by Nancy Armitage
As defined, by the fabulous Gilded Age chef, George Auguste Escoffier, foods at a fancy multi-course dinner could have been served in one of 2 ways: “Service a ‘la Francaise” or “Service a’ la Russe”:
“Service a’ la Francaise” (Buffet Style)A French phrase that means serving all the dishes at once. It was a grand way to present a feast but not very practical. Think of the movie, “Marie Antoinette” (Coppola) when all the food courses came to the table all together. Presented by Butlers & Fancy Footmen on grand silver trays. All the food was hot; if all the courses are giving to the guests all at same time, the food would have gotten cold. At Gilded Age Balls, like NYC Delmonico’s & grand Hotels would serve food on a large buffet table, many courses at once. But serving finger foods that would last like jellied pate, ham and cheeses and so on. Guests could come to the buffet table when they wanted to eat. In today’s terms, “Buffet style”.
“Service a’ la Russe” (one course at a time) A French phrase for serving each dinner course one at a time in the order printed in the fancy dinner menu.
The French royal courts invented the grand, Service a’ la Francaise, a style of serving the dinner meal to one’s guests. Show-stopping dishes showcasing each & everyone of the courses, all at once. In the times of Napoleon & the Kings of France, it was very flamboyant to have all the kitchen chefs come out to the Royal Dining Room. Each French chef, holding a very impressive decorative dish, & dazzling the King’s guests. But this way of dramatic presentations was very difficult, time consuming, & not practical for the chefs in the kitchen. A hostess also needed a very large staff to orchestrate this way of dining.
Escoffier was a maverick in the French culinary world. He took the famous Careme complicated recipes for sauces & simplified them. He also was the single person that changed restaurant history by changing the way chefs & cooks served & presented the meal: from complicated Service a’ la Francaise (all dishes served at once) to Service a’ la Russe (serving each dish in order of the “Bill of Faire” or menu). There were exceptions like Fancy Dress Balls, common in the Gilded Age, were served in the Service a’ la Francaise style or Buffet style. Food would be Duck Pate & Venison Pate with crackers, Assorted French cheeses, Assorted Fruits & dried fruits & nuts, & Chicken Salad. Sweets like Royal Pudding, Petit Fours (small iced cakes), & Fancy Cakes.
The words, Service a’ la Russe is a French term, meaning “service in the Russian style”, courses served one at a time. A Russian King introduced this method to the French Kings. This dramatic change made hosting dinner parties & going out to dinner an elegant affaire. Each morsel of tantalizing food was made to savor & be enjoyed with a marvelous sip of wine or French champagne. They called each guest dinner plate, ” a cover” neatly placed on a fancy Charger Plate. These where placed on the Dining Room table with fancy damask fabric napkin. Each cover included numerous plates of fine bone china/porcelain, including butter plate, poultry plate, salad plate, fish plate, entrée or dinner plate, dessert salad, cheese plate with soup bowl, too. Glasses & goblets of fine crystal ware for claret Victorian red wine like Claret or Burgundy & white white like Chablis, champagne, sherry, & water glasses provided. Also, various silver flatware provided such as fish forks, entrée fork, seafood fork, fish knife & entrée knife also a butter knife, pudding spoon & soup spoon & many more. Some tables also graced each guest with a place card with their name & individual small silver salt cellars & pepper shakers & a finger bowl (to wash one’s hands if needed).
“French Sauce” (Sauce a’ la Francaise) (1916)
This flavorful sauce was usually served with chicken but could enhance fish or vegetables, too. It was found in the grand cookbook: Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer in 1916.
1 pt. bechamel sauce
2 gills mushroom essence
season with mignonette [shallots & champagne vinegar]
small crushed garlic cloves
1 T. meat glaze
4 oz. crawfish butter
1 t. vingear
Escoffier by the 1880’s, was the most famous chef in Europe. He worked in the Grand Hotel & the Hotel National. By 1890, he took over Savoy Hotel in London. In 1898, Escoffier & Cesar Ritz opened the famous Hotel Ritz in Paris. In those days, The Ritz Paris was quite fashionable to enjoy their elaborate “Five O’clock Tea” receptions in the afternoon evening. It is said that Escoffier was responsible for changing the time of this tradition of “Five O’clock Tea”. Women would arrive at Dinner at the Paris Ritz at 7 o’clock at Escoffier fancy restaurant; they wouldn’t eat their dinner. The ladies had just taken tea at 5 o’clock. So, “5 O’Clock Tea” changed to “Afternoon tea” at 3-4 pm. It was recorded that Mrs. Arabella Huntington’s residence was the Ritz Hotel Paris in 1900, 1901, & 1902. In the year 1900-1902, it was found on one of Mrs. Arabella Huntington’s Paris receipts; per exhibition “Belle of San Marino” at the Huntington Library, in San Marino.
