days. Everyone else just cooked for themselves, so there was no real impetus to organise the kitchen workstream.

However, in the middle ages, craftspeople, businessmen and merchants began to build wealth of their own, and by the second half of the 19th century, chefs began to notice that there was money to be made from this well-off group of people. And so, the commercial kitchen began to form, and along came Escoffier with his Brigade de Cuisine, which looked something like this:

  • Chef de Cuisine: Top of the tree, this person outranked everyone in the kitchen, and was in charge of everything from ordering food to designing menus.
  • Sous Chef de Cuisine: The deputy chef, and second in the chain of command.
  • Chef de Partie: There would be many Chef de Parties in the kitchen, each one running a particular station to deliver a particular dish or process.
  • Cuisinier: General cooks, who work under a Chef de Partie at each station to prepare a dish.
  • Commis: The junior chefs worked under the Chef de Partie also, working at a particular station but taking most responsibility for the tools.
  • Apprentice: Responsible for everything and nothing, an apprentice will generally take on a range of tasks, including sometimes washing the dishes.

Depending on the size of the restaurant, there can be many stations in the kitchen, each run by a Chef de Partie and his team, reporting then to the Sous Chef de Cuisine. Stations range from saucier (sauté cook) and rotisseur (roasting cook) to the potager (soup cook) and the patissier (pastry chef). That’s a whole lot of people in the kitchen, practically an army in fact, but are today’s kitchens really so far from this traditional ideal?

The modern brigade

The clues to learn more about the modern brigade are found in the design of the kitchen themselves. Economic pressures and costly high street rents means restaurant owners are often pushed to make as much money per square meter as possible. This means packing in more punters, and squeezing the available kitchen space down to much tinier proportions than would traditionally be allocated.

Also in contrast to the traditional kitchen, many modern enterprises rely, at least in part, on high quality ready-prepared sauces and reductions or flash frozen food items in order to cut out some of the expensive labour costs. Busy restaurants will often have 6 – 8 people serving 250+ plates of food on a Saturday night, in contrast to Escoffier’s ratio which was probably more like 40 people serving 50 plates of food.

So, the modern brigade is going to be smaller than Escoffier’s kitchen army, and we can also deduce that it’s going to be a multi skilled bunch as well. Instead of having one fish chef and one veg chef, today we have one amazing chef who can turn his or her hand to fish, meat, veg and everything else on the menu. Here’s what the kitchen brigade is more likely to look like within a modern kitchen:

  • Executive chef: Sometimes the owner, this is the guy at the top of the tree. They will supervise, expedite and sometimes even jump on the line, but they’re still the boss.
  • Sous chef: The executive chef’s right-hand man and second in command.
  • Pastry chef: The dessert person, sometimes in charge of the dessert menu.
  • Line cooks: Those who do the cooking, working on stations for frying, grilling, cold prep and sauté.

Without doubt today’s brigade is a whole lot smaller and more diverse than the regimented armies of whites in Escoffier’s days. However, it’s certainly fascinating to see how things have moved on, and even if our kitchens look mightily different, we owe our organisation and the spirit of our stations to the great chef himself.

How does your kitchen’s brigade work? Let us know at info@chefspass.co.uk

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