Culinary professionals vary pretty widely in their skills and experience, from novices practicing their knife skills in the prep kitchen to seasoned executive chefs designing dishes and entire menus. One of the most highly-skilled positions in many kitchens belongs to the saucier. Dishes often stand or fall on the quality of their sauces, and this is the saucier's specialty.
The Kitchen Hierarchy
For centuries, roles in the professional kitchen were largely undefined. That changed in the 19th century, when the legendary French chef Escoffier decided to modernize the process. He'd been an army cook during the catastrophic Franco-Prussian war, and seen the effects of poor organization at first hand. His inspiration was to organize the kitchen along pseudo-military lines, with a clear chain of command running from the executive chef to the sous-chefs, chefs de partie, and various apprentices and helpers. Pastry chefs, garde-manger chefs and sauciers all enjoyed special status within that structure, as cooks with unusually high levels of specialized skill.
There are relatively few modern hotels or restaurants using the classical brigade system, which is costly and labor-intensive by modern standards. However, some upscale restaurants and hotels retain the saucier's job title and duties. If you're looking for advancement in the kitchen, it's a good place to demonstrate your skills. You need to be familiar with the five classical sauce families and their variations, and the techniques used to prepare sauces ahead of time or "a la minute" — at the time of service. You also need to show the imagination and flexibility to create palate-pleasing new sauces, or variations on old ones, to complement your chef's dishes.
Most classical sauces start with veal, fish or chicken stock, and as saucier that's part of your responsibility. You might delegate other cooks to prepare it, but the quality of the end result is your responsibility. You'll usually reduce the stock to concentrate its flavors, then combine it with aromatic ingredients, and concentrated wine or vinegars. Some stocks are prepared ahead, thickened and spooned onto a dish at the end. Others you'll make in a pan, using the cooking juices from the entree, in just a few seconds. In either case, you have to hold the sauce and its ingredients at food-safe temperatures until they're needed.
In a kitchen without a separate soup cook, you might be asked to turn the rest of your stock into soups for the menu. You're also usually responsible for sauteing any dishes that require a last-minute, in-the-pan sauce. Sauciers are traditionally responsible for hot appetizers, which require an equal deftness with seasoning and sometimes include a sauce. A saucier is usually the most skilled and experienced cook in a kitchen after the executive and sous chefs, so you might be expected to supervise your colleagues when they're not available.
Historically most cooks have learned on the job, through formal or informal apprenticeships. That's still an option, though formal culinary schools are increasingly important. The advantage of formal education is that it provides a structured education in classical saucemaking, which you might not get in an apprenticeship scenario. Regardless of whether you learn in school or on the job, you'll have to advance through lower positions in the kitchen by demonstrating your skills, your work ethic and the quality of your palate. It helps to experiment on your own time with unfamiliar recipes, ingredients or flavor combinations.
- Professional Cooking; Wayne Gisslen
- On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; Sarah Labensky, et al.
- Culinary Schools.org: How to Become a Saucier
- Larousse Gastronomique; Prosper Montagne (ed.)
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.