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Excerpt: 'Proust Was a Neuroscientist'

Veal stock was not always the glutamate-rich secret of French food. In fact, haute cuisine was not always delicious, or even edible. Before Escoffier began cooking in the new restaurants of the bourgeoisie (unlike his predecessors, he was never a private chef for an aristocrat), fancy cooking was synonymous with ostentation.

As long as dinner looked decadent, its actual taste was pretty irrelevant. Appearance was everything. Marie-Antoine Careme (1783-1833), the world's first celebrity chef — he cooked for Talleyrand and Czar Alexander I, and he baked Napoleon's wedding cake — epitomized this culinary style. Although Careme is often credited with inventing French cuisine, his food was normally served cold and arranged in epic buffets comprising dozens, sometimes hundreds, of rococo dishes. In Careme's Paris, fancy food was a form of sculpture, and Careme was justifiably famous for his pièces montées, which were detailed carvings made of marzipan, pork fat, or spun sugar. Although these sculptures were pretty, they were also inedible. Careme didn't care. "A well-displayed meal," Careme once said, "is improved one hundred percent in my eyes." Such insipid lavishness typified nineteenth-century service à la française.

Escoffier considered all this pomp and circumstance ridiculous. Food was meant to be eaten. He favored service à la russe – the Russian style – a system in which the meal was broken down into numbered courses. Unlike Careme's ornate buffets, service à la russe featured a single dish per course, which was delivered fresh out of the kitchen. The meal was staggered, and it unfolded in a leisurely culinary narrative: soup was followed by fish, which was followed by meat. And although the chef wrote the menu, the client dictated the tempo and content of the meal. Dessert was the guaranteed happy ending.

This revolution in restaurant service required a parallel revolution in the kitchen. No longer could cooks afford to spend days sculpting marzipan, or molding aspic, or concocting one of Careme's toxically rich stews. Everything on the menu now had to be à la minute, and cooked to order. Flavor had to be manufactured fast. This new level of speed led Escoffier to make his cooking mantra "Faites simple." Every dish, he said, must consist of its necessary ingredients only, and those ingredients must be perfect. A veal stock must contain the very quintessence of veal. Asparagus soup must taste like asparagus, only more so.

There was one added bonus to this new culinary method founded upon simplicity and velocity: food was served hot. While Carême feared heat (his lard sculptures tended to melt), Escoffier conditioned his diners to expect a steaming bowl of soup. They wanted their fillets sizzling and the sauce fresh from the deglazed frying pan. In fact, Escoffier's recipes required this efficiency: when meals were served lukewarm, the flavors became disconcertingly one-dimensional. "The customer," Escoffier warned in his cookbook, "finds that the dish is flat and insipid unless it is served absolutely boiling hot."

From Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. Copyright 2007 by Jonah Lehrer. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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