How It All Began: A Brief History of the Kitchen Brigade

The next time a restaurant kitchen delivers a complex meal to the dining room, deftly timed and executed, consider the fact that this military precision is no accident. The traditional system of kitchen structure -- the brigade led by the chef -- has venerable roots in European military organizations.

From the 14th century on, traveling armies had to be fed; cooks were selected from among the ranks. During peacetime, rulers set up tournaments to keep their warriors prepared for future battles; the military cooks followed knights to castles and ultimately became the cooks to kings and nobility, orchestrating huge and complicated meals and feasts for vast entourages.

Trade guilds soon developed; these were carefully controlled monopolies for cooks that ensured the membership steady employment. Expensive and exclusive, these guilds adopted uniforms, rigid hierarchies, and systems of exhaustive apprenticeship. Until after the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of restaurants, this caste of cooks continued to work exclusively for the aristocracy.

The classic double-breasted white jacket is vestigial -- it originated when chefs were servants of the king and presumably might be called upon to serve in battle as well as in noble households. By the 1820s, chefs were wearing uniforms purportedly based on those worn by soldiers in the Turkish army. White eventually became the standard to emphasize cleanliness and good sanitation.

There are numerous unsubstantiated legends about the origins of the chef's tall white toque; one version attributes it to the tubular black hats worn by Greek Orthodox priests. Antonin Carême, the 18th-century chef to Tallyrand and various Rothschilds, is also credited with bringing the toque into the kitchen. Supposedly inspired by a woman's hat, he inserted a snappy cardboard tube into his cap, and the style caught on. Traditional stiff, pleated toques are about 8 inches tall, but executive chefs wear them up to 12 inches. The story told in my culinary school is that the extra-tall headgear enables subordinates in need of guidance to quickly spot the chef in a crowded kitchen. (Of course, the women students circulated an alternate theory.)

Late in the 19th century, following a French army career, gifted chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier developed the modern brigade system in London's Savoy Hotel. For maximum efficiency, he organized the kitchen into a strict hierarchy of authority, responsibility, and function. In the brigade, widely adopted by fine-dining establishments, the general is the executive chef, or chef de cuisine, assisted by a sous chef. Subordinate are the chefs de partie, each in charge of a production station and assisted by demi-chefs and commis (apprentices). The number of station chefs can get exhaustive, including the saucier (sauces), poissionier (fish), grillardin (grilled items), fritteurier (fried items), rotissier (roasts), garde manger (cold food), patissier (pastries), and tournant (roundsman, station relief).

Today, most restaurants use some simplified variation of Escoffier's kitchen brigade. Typically, the executive chef coordinates kitchen activities, sets standards, manages costs, and directs training and work efforts. The sous chef sees that the food is prepared, portioned, and presented according to the executive chef's standards. The line cooks run the stations and prepare menu items according to specifications, aided by assistants and apprentices.

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