King of Chefs and Chef of Kings:
The Story and Impact of
Georges Auguste Escoffier
EMG Escoffier Notes
Even if you don’t know his name, the skills and methods of Georges Auguste Escoffier have impacted the kitchens of just about every restaurant in the West. His life was a complicated and sometimes dark one, but as the latest episode of the Eat My Globe podcast shows, his legacy lives on.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
King of Chefs and Chef of Kings: The Story and Impact of Georges Auguste Escoffier
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Ooops. Sorry. Slap, slap, slap. Messy. Slap, slap, slap. Played by accident. Food by juggling.
I’ll do this again. Hmmm…
Where… Anyway. Right. Where are we?
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to another episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s episode, we are going to be talking about a person. A person whose food might now be considered rather unfashionable, but a person whose impact on the way we eat today cannot possibly be denied. He is a person who is often credited with being the first celebrity chef – although I am going to argue a bit about that. A person whose way of organizing the professional kitchen is still pretty much adhered to today. And a man whose menus appeared in fine dining restaurants and on the grand early ocean liners, including the ill-fated RMS Titanic – now two episodes about Dining on the Titanic in season one; if you haven’t listened to the eps, shame on you, go back and listen to them [ed note: Titanic Part 1; Titanic Part 2] – and a man whose very name sums up the essence of the finest of fine dining.
That’s right, folks. Today, we are going to be talking about the one and only, Georges Auguste Escoffier.
Georges August Escoffier was born on the 28th of October 1846, in the small French village of Villeneuve–Loubet, about 15 kilometers from the city of Nice. And during his nearly ninety years on earth – he died on the 12th of February 1935 – he lived a life that took him from being a prisoner of war during the Franco–Prussian War, to becoming the most celebrated chef not only of his generation, but perhaps of any generation, and one who totally redefined the way that we – in the West, at least – prepare and serve our food in a restaurant setting. He also authored many books, which have remained essential reading and created dishes that definitely deserve to make a comeback to the current dining menu, many named after royalty and his celebrity customers.
In this episode of Eat My Globe, we shall be taking a look not only at Escoffier’s colorful life, but also at the way his life’s work impacts the modern culinary world.
As I said in the introduction, there are those who believe that Escoffier was the first true celebrity chef. Now, I would question that. For me the title of the first celebrity chef – for whatever that is worth – has two other possible claimants.
The first is a gentleman by the name of Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême is a genuine culinary hero in his own right, and probably worthy of his own episode in this podcast series. However, as we don’t have much time here, let’s just give a brief overview to the life of this remarkable man. Carême was born in 1784, and during his all too short life – he died before turning 49 – he became one of the greatest chefs in all French history. He was not only a hugely successful pâtissier in his own right, but also later became chef to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord – try saying that after a couple of glasses of brandy – the famous French diplomat. He baked a wedding cake for Napoleon and his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, and also cooked for the Prince Regent George IV in England and Tsar Alexander I in Russia. And, along the way he found time to write a number of highly successful and influential cookbooks, which helped create the “Grand Cuisine” or the “Haute Cuisine” of France. And, as if that was not enough to cement his reputation as one of the all-time greats of culinary history, he is also credited with an absolutely key element that impacts every chef today.
He was the chef who began the systemization of French cuisine, which was at that point taught to junior chefs by a process of patronage, mimicking and repeating. In his books, Carême began to organize and classify French cuisine in a way that could be followed from the basics to creating a complete feast. Carême created the four sauces that we now know as the “mother” sauces – velouté, béchamel, espagnole and allemande – the very basics of much of French cooking. We will talk about these in more detail later, as while it was Carême who may have created these, it was really the subject of this podcast – Escoffier – who codified them and completed this systemization of French cuisine.
As I mentioned before, Carême died at the young age of 49 as a result of a pulmonary disease caused by a lifetime working in the airless, charcoal smoke-filled kitchens. However, by the time he passed away, he had created the beginnings of a system in which other chefs, and particularly Escoffier, were to flourish. And, if you really want to know more about Marie-Antoine Carême, I can heartily recommend a book called, “Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême – The First Celebrity Chef” by Ian Kelly. The link will be in the annotated transcript.
