Monday, February 3, 2014

Local Escoffier Keeps the Gourmet Flame Alive

Posted By on Mon, Feb 3, 2014 at 1:25 PM

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When you hear that a group calls itself Les Amis d'Escoffier Society, you probably picture a bunch of stuck-up gastronomes drinking wine with their pinkies extended and haughtily sniffing each bite like the food critic in Ratatouille. But when it comes to the local outpost of Escoffier, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Nashville Escoffier is one of the oldest branches of the N.Y.-based group, having been started in 1967. The mission of the club is primarily social, with a limited number of members (currently about 75) gathering a few times per year to share some fellowship and their appreciation of fine food and wine. They keep the membership small so they can all meet in fairly intimate environments, with their biggest event being the annual Christmas party in the ballroom at the Hermitage Hotel. Other events usually have about 30 or 40 members in attendance.

I was fortunate to attend this year's holiday event and was intimidated when I saw the words "black tie" on the invitation. I've had my tuxedo for about 15 years, and I bought it used at a Bittner's sale. (I try not to think about how many proms it probably attended before I got it ... ) In truth, some folks did indeed wear tuxes, but only those people who seemed very natural in a real bow tie. I was quite at home in my dark "marryin' and buryin' suit," and most of the crowd was dressed like I was.

I was struck by how friendly and welcoming the group was, especially considering that it is in essence a closed club with a fairly elaborate application and referral process when spaces come open. Any preconceived notions were removed when I got to witness the super-secret initiation process, where a very diverse group of young and old members were sworn into the group with a flourish of unintelligible French and then "knighted" on each shoulder with a sautee pan.

If I'd done my research in advance, I'd have seen that the actual bylaws of the original Les Amis d'Escoffier Society as established in 1936 fairly demand a degree of casual formality or formal casualness:

The aim of the club, as stated in the original announcement, is "to bring together members of the culinary profession and loyal friends who appreciate good food and good wines; men who believe in the adage "Live and let Live"; men who place sincere friendship above all else. The membership shall be limited to one hundred.

"The Friends of Escoffier" will have no administrative officers. There will be no dictatorial influence to impose its will in the selection of members, of gathering places, of wines or of menus. No president, no treasurer, no secretary.

The holiday meal was prepared by chef Tyler Brown of the Hermitage Hotel with his friends chef Hal Holden-Bache of Lockeland Table and chef Joseph Lenn from Blackberry Farm. The five courses were each inventive and delicious, and they were paired with some exotic global wines I'd never even heard of, much less experienced. The flavors were expertly matched by the event planners who really knew their stuff. Who knew that a Premier Cru Chablis paired so nicely with trout? Heck, I don't think I had even had a Premier Cru Chablis before.

The biggest surprise was that the entire dinner was very reasonably priced. Since I was invited as a non-member, I won't specifically share what I paid for my two spots at the table, but it was much less than I have paid for similar upscale dinners in town, plus I couldn't begin to value the rare wines. Escoffier members pay a nominal yearly fee to cover some overhead, and then they maintain the same sort of reasonable costs for their social events throughout the year.

So why do I even tell you about a dining society that you and I will probably never be a member of? Mainly because it feels good to know that outside of those of us who banter in the Bites comments about whether the chicken at a fast food joint is free range or if fake meatballs are a positive societal development, there are lots of other folks who really want to keep the idea of being a gourmet alive.

It would be easy to look askance at folks who dress up in tuxes and enjoy precious dishes of loin of rabbit accompanied by wines that have spent decades in repose in French oak. WIthout a deeper understanding, the immediate reaction would be that these people might be snobby, but that certainly wasn't the case in my experience.

The same way that secret supper clubs gather around East Nashville tables to share exotic foods, the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society meets to appreciate great food and wine. If those same East Nashvillians head off to the Ryman in their skinny jeans to watch Old Crow, would they have any problem with the black-tie Escoffiers entering the Schermerhorn for a symphony concert? I think not.

Food is a great equalizer where all are welcome around the communal table, but if small groups choose to dine on Smoked Moulard Duck instead of Otaku South's tonkatsu ramen, I say more power to them. I'm glad that there are multigenerational Escoffier aficionados to keep Auguste Escoffier's legacy alive.

Bon appétit, mes amis!

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