Long before the Food Network or even television’s start, long before our cult of celebrity, a certain French chef attained such fame that he became a culinary star concocting meals for socialites and royals.
Georges Auguste Escoffier literally wrote the book that standardized contemporary cooking, commercial kitchen organization and fine dining. Still studied today in culinary circles, Escoffier would be a household name in this media-driven era of celebrity chefs. Omahan Marty Skomal pays homage to Escoffier in a one-man portrayal he;s performing Nov. 16 at Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.
Skomal, Nebraska Arts Council arts administrator and director of programs, is a trained actor, lifelong foodie, amateur gourmet and certified Francophile. He enjoys combining his passions in his show, Escoffier: Master of the Kitchen. The actor’s life partner, Barbee Davis, a veteran stage director and Equity actor, directs. She also adapted a script about Escoffier by Owen S. Rackleff that Skomal acquired more than a decade ago and that he began toying with.
Fittingly, the couple first mounted the show at Omaha French restaurant Le Voltaire at the invitation of owner-chef Cedric Fichepain. They later produced it for the Omaha French society, Aliiance Francaise. it was only natural for Fichepain to suggest a performance at the Institute since he’s an instructor there.
Skomal’s Metro show will accompany an Escoffier-inspired brunch prepared by ICA students. Metro theater students and staff will also have a hand in things.
The 10:30 a.m. to 12:50 p.m. program will be in the ICA building’s Swanson Conference Center. Skomal’s performance starts at Noon. Prior to the show guests will sample dishes freshly made before them by students at tasting stations, thus making this an educational and entrainment experience for everyone there.
The brunch menu reads like a French sampler:
Gratin of Poached Eggs
Roasted Pork Loin with Sauce Piquante
Charcuterie Board with cheese, preserves, and mustards
Compressed Fruit Salad
Bouchot Mussels with Saffron Dijon Broth
Bacon & Gruyere Quiche
Always the innovator, Escoffier espoused using fresh, local ingredients and simple preparations that anticipated today’s farm-to-table food culture, making him a relevant, influential figure three quarters of a century since his 1935 death.
Davis says the theater work she and Skomal created uses excerpts from the Rackleff script as well as new material to emphasize Escoffier’s profound impact on modern-day cooking. For example, Escoffier introduced the ala carte practice of individually plated dishes.
“There’s so many parts of how we eat today that tie specifically back to Escoffier.” she says.
The piece has an elderly Escoffier reflecting on his life’s fabulous culinary adventures.
“It’s sort of a Mark Twain Tonight, but with food,” says Skomal.
Historical figures and references abound, including Escoffier’s association with Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz. Researching the life and work of Escoffier gave Skomal a deep appreciation for the man.
“I thought Escoffier’s story was especially interesting because he was the one who through his partnership with Cesar Ritz rose the culinary arts to the level of an industry. He really devised the way restaurants are organized. The whole brigade de cuisine, with the sous chef, the saucier and the garde manger, is still with us.”
So is the chef’s masterwork, Le Guide Culinaire, still the bible for culinary arts students today, including those at Metro.
“He really kind of moved the whole restaurant industry and the whole idea of hospitality to the forefront and in the process he elevated the level of chefs, so it’s a fascinating story,” says Skomal. “He rubbed elbows with a lot of celebrities along the way.”
“I think he could be somewhat of a taskmaster. He had to be a very charming, gracious individual but he also had to run a business. He had a very close personal and business relationship with Ceasr Ritz, who was very volatile and kind of bi-polar. Escoffier had to be the one to kind of keep that in check.”
Skomal’s due diligence has included reading Escoffier biographies, studying French and making summer pilgrimages to Escoffier’s homeland of France, where a museum is dedicated to the chef.
The actor is faithful to Escoffier to the point of honing his French and affecting an accent, but there are some things beyond his control.
“Physically, Escoffier and I are very different. He was a very short man, I’m almost six-foot. He had a full head of hair, I don’t.”
He says because Escoffier’s image is not burned in people’s minds the way some real life figures are “I can take some liberties.”
Now that he’s realized a long-held desire to do a one-man show Skomal’s learned what a commitment it entails.
“I’ve enjoyed it but it’s a huge amount of work. It’s quite a challenge knowing you go out there and you’re the one that has to carry it.”
Davis says the project, which dovetails with her own interests in history, food and theater, “is something for Marty and I to do together. It’s been rewarding and fun.”
The limited seating event costs $36 and tickets can be ordered at www.mccneb.edu/bistro.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.