But, before we turn our attention fully to Escoffier, I do also want to give a brief mention to one other claimant to the title of “first celebrity chef.” Alexis Benoît Soyer, who lived from 1810 to 1858, might be somewhat of a forgotten culinary soul now, but in his equally short life, he achieved massive fame and even became a figure of popular mirth because of his habit of wearing a flamboyant red beret. I’m actually thinking of buying a beret for myself. I think I’m rather suited for it. Anyway. Enough of that.
After a successful, but arguably unremarkable culinary career until about 1829, when, during the French Revolution, while cooking for his employer in the Foreign Office, an unruly Parisian mob burst into his kitchen and shot two of his fellow cooks. Soyer saved himself by singing a rousing version of “La Marseillaise” and “La Parisienne,” and was carried shoulder high into the streets. Despite that, Soyer still thought it was best to escape the uncertainty of his homeland and headed to England where, by 1837, he had become the head chef at the famous Reform Club in London where he even cooked breakfast for Queen Victoria on her coronation day. Hmmm, I wonder if Soyer made a cameo in that BBC and PBS Masterpiece Show called, “Victoria,” that’s the one my wife loves to watch… Anyway.
Anyway, it was in the design of the kitchens for this establishment that he began to achieve real fame, both by being the first to install gas as a source of heat for cooking and by creating ovens that were temperature variable. He also began to develop his own celebrity fan club, including author William Makepeace Thackeray, who was known to skip social events to go and eat Soyer’s food.
Soyer built up his celebrity persona by way of his eccentric dress, by creating branded merchandise, and by publishing hugely successful cookbooks, including one called, “Charitable Cookery,” which he sold for sixpence with all the proceeds going to charitable works. By 1867, one of his cookbooks had sold nearly 250,000 copies, which is a lot more than any of my books have sold. So go out and seek them out. [Chuckles] Help me out there. Acts like this made Soyer immensely popular.
He also supported other causes. Around 1846 to 1847, he set up a kitchen feeding thousands of people during the Irish Potato Famine. And, concerned about the nutrition being given to British soldiers during the Crimean War, he travelled at his own expense to offer advice to military chefs.
During his time there, he worked with the famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, who said of him,
“Others have studied cookery for the purposes of gormandizing, some for show, but none but he for the purpose of cooking large quantities of food in the most nutritious and economical manner for great numbers of men. He has no successor.”
His trip to the Crimea however was his undoing. He contracted an infection on his travels which he was never able to shake off and died on the 5th of August 1858 at the young age of 48.
OK. OK. I hear you. I know that this is supposed to be a podcast episode about Escoffier. I hope you will forgive me, however, for heading off on these couple of tangents. In part, I think it’s fun because both Carême and Soyer are fascinating people, but also because I believe that their stories are really the building blocks for the culinary world in which Escoffier flourished. Without them, while I am sure he still would have been successful, I am also certain he would have had to struggle much more for that success.
So anyway, back to our main story.
While Georges Auguste Escoffier was to build an enormous reputation, physically, he was not a man of great stature. And, in later years, he had to have a style of platform shoes made so he could actually reach the stove. Perhaps, because of this, he was not considered suitable to follow into his father’s profession as a blacksmith and a tobacco grower. Instead, in 1859, at the age of 13, his father sent the young Escoffier to Nice, where his uncle had established Le Restaurant Français three years before. In 1864, he left his uncle’s restaurant when he found a job at another restaurant as chef de cuisine despite his young age. In 1865, Escoffier was poached – see what I did there? – to work in Paris at the highly successful Restaurant du Petit Moulin Rouge until he was called into military service at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
He was appointed chef de cuisine for the section headed by one Colonel d’Andlau. However, when the Prussians defeated the French, he became a prisoner of war where he would continue to cook for French military generals who were also prisoners of war.
