Most of us only encounter professional cuisine in the dining room. Yet the popular image of the back-of-the-house—the kitchen-heart of a restaurant—is crystal clear. Think of any episode of Top Chef:11Or, hell, just imagine what Gordon Ramsay is up to right now. White-uniformed bodies jostle past one another in a tight space, lugging supplies back and forth, hurrying to different stations, and wielding blades with a near-perfect economy of motion. Heavy knives batter against cutting boards, pots bubble, and sizzles erupt from cast iron pans. Someone curses as a gout of flame kicks up between their hands, only to die down in a flash. The sour stench of human oil mixes with the pungent tang of spice and meat. It’s chaos.
The kitchen is a dramatic space. This stereotype of the back-of-the-house as a zone of frantic work and constant din is accurate, but incomplete—behind the seeming chaos is painstaking organization. Structure. All that high-pressure, high-stakes activity creates our coq au vin and navarin d’agneau; without it, the restaurant as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.
The structure that organizes modern kitchens is called the brigade de cuisine: a division of labour almost as old as Western restaurants themselves. It arranges individual cooks into squads and stations based on equipment and expertise, transforming all of that running, screaming, and chopping into a human machine capable of churning out meal after meal with stunning timing and precision. Pioneered by a single French chef—Georges Auguste Escoffier—the brigade is more than just a physical allocation of cooks. It is also a social hierarchy that metes out power, prestige, and punishment in pretty much every back-of-the-house around the world today.
The brigade de cuisine seems aristocratic, obsolete—but in an industry dominated by the need for speed, it’s highly expedient. Fine dining may be the province of an enlightened, modern middle class; the food out front may be free range and locally sourced. But around back, kitchen staff still abide a system adapted from the 19th-century French military, where chefs exercise unmitigated power over their inferiors. This isn’t what Escoffier had in mind.
In early 19th-century Europe, restaurants as we know them didn’t really exist. The closest vulgar equivalent was what we now call “street meat”—outdoor vendors hawking bowls of stew or hand-held snacks—and taverns and inns, which gave you room and board together. But there were no places to go exclusively for a meal, to sit and be waited on. Instead, all of the fancy cooking happened at banquets in rich people’s homes—only the rich could afford private chefs, who devised and cooked every meal from start to finish. A rough division of labour existed among the chef’s staff, but it was informal at best, and followed broader designations such as “baker” or “the meat guy.”
The kitchen is a dramatic space. This stereotype of the back-of-the-house as a zone of frantic work and constant din is accurate, but incomplete—behind the seeming chaos is painstaking organization.
The emperor of private chefs was Marie-Antoine Carême, who cooked for French diplomats, Napoleon, and the likes of George IV and Tsar Alexander I. Carême wanted to elevate food to a form of high art, on the level of architecture or painting. To this end, he prepared banquets that doubled as food-art installations, constructed out of 3-D stands: up to 150 different meals sculpted together into an edible statue, slammed down onto the table. Bon appetit.
Carême, who wrote extensively about his theories and creations, became the first international celebrity chef. Imitators soon followed, as they do, but mostly they copied his ostentatious meat towers. This style of presentation became known as service a la français, and its chaotic “one-cook-per-meal” method22Think about it: each cook prepares an entire meal themselves, running around the kitchen like a dozen overlapping Family Circus “Billy Wandering” comics. would spawn a similar culture in commercial kitchens, as the restaurant industry exploded over the following decades.
By the 1860s, wealth had dispersed a little throughout central Europe: not only Kings and Emperors, but aristocrats, the nouveau riche, and a growing middle class had money to spend. Flaunting your wealth in public was a means of improving your social situation, and what better way to look rich than by stuffing expensive meals down your gullet? Hotels and restaurants popped up like hives to meet the growing demand, and kitchens everywhere began to feel the powerful need for efficiency. Enter Georges Auguste Escoffier, a diminutive man from Provence, who worked in restaurants from the age of 13 and worshipped Carême for his service to the art of cuisine. Escoffier wanted to go one step further: to establish cooking as a respected profession.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the kitchen was a particularly hellish work environment. Carême-styled dishes, prepared for growing hoards of diners, kept kitchen staff under the gun; the immense pressure made for a cramped, stifling back-of-the-house rife with violence, cursing, and boozing.33At the time, restaurants burned refined coal—“coke”—in order to cook, turning the entire kitchen into a raging inferno. Thirsty cooks were given their weight in beer or wine.
