Les Amis d’Escoffier may be Honolulu’s most exclusive dining club.
With a kick-off toast of Lassalle Champagne last Oct. 26 at Halekulani’s Le Mer, an elegant dinner marked the latest gathering of what might be Honolulu’s most exclusive – and gourmet – eating club: Les Amis d’Escoffier of Hawaii.
An offshoot of an international club devoted to honoring the famed father of French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, the roving event – which meets for dinner twice a year – is strictly invite-only to a select set of male professional members from the food and beverage industry, with just a few exceptions for food-savvy guests. “We celebrate good wine, good food and good friendship,” says member Jean-Pierre Germain, about the get-togethers.
While food-focused, the group, which has met for more than 20 years, has a lengthy set of rules governing everything from dress-code to decorum. First, to get membership to the exclusive club, which currently hovers around 36 to 38 members, a current member must recommend you to a committee. There are a very limited number of slots allocated for non-food professionals, who Germain says, “must be knowledgeable,” about food and wine. And at this time, there are no women allowed, except at a brunch event, held annually, in which members can bring a guest.
At the events, there’s no talking about politics, religion or work-related topics. Everyone must wear a tuxedo and the group’s medallion. No one is allowed to have substitutions for allergies or dislikes (“You eat what you’re served,” says Germain). No salt, pepper, rolls or butter will be served at the table to keep the focus on the food as prepared. There are no speeches, except, perhaps, to honor members who have passed away. And if you get soused – or break any other rules of decorum – expect to be politely uninvited from future gatherings of the group. “We’re not a democracy,” Germain says with a laugh. “You do what the board says.”
But beyond the list of rules, Vikram Garg, the former executive chef of the Halekulani and longtime Les Amis member, says the group’s philosophy is grounded in a very simple principle: to honor Escoffier with menus that are “100-percent, classic French.” Garg says Les Amis exists to “celebrate that legacy, thanking the pioneer of French cuisine.”
Though the group meets at a variety of restaurants, including La Mer, Le Bistro and The Pacific Club, the theme is always an homage to the classic French meal as espoused by Escoffier, who published Le Guide Culinaire in 1903 – a towering reference work which is still used today. To the modern American diner, that might mean some funny quirks, such as the salad course coming after the entre?e. “It’s the real way,” says Garg, who trained in classic French and Southeast Asian cuisine on his path to become a chef.
The menu for this event had been planned months in advance, with La Mer chef Alexandre Trancher in dialogue with Germain about seasonal ingredients and pacing. And even though the wine component of the dinner is crucial, says Germain, “the food comes first, then we try to find the wine.” Once the menu is set, he, along with a select group, including Garg, sit down and try multiple wines to come up with the best match.
For this dinner, that meant some top-notch choices, including a Domaine du Vieux Te?le?graphe Cha?teauneuf-du-Pape Te?le?gramme 2014 to go with a foie gras dish and a Domaine Arnaud Ente Meursault Clos des Ambres 2013 to go with a lobster dish.
And Germain says the wine match is so important, even if guests don’t finish their wine with the corresponding dish, it is still cleared for the next pairing, so as to not overwhelm or distract from the dish and wine at hand. While it may seem like a lot of rules for a dinner, Germain says all the order helps keep the focus on the food so the atmosphere can be convivial, and the guests have good camaraderie; “we want to keep people in the industry aware of Escoffier’s legacy.”