The war had a profound impact on Escoffier for many reasons. The first being a developing interest in the methods of canning and preserving. I have discussed the development of this method in quite some detail in a previous episode of Eat My Globe – on the History of SPAM® in season one – and it is worth noting that it was the French, particularly, a gentleman named Nicolas Appert, who really began to develop these techniques in the early 1800s for the benefit of supplying the troops of Napoleon. Escoffier also had a keen interest in food science and was just as dedicated to developing this technique further and began working on more advanced ways of preserving meats, fruits and vegetables, including a method of preserving tomato sauce in bottles.
As well as developing new methods of preserving food, Escoffier’s exposure to the more rigid disciplines of military life began to help him formulate thoughts on how this might be of benefit in the professional kitchen, which were, to that point, rather rough affairs whose employees were known for their foul language and lack of cleanliness. We shall discuss this in more detail when we come to speak on the impact of the “brigade” system on the modern kitchen.
Following his military service, Escoffier undertook many senior kitchen positions, and even opened his own restaurant, Le Faisan Doré – or The Golden Pheasant, in English – in Cannes, which operated for a brief two-year period. Wouldn’t you have loved to have eaten there? Oh. I know I would.
And in 1880, he married poet, Delphine Daffis, the daughter of a publisher. Before their third child was born, they separated. And their separation lasted for many years. As fate would have it, Delphine and Escoffier reunited later on and he passed away just a few days after she did.
The most significant move of this early part of his career came in 1884 when Escoffier and his family moved to the famous casino city of Monte Carlo, Monaco. He spent the next six years of his career dividing his time between the Grand Hotel in Monaco during the winter and the Hotel National in the Swiss city of Lucerne during the summer. It was during that period that Escoffier made perhaps the most important professional association of his entire career, when he became connected with the hotelier, César Ritz. And yes, when you refer to something “luxurious” as “ritzy,” which is the very opposite of me if you’ve ever seen pictures of me, that’s because of César Ritz.
César Ritz, who lived from 1850 to 1918, is perhaps best known for founding the Parisian hotel that still bears his name. He learned his trade in hotel management in Paris, at hotels such as the Hotel Splendide, where he was able to connect with wealthy celebrities and clients who came from London and the United States. From 1877 to 1887, Ritz moved to manage both the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, Monaco and the Hotel National in Lucerne Switzerland, and it’s here where he and Escoffier first encountered each other.
In 1887, they opened their own restaurant together in Baden-Baden. It was after a visit by British impresario, Richard D’Oyly Carte, who’s most famous for producing the musical theatre of Gilbert and Sullivan, that D’Oyly Carte invited Ritz to manage the newly opened Savoy Hotel in London. Ritz invited Escoffier to join him and in 1890, together, they helped make the hotel an enormous hit. Particularly, the Savoy attracted royalty – for example, the Prince of Wales was a regular diner, and Escoffier caused a sensation when he created a dish in his honor called, and pardon my schoolboy French, “Cuisses de Nymphe Aurore” or Thighs of the Dawn Nymphs, a dish of frogs legs. It also attracted many celebrities of the day – after whom, as we shall see later, he also had a particular penchant for naming dishes. It also attracted American heiresses and the newly rich. And, it attracted women diners, who, at the time, usually entertained guests in their home and did not usually eat out in restaurants.
While Ritz brought with him new ideas to help elevate the world of luxury hotels, so too did Escoffier begin to change both the way the kitchen worked and the way that food was served. They were changes that still have a lasting impact for everyone in the restaurant scene today.
In the kitchen itself, Escoffier knew that kitchens were often deeply unpleasant places to work, and that long periods in the airless rooms, dank with coal or wood smoke were potentially life threatening – as we have seen in the short life span of Marie-Antoine Carême. Add that to the fact that hydration often came in the form of wine, and you can understand why Escoffier was not keen to replicate this often dangerous style of workplace at the Savoy. Instead, Escoffier’s kitchens were hygienic and quiet places, where he gave his staff a malt brew to hydrate themselves and where he battled to make sure that each one of them received pensions and benefits.