Escoffier came to know this world intimately. Through that classic combination of diligence, skill, and luck, he found himself second in command of the Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris at the tender age of 22. When the Franco-Prussian war began in 1870, he served as an officer’s cook, scrounging together meals during sieges44Not hyperbole. During a three-month siege, Escoffier still managed to serve meals at the level of Hors d'oeuvres, Oeufs a la poele, Blanquette de veau, Cotelettes de mouton et pommes frites, Cafe - Liquers—by rounding up all the livestock in the city beforehand. and imbibing the order and regularity with which the military conducted the essentially chaotic practice of warfare. At the end of the war, Escoffier returned to Paris and took over the Petit Moulin Rouge with a new vision for a kitchen run with precision and structure.
Flaunting your wealth in public was a means of improving your social situation, and what better way to look rich than by stuffing expensive meals down your gullet?
The previous head chef, Ulysse Rahaut, had bullied his cookstaff through harsh invective and blows to the head. Escoffier wasn’t a big guy, and he didn’t want to maintain such a crude working arrangement, so he instituted a number of reforms that would come to be known as the brigade de cuisine.
The first thing to go was service a la français. When you serve an entire buffet as a single entity, some parts are cold by the time others are ready. What’s more, when the meal is a banquet-mound as big as the table, diners can only reach the morsels in front of them—passing food was a damning faux pas. In a strict departure from Carême, Escoffier decided to present each meal as a single dish, on a plate, trading spectacular display for fine ingredients featured as simply as possible. This demanded efficiency, so he re-jigged the basic order of cooking: gone was the one-chef-one-meal paradigm, and in its place came the division of labour he called the partie system.
Escoffier separated the basic elements of meals into their component features—sauces, fish, vegetables, soups, roasts, pastry, ices, and sweets—and assigned each to a partie, a gang of workers assembled under the direct supervision of a chef de partie. Every single dish followed a strict procedure. For example, an order of Deux oeufs sur le plat Meyebeer went down like this:
- the annonceur reads the order
- the chef de cuisine allocates the work to the parties
- each chef de partie assigns specific tasks to their commis (workers):
- the garde-manger supplies the eggs
- the commis entre-mettier cooks the eggs in butter
- the chef rotisseur opens and grills the lamb kidneys, adds
them in between the eggs
- the commis saucier prepares truffle sauce and adds it to
- the chef de cuisine inspects the meal, and it goes out the door
While it takes longer to describe, the brigade could make an egg in three to five minutes. Before, with one chef, it took 15.
Several additional reforms brought down the ruckus in the back-of-the-house. To combat the noise, Escoffier simply ended the practice of shouting orders: when the annonceur (spokesman) replaced the aboyeur (barker), people had to quiet down all around. To combat the cursing and general crudeness, he lead by example, never raising his voice and treating every member of the kitchen with basic dignity and respect. And to combat alcoholism, he banned liquor from his kitchen and worked with a physician to prepare copious supplies of lemon barley-water to keep his staff hydrated. Now, Escoffier’s kitchen was three times faster than the competition; it was also noticeably more pristine, more sophisticated, more professional.
Escoffier established a wider reputation by summering at the Hotel National in Lucerne, a seasonal hotspot for the hoity-toity. Here, he met an up-and-coming maître d’hotel named Cesar Ritz who’d made parallel innovations at the front-of-the-house, serving tables and leading armies of waitstaff. It was a match made in heaven. Both were utterly driven to the perfection of their craft, so much so that they would hold entire meetings debating the choice of china, doilies, lighting, and cutlery.
To combat the cursing and general crudeness, he lead by example, never raising his voice and treating every member of the kitchen with basic dignity and respect. And to combat alcoholism, he banned liquor from his kitchen and worked with a physician to prepare copious supplies of lemon barley-water to keep his staff hydrated.
In 1890, the pair was offered a chance to re-invent the struggling Savoy Hotel in London. To do so they assembled “a little army of hotel men for the conquest of London,” introduced prix fixe menus so that the Brits wouldn’t feel bad mispronouncing French, and offered unparalleled taste experiences to a population raised on blood pudding. They were so successful that the Prince of Wales started dining at the Savoy instead of his private club; it became fashionable in London to “be seen” eating, and Escoffier and Ritz leveraged this transformation by forming an independent Hotelier company. They set up shop in Paris and London—the Paris Ritz and Carlton Ritz, respectively—scalping clientele from their previous boss, and building a name synonymous with luxury. Escoffier, whose celebrity far surpassed Carême’s (Kaiser Wilhelm II would dub him “The Emperor of Chefs”), went on to write his own recipe books and cooking treatises, which are still used as textbooks today.