The Huntington Library (formerly called San Marino Ranch) archives have a handful of these Huntington fancy dinner menus. These were from multi-course elaborate dinners in their various mansions. Some of the dinners had elaborate 12-16 dinner courses. Two of the menus are from Collis & Arabella Huntington’s Nob Hill mansion: 1897 & 1898. Another Huntington business banquet in 1900 was held at the Huntington Mansion at No. 2 E. 57th St. in New York City. All of these Huntington menus seem to be served: “Service a’ la Russe” (one course at a time as printed on the elaborate dinner menus). Other Huntington menus were found in the San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper & Mr. Huntington’s rare books.
At the Huntingtons different banquet dinners, they properly served the meal “Service a’ la Russe” style. This is a much more controlled way to entertain; for the hostess & the chef in the kitchen. Often in the Gilded Age, a society hostess would hire a French chef to cook an elegant meal. It was common for the Huntingtons to hire Delmonico’s Restaurant or the Palace Hotel to dazzle their guests. They would cater the annual Southern Pacific Company multi-course dinner usually in April or May every year. A hostess by having the dinner courses come out slowly & systematically, could also show off her pretty fine china/porcelain plateware. Service a’ la Russe wasn’t such a strain on the servant staff, either. The soup could be warmed up & be hot when arriving to the guest at the table. The rest of the formal dinner following along the same lines.
Annual Dinner Banquet for Southern Pacific Co. – (NYC & SF)
Dinner hosted by President Collis P. Huntington at his Nob Hill residence:
1020 California Street in San Francisco, CA
Event: May 5, 1897
Dinner Menu [served Service a la Russe]:
Huitres (Oysters), with Rudesheimer Wine,
Hor d’oeuvre [an “Amuse Bouche” – would have been a surprise from the chef],
Potage (Cream soup), and/ or Consomme Sevigne,
Bouchees a la Reine,
Poisson: Terrapin a la Newburg, served with Moet & Chandon Champagne,
Releve (Entree): Filet de Boeuf a la Richelieu with New Peas & Bermuda Potatoes,
Sorbet de Menthe Verte [Green Mint Sorbet ],
Roti [Roast]Golden Plover sur Canape,
Salade a la Waldorf,
Fromage [Cheese course]: Petaluma Cream & Roquefort Cheese served with Grand Vin Chateau LaFitte,
Entremets: Pudding Diplomate,
Neapolitan Ice Cream (festive ice cream in shapes of trains, etc),
Petits fours Assortis, Cafe [Coffee] 110 guests.
Book: World Fair menu Cookbook by Lehner, 1915- Rare Book at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA
The exception to this rule of serving formal courses was the Huntington’s infamous “At-Home” tea receptions”. Both at their NYC & San Francisco Mansions usually on Tuesdays. At- Home teas were in vogue in 1890-1910’s, they were for tea & a chat. Usually scheduled once a month, in the neighborhood of wealthy communities. This tradition started in France & was so popular the tradition came to America. These receptions included gentlemen, they were afternoon & evening affairs between 4 o’clock & 7 o’clock pm. These entertainments were served “Service a’ la Francaise”, all dishes all being served at the same time. Guests were invited into the Parlor, Drawing Room, or Reception Room of the residences of the hostess. People would drop in for a cup of tea, maybe a glass of champagne, & a chat. The Dining Room table would be a “Groaning Table” with the weight of all the food displayed on the table. The food served at a “At Home” varied: at first it was finger food & canapes served by the servant staff. In the Gilded Age, once this tradition came to America – it seems “At-homes” became much more elaborate. Hot dishes like Oyster a la Gratin & Lobster Newburg were included on “At-Home” tea menus. These fancy hot dishes were served in elaborate silver trays with silver leads; lit by the bottom with a candle to keep the food warm.
Book: Lehner, J.C., The World Fair & Menu Book, New York, Putman, 1915 (Banquet menu at C.P. Huntington Nob Hill Mansion, 1020 California St SF)
Rogov, Daniel, Rogues, Writers & Whores, Dining with the Rich and Infamous, England: The Toby Press, 2007
Exhibition: Bennett, Dr., “the Belle of San Marino”, Huntington Library, San Marino, 2006
HEH Coll. HEH MS Eph E39-60 uncat [Huntington Mansion menu Nob Hill, SF, May 7,1898]
HEH Coll. HEH Box 198 MS uncat [ Huntington family papers, May menu & table diagram at 1020 California Street SF, CA]
HEH Coll HEH MS 10968 [Caroline Huntington Journals 1890’s)
website: http://www.answers.com topic “Service-la-Russe” 2008
1900 Huntington mansion menu (found at Huntington Library, San Marino)