As part of this change in the kitchen, Escoffier also introduced a system that was very heavily influenced by his time in the military. Realizing that the then-current systems in kitchens – where a single chef might prepare one dish from start to finish – resulted in too much repetition and a slowness of service that would not be suitable for the high-speed needs of an hotel kitchen. Instead, Escoffier created “La Brigade de Cuisine” or Kitchen Brigade, a regimented and hierarchical system that promotes order in the kitchen by having each person assigned to a particular task and reporting directly to the person above them. It’s a system that still holds sway today and enabled him to create an almost assembly line approach to food that helped to speed up the preparation of each dish.
In a modern kitchen, the size of the brigade will vary depending on the size and needs of the restaurant. At the top will be the Executive Chef. This tends to be a more managerial position and is the sort of role you might see undertaken by today’s celebrity chefs who own a number of outlets but are rarely behind the stove. I should note, back in Escoffier’s time, the term “Executive Chef” was not in use, and the cooks in his kitchen referred to Escoffier as “Kitchen Director.”
Back to the modern iteration of Escoffier’s Brigade System, reporting to the highest position in the working kitchen would be the Chef de Cuisine, also known as the Head Chef. This position involves the day to day management of the staff, purchasing, cost control and liaising with the front of house about menus.
The Chef de Cuisine is supported by the Sous Chef, whose function is much more involved in the day-to-day operations of the kitchen. The Sous Chef would step in if the Chef de Cuisine is unavailable.
Below the Sous Chef come the real hardcore members of the kitchen crew, the Chefs or Chef de Partie. Each one is responsible for a different area of the kitchen, and responsible for the preparations for a different part of the menu. There are a number of these roles, which all bear the names that they were given in the time of Escoffier. These include: Sauté Chef/Saucier or the Sauce Chef; Boucher or Butcher; Poissonnier or Fish Chef; Friturier or Fry Chef; Grillardin or Grill Chef; Garde Manger or Pantry Chef; and Pâtissier or Pastry Chef. With the modern-day trend of opening more casual restaurants, not all of these roles would be needed in every kitchen, and many of them now would be combined. However, there can be no doubt that Escoffier’s system is still very much the model on which Western kitchens are based.
If Escoffier strove to help his staff, he also had a strong desire to make dining easier for his customers. He believed that the Grande Cuisine that had represented French cuisine since the time of Carême was far too excessive, and while many of his recipes might not seem it in the what I sometimes call the “bish bash bosh” world of modern cuisine, his dishes were considerably less ornate and his attempts to simplify dining by concentrating on the key ingredients were much appreciated by his customers.
As part of his desire to simplify French cuisine and to create consistency amongst chefs, Escoffier returned to finish and supplement the work of Marie-Antoine Carême in the classification of the key basic sauces of French cuisine from which all other sauces can be derived. As I mentioned before, Carême had been the first to organize the French sauces in to four groups – velouté, béchamel, espagnole and allemande. And, in 1903, in his book, “Le Guide Culinaire,” Escoffier took this a stage further. He removed Sauce Allemande, believing it to be simply a version of the velouté, and supplemented the list with two other sauces to complete the list that is now taught to every “want to be” chef who trains at any culinary school under a French umbrella. Those five sauces are:
Béchamel – A white sauce based on a milk and a roux, which is a combination of fat and flour.
Velouté – A lighter sauce based on roux and a light stock.
Espagnole – A basic brown sauce made of veal or beef stock, tomato puree and a “mirepoix,” which is a rough dice of celery, carrots and onions, and thickened with a dark roux.
Sauce Tomate – Fresh tomato sauce simmered with vegetables, pork and also thickened with a roux.
And, Hollandaise – An emulsion of egg yolks and melted butter.
Now while these sauces may have become increasingly unfashionable since Escoffier’s death, particularly with the rise of cuisines from Asia and the Mediterranean, they still remain a terrific discipline to learn and provide wonderful building blocks for fine dining meals.
During his time at the Savoy, the Carlton Hotel and later at the Ritz in Paris, Escoffier created thousands of dishes. To build up his clientele, he named many of them after famous figures from history, celebrities of the day, or as we have shown above with the dish created for the Prince of Wales, members of the royal family. Perhaps some of the most famous of these include:
Cherries Jubilee – A dish that involves the cooking of cherries in a sugar syrup and then flambeeing them at the table in cherry or plain brandy. Apparently, Escoffier possibly created this dish to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Like so many of Escoffier’s recipes, it’s one that has fallen out of fashion, I think often because of the shoddy versions of it served in the 1960s and 1970s. However, I think that, at its best, it is a perfect and indulgent way to end a meal.
