Young Ho Chi Minh with Grand Chef Escoffier
  • | | March 02, 2010 06:23 PM

>>Part 1: Paris, my two worlds
>>Part 2: A journey in search of freedom
>>Part 3: Nguyen the Patriot
>>Part 4: Indochina and little emperors
>>Part 5: The rise of patriotism
>>Part 6: Finding a compass

Standing by the replacement building, my mind returned to the former Carlton Hotel, where Van Ba (Ho Chi Minh) used to work. I visualized the impressive kitchen of Auguste Escoffier and his sixty staff, rushing around in their impeccable white robes and “toque blanches” (white hats).

The Carlton Hotel, 1920
Destruction of Carlton Hotel during London Blitz, 1940
Plaque at new building. No records inside Carlton Hotel survived the Blitz. Russian and Vietnamese historians and other sources suggest that Van Ba worked at the Carlton from 1913 to 1917.

Before moving to the glorious Carlton Hotel, Escoffier had been with the Savoy Hotel, where he built a reputation as the father of French cuisine. Escoffier provided catering to the British royal household, European aristocratic women, celebrities, and super-wealthy people. Being greatly appreciated by the Prince of Wales, when the prince became King Edward VII in 1901, Escoffier was put in charge of the banquet for the coronation. In 1913, he met Emperor Wilhelm II at a state dinner for 146 German dignitaries. The Emperor was most impressed with Escoffier’s cuisine and paid him a compliment, “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs.”

Escoffier’s repertoire included many famous recipes. Suprêmes de volailles Jeannette (jellied chicken breasts with foie gras) was created in the memory of the icebound ship Jeannette in 1881; Pêche Melba (peach Melba) was honoring the Australian singer Nellie Melba; Fraises à la Sarah Bernhardt (strawberries with pineapple and Curaçao sorbet) was a tribute to the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Other creations that became popular French classics were Bombe Néro (flaming ice), Baisers de Vierge (meringue with vanilla cream), and various types of pastries filled with fresh fruits.

The grand chef’s philosophy was the use of freshest and finest ingredients, with high skill and simplicity. He also introduced a hygiene standard in the handling of food. To award Escoffier’s exceptional talent and his promotion of fine French cuisine, President Poincaré presented him with the cross of the Légion d'Honneur in 1919. Three years later he was promoted to Officer of the Legion at a state banquet at the Palais d'Orsay.

The Carlton Hotel was a favorite venue for Winston Churchill, who was sitting in the dining hall on August 4, 1914, when Britain declared war against Germany and her allies. The outbreak of war had begun two days earlier, with German troops attacking France. Escoffier and Ba were present in the hotel during the war declaration. Ba was elated and he secretly hoped the conflict would lead to the collapse of the colonial regime in Indochina. He would be waiting quietly in London for events to unfold. Escoffier would continue to be in charge of the Carlton’s cuisine throughout the First World War (August 1914 - November 1918).

When Ba started his job in the spring of 1913, he was part of the washing and cleaning team in Escoffier’s kitchen. For the staff, it was not unusual to see wealthy and famous clients leaving a lot of food on their plates after their meals. Whenever Ba saw a large chunk of beefsteak or a large piece of chicken untouched, he would transfer them to a clean plate and send them back to the kitchen. One time Escoffier asked Ba, “Why didn’t you throw these into the bins like others do?” Ba answered, “These things shouldn’t be thrown away. You could give them to the poor.” Escoffier was amused and pleased, “My dear young friend, please listen to me! Leave your revolutionary ideas aside for now, and I will teach you the art of cooking, which will bring you a lot of money. Do you agree?”

Shortly after this conversation, Ba was promoted to the pastry and cake section, and Escoffier taught him the art of fine French desserts. He followed the grand chef’s instructions diligently, and with a keen interest. On French pastries, especially the pâte brisé, Ba mastered the skill very quickly. Escoffier had pioneered the techniques on how to mix the ingredients, how to handle the dough, and the key steps in the baking process that would produce a light, fluffy, and crispy crust.

From the beginning, Ba’s mentor had noticed his unusual intelligence, and he always appreciated Ba’s thoughtfulness and polite manners. In 1917, Escoffier was approaching his 71th birthday and he thought about retirement and those who would carry on his legacy. Ba had been with him for four years and was one of his favorite chefs. Escoffier had no doubt that Ba would have a promising career ahead of him in the world of French haute cuisine.

One evening, however, Ba asked Escoffier for some quiet time to talk. Privately, the news of Emperor Duy Tan being overthrown by the French had reached Ba and he felt most disturbed. He told Escoffier that he would leave London and embark on a new mission. It was likely that this decision was triggered by the event in Indochina and also the sudden eruption of the Russian Revolution. Escoffier knew Ba’s political ambition very well. But he would have felt sad and sentimental, that the frail-looking young man was going to abandon his white robe and toque, to begin a life full of risks and uncertainty.

The Carlton Hotel was completely destroyed by Nazi Germany during the London Blitz in early 1940, after 57 consecutive nights of air raids ordered by Hitler. This was the first phase of the Second World War (September 1939 - August 1945).


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