Culinary Arts History: How it Began and Why to Study it

Knowing how the culinary arts industry began and evolved to what it is today gives you the context of the career you are pursuing and shows seriousness about it.

In writing this article, we have researched the history of culinary arts to whet your appetite for doing your own and highlight the value of culinary history.

What is the origin of culinary art?

Culinary art started from serving a set meal, shared with others at a big host table by inns and traiteurs (caterers), to serving food in restaurants at individual tables with more menu choices. The first restaurant, in the 1760s, was to eat food to restore health and, in time, went from restorative to varied cuisines.  

The first restaurant began in 1766 by Mathuriz Roze de Chantoiseau and, arguably, by Boulanger in 1765. As the word restaurant comes from the French word restauer meaning “restorative”, such places were known as restorer rooms or salle de restaurants and later just restaurants, the nature of which changed post-French revolution, from restoration to chefs practising their culinary art. A protein-rich broth or bouillon was one of the first foods in these health-type restaurants.

Of course, some chefs became important in shaping culinary arts as a profession and industry. Hence the question:

Who started culinary arts?

Marie Antoine Carême, Augustus Escoffier and Fernand Point are the fathers of modern cuisine. Carême is known for haute cuisine, food grand in taste and looks, Escoffier for simplifying Haute into classic cuisine and Fernand Point for a nouvelle cuisine of natural flavour, fresh ingredients and simplified cooking.

These three historical chefs, Marie Antoine Carême (1784-1833), Augustus Escoffier (1846-1935) and Fernand Point (1897-1955), are legendary for influencing modern-day cuisine, culture and how today’s chefs are trained. However, many other chefs, like James Hemming, have also made their mark in culinary arts.

Carême’s elaborate cooking style, with dishes that tasted good and looked like architectural designs, was known as grand cuisine in addition to haute cuisine. He also spent much time developing new and improved culinary skills.

Carême is often referred to as a celebrity chef of his time as he cooked for royalty and famous figures like Napoleon and the Tsar of Russia.

He classified all sauces into four, which became known as the “mother” of all sauces. These were: Allemande, Bechamel (white sauces), Velouté and Espagnole (brown sauce).

He is also known for improving the chef’s uniform, most notably the chef’s hat, known as the toque and still worn by today’s chefs.

Escoffier had the longest-standing career as a chef, 62 years. He thought Carême’s dishes were too elaborate and simplified them to the classical cuisine style of today.

Escoffier also reclassified Carême’s Allemande sauce and added sauce tomato (tomato) and Hollandaise. The result was the five sauces commonly recognised by chefs today. These are Bechamel (white sauce), Velouté (velvety sauce), Espagnole (brown sauce), Hollandaise (a rich, creamy sauce) and Tomato.

Escoffier also changed how service was done. Rather than have all the food courses brought to the table at once, as was previously done, Escoffier introduced serving courses in stages, setting the scene for how service is done today.

Escoffier is known for penning recipes into cookbooks and introducing the kitchen brigade system that brought more structure into how a commercial kitchen functions today.

At the time of his career, there was lots of chaos in how kitchens work, including drinking and smoking. Escoffier rooted this out, demanding a standard of order and discipline on the job. This brought a new level of professionalism into the culinary arts.

Fernand Point, in turn, thought Escoffier’s style of cooking too complex and laid the foundations for chefs that followed, like Paul Bocuse, a student of Points, to create meals marked by an elegant simplicity of a lighter, fresher, tastier, healthier and more colourful style of French cuisine, which became known as Nouvelle cuisine.

Fernand Point was also known for his casual style welcoming all to his restaurant, whether rich or famous or everyday citizens and leaving the kitchen to interact with his guests.

8 Reasons to study the history of culinary arts.

Knowing culinary arts’ origins has excellent value for chefs and everyone else.

It gives:

1. Insight into human history, cultures and traditions.

The food eaten within a country represents its history and the origins of its people, culture, and traditions.

South Africa, where I live, has a rich cuisine, representative of the histories of its many cultural and language groups; curry and rice is a favourite dish brought to South Africa by the enslaved Indonesian Malays who came to South Africa to work in the Dutch kitchens and gardens and the Indian communities who came to South Africa as indentured labourers to work on the sugarcane plantations.

Potjie pot is another South African favourite where a stew is cooked on an open fire in a “potjie” pot and brought by the Dutch, who later added the local herbs of the indigenous Khoi to their stews.

Samp and beans, a stew made from cooking maize kernels and sugar beans, is another South African favourite, originating from the Xhosa South Africans living in the Western Cape of South Africa and is said to have been a favourite meal of Nelson Mandela.

2. Greater awareness and appreciation of diversity.

Understanding the history that food represents and sharing the food histories and stories of diverse communities helps to endear people to each other, giving a greater understanding and appreciation of the people of a country or region.

I remember when one of our kids partook in a class project where each person had to prepare a dish representing their community and share its history and personal anecdotes. While they had fun tasting different food and listening to various accounts, the exercise did much to create a sense of togetherness and appreciation of others.  