As early as the 1920s, Escoffier’s method had become the gold standard for fancy kitchens far and wide. This success revealed a fatal flaw in the system: it was a patriarchal hierarchy. The brigade was predicated on the notion that a head chef was a true artist, someone with tremendous regard for the profession of cooking, who would strive to cultivate a sophisticated work environment as an extension of the same instinct to produce delicious food. This perspective was sadly naïve. All it takes is an owner hungry for profit over quality, and humanity quickly becomes an impediment to efficiency. As the brigade spread far and wide, it was revealed to be highly susceptible to abuse and brutality; the elegant order Escoffier had cultivated became a soulless machine.
This is the flaw inherent in modern capitalism, whose ideological promise once seemed benevolent; unfortunately, if free markets could exist harmoniously with worker’s interests, it wouldn’t have taken President Roosevelt to shatter the Robber Barons—their consciences would’ve been enough. When a higher authority fails to maintain a semblance of fairness, power consolidates with those who have it already, while those without it suffer. Hence the 20th century back-of-the-house.
The kitchen was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined—a stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans. It was so hot that all the metal-work except the stoves had to be covered with cloth. In the middle were furnaces, where twelve cooks skipped to and fro, their faces dripping sweat in spite of their white caps. Round that were counters where a mob of waiters and plongeurs [dishwashers] clamoured with trays. Scullions, naked to the waist, were stoking fires and scouring huge copper saucepans with sand. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage.
It sounds like madness, but there is order in what Orwell calls “an elaborate caste system” in the back-of-the-house. “Our staff, amounting to about a hundred and ten, had their prestige graded as accurately as that of soldiers, and a cook or waiter was as much above a plongeur as a captain above a private.” Every single social exchange served to reinforce the social hierarchy, and Orwell, a lowly plongeur, “a slave’s slave” took it in the face.66“From curiosity I counted the number of times I was called maquereau during the day, and it was thirty-nine."
Escoffier’s system, minus a guy like Escoffier, resulted in the worst combination of mechanization and brutal work conditions. Things haven’t gotten much better. Today, a standard shift in a kitchen lasts ten hours, six days a week; the better the restaurant, the more hours its staff works. Despite a stunning 50 percent failure rate, people keep opening up new restaurants, so competition is constantly fierce. You’d think that meals would be a quality-style service, but the opposite is true: due to the fact that most diners won’t spend much more than the cost of ingredients, restaurateurs have to approach food as a volume-sales business: push those tables, hustle those meals, and never stop moving.
When a higher authority fails to maintain a semblance of fairness, power consolidates with those who have it already, while those without it suffer. Hence the 20th century back-of-the-house.
This means efficiency rules the day, even more now than in Escoffier’s time. Given the profession’s increasing prestige, aspiring chefs are more vulnerable—and, as in any prestige industry, their bosses are more than willing to exploit them. Kitchen staff are shackled to ovens and cutting boards, expected to stand at attention for hours and perform repetitive tasks ad infinitum in sweltering heat, to a chorus of rage and obscenities prompted by the slightest deviation in form. Conventional wisdom in kitchens dictates that if you haven’t “made it” by 30 or 35, you never will. Your body will collapse first.77Not to mention your septum. Coke no longer fuels stoves, but it sure as hell fuels the industry.The chefs I spoke to about this were a fatalistic lot. “You just do the job assigned to the best of your abilities,” said Chef Chris McDonald, president of Cava Restaurant, who has worked in San Francisco, London, New York, and Verona, “and you hope that somebody notices.” Chef Mike Dougall of the Brooklyn Tavern says that only three kinds of people survive the back-of-the-house: those who believe that cooking is a noble calling, those with a passion and talent for food, and outcasts who are otherwise hopelessly unemployable. The common denominator is the gumption to overlook, rise above, or endure the harsh realities of the kitchen.
Escoffier’s reforms served both his own interests and those of his workers: by designing an elegant, efficient kitchen, he bested his ample competition. The same pressures on restaurateurs today could spawn similar reforms: diners want “ethical” meals, a modern luxury; and they are increasingly curious about what goes on behind the scenes. One infrastructural feature that provides a glimpse is the “open kitchen,” made possible by the perfection of extractor hoods in the’ 80s, and popularized by trendy restaurants in New York desperate for space. When you open the kitchen up, its inner-workings become part of the overall dining experience, governed by the same taste and aesthetic as the front-of-the-house. Greater transparency tends to keep power in check. Power is like mould; it grows in the dark.