3. Insight into the changes in societal values.

From studying culinary history, we see the transition from the first restaurants where patrons had no choice but to eat what was served on the day to today, where special dietary needs are catered for, and restaurants with menus for vegan or lactose intolerant patrons.

Then there are also the historical transitions from cooking with less care for the environment and health to serving organic food, locally grown using sustainable farming methods.

4. Greater appreciation of the food you eat.

Knowing that for example, the rusk, a popular South African dry, hard biscuit dipped in coffee to soften it before eating it, came from the Dutch, who needed a type of food that could be stored for the long distances travelled on the Voortrekker ox wagons, adds more excellent value to the enjoyment of this tasty biscuit that our family loves to enjoy on laid back Saturday and Sunday mornings.

5. Appreciation of the advancements in culinary art.

Studying culinary history gives an appreciation for the progress made in culinary art, from changes in cuisine and the equipment used to better health and safety measures.

With the beginning of restaurants, dishwashing was one of the worst jobs. While it’s still not the most cherished job, as huge pots and pans are still washed by hand, advancements in technology have made dishwashing the cutlery and crockery used by patrons a lot easier with the use of commercial dishwashers that both clean and sanitise dishes.

Back then, a person washing dishes in a food establishment was called a “pearl diver” because they had to dig their hands into deep sinks of murky water and wash dishes by feeling rather than seeing them. It is said that this slang term was initially used to refer to dishwashers who worked on passenger steamboats and later used for all restaurant dishwashers.  

Then came mechanical dishwashers. The first one, patented by American Joel Houghton in 1850, used a hand-turn wheel. Later in 1886, Josephine Cochran patented a more practical dishwasher for home use that was later used in commercial kitchens. The 20th century saw the beginning of electrical dishwashers.

6. Appreciation for the symbolic significance of food.

Food is eaten to symbolise and celebrate important events like birthdays and religious festivities, some of which have deep historical roots. Knowing these gives greater significance to the use of these symbols.

Not only do beautifully crafted cakes demonstrate the skill of the culinary artist and add to the aesthetic value of a special celebration, but they are also symbolic representations of the happiness of the occasion: a milestone reached as in a birthday cake and for a long and happy life together in the case of a wedding cake. The latter has roots in Roman culture, where a scone-type cake was broken over the bride’s head for prosperity and fertility.

Food also has excellent symbolic representations of the history of people. For example, during the Passover meal, celebrated by Jewish people, different food items are placed on a seder plate. Each item symbolises a part of Jewish life, history and their relationship with God.

One of them is Matzah, unleavened bread, which represents the bread the Israelites took when they left Egypt. As they left Egypt in haste, there was no time to allow the bread to rise.

While there is no biblical reference to having hot cross buns on Good Friday, for many Christians, this is a reminder of the death and resurrection of Christ. The spices in the bun are said to represent the spices used in the burial of Jesus. The history of the bun, in turn, is told to go back to a 14th-century monk who made the bun.

In South Africa, Heritage Day, commonly known by South Africans as “National braai day”, is celebrated as a way of uniting and celebrating our diversity.

Braaivleis, where meat is cooked over an open fire and shared with friends and family, is a meal loved and accepted by all South Africans. The sharing of this meal throughout the country, despite our history of division through apartheid, is to celebrate our diversity and be hopeful about building a united South Africa.

7. Identity, pride and professionalism in being a chef.

Culinary history is vital to culinarians as it leads to:

  • Pride in the profession.

Understanding the culinary career, from its roots to the esteemed vocation it is today, can give a culinarian tremendous respect and appreciation for it, leading to pride and professionalism.

It’s enriching to know, for example, the origin of modern-day cuisine, the kitchen brigade system, or the meaning and origin of some of today’s culinary terminology rooted in history.  

  • Individual and community identity as a chef.

A sense of the history of the foundations laid for a culinary profession is essential for developing an individual and community identity as a chef.

Take the chef’s uniform as an example. Knowing its historical roots, why and how it originated, and although modified, it is still rooted in what was worn in the past gives you a greater sense of pride when you wear it and a sense of belonging to the broader community of chefs, both present and past.

8. Appreciation for culinary language.

In studying the history of culinary arts, you inevitably encounter the roots of words used in culinary arts.

Knowledge of this gives a greater appreciation of words we take for granted, like the word “chef”, which means” chief of the kitchen” and comes from the French term “chef de cuisine”.

When researching the origins of Bechamel sauce, the classic white sauce known to be the “Mother” of all the five mother sauces of today, you will find several stories of its origin.

One of these was that the sauce’s name was given to honour the Financier Louis de Béchameil, who acted as honorary chief steward to King Louis XIV.

Another attribute of this sauce is that it originated in Italy and was introduced to France by the chef of Catherine de Medici, whom she brought with her when she came to France to marry King Henry IV.

The name is also said to come from the word “Balsamo” to describe the flour and water paste used as a beauty mask for women in Florence, Italy.

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