He also created not one but four dishes named after the legendary opera diva, Dame Nellie Melba. She reigned over the London opera scene at the end of the 19th Century. I think two of them, Melba Sauce – which is raspberries and red currants puree – and Melba Garniture – chicken and truffles in a rich white sauce stuffed in a tomato – have quite rightly been consigned to fine dining in the sky. However, two others still make an occasional appearance on modern menus.
Melba Toast – is a crisp and dry thinly sliced toast, which the great Jacques Pepin – who I had the great pleasure of meeting recently and just as wonderful in person as you would imagine – in his book, “Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food,” has suggested to serve with Chicken Liver Mousse or cheeses or smoked mussels. Mmmm.
And Peach Melba – originally, a dish that consisted of poached peaches on vanilla ice cream and topped with spun sugar and an ice swan – yes, an iced swan! Not an iced swan, that’s totally different. That would be freezing a swan. A swan made of ice! Not an iced swan. Let me do that again. And Peach Melba. An iced swan would literally be putting a swan into the freezer and putting it on top of peaches. [chuckles] That would rather be silly. And Peach Melba – originally, a dish that consisted of poached peaches on vanilla ice cream topped with spun sugar and a swan made of ice. Thankfully, Escoffier got rid of the ice swan as that was probably a bit too much.
However, while Escoffier and Ritz’s tenure at the Savoy was seen by the public to be a huge success, behind the scenes, things were not quite as rosy.
Much of this darker story has been kept under wraps, perhaps because of the desire of the Savoy to avoid scandal at the time, particularly when their establishment attracted so many well-known customers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, food & wine writer, Paul Levy, claim to have discovered documents that showed a darker side to the character of these two fabulous men.
According to Levy, Ritz and Escoffier had plans to open their own establishment and soon began charging the Savoy Hotel for food and drink used during their business negotiations to open what was to become the Carlton Hotel. On top of which, the board of the Savoy Hotel found Escoffier to have received considerable amounts of “kickbacks” from potential suppliers to the hotel kitchen. The board first became suspicious in 1895 when, although overall receipts rose, profits from the kitchen declined. And, in 1897, the kitchen actually made a loss. The sums involved were not small, adding up to an amount that would have been close to $3 million today. After taking advice from the Right Honorable Edward Carson, the leading lawyer of the day, Ritz, Escoffier, and Head Waiter Mr. Echenard and one other were dismissed on the 28th of February 1898 in a terse note that read,
“By a resolution passed this morning you have been dismissed from the service of the Hotel for, among other serious reasons, gross negligence and breaches of duty and mismanagement. I am also directed to request that you will be good enough to leave the Hotel at once.”
The sacked employees tried to launch a countersuit for wrongful dismissal. But in documents which Levy obtained, they eventually confessed in writing.
Eventually, all of those involved agreed to repay at least some of the money that had been taken in cash and goods from the Savoy Hotel, including,
"astounding disappearance of over £3,400 of wine and spirits in the first six months of 1897."
I call that Christmas.
Anyway, Escoffier came out of this debacle relatively unscathed as he ended up paying back only £500 of the money he was accused of stealing. And, as I mentioned before, to avoid scandal, the sacking of these men remained undisclosed for nearly another eighty years.
Released from the Savoy, Ritz and Escoffier went on to complete their plans to open new hotels under their own management. The famous Hotel Ritz opened in Paris in 1898 and immediately began to redefine luxurious hotel accommodation with electric lighting, plumbing and ensuite bathrooms.
In 1898, Ritz also opened the Carlton Hotel in London – the building is now New Zealand House – and Escoffier returned to work there until he retired in 1920. Many of his loyal clientele from the Savoy Hotel came to support him there.
It was at the Carlton Hotel that he really brought his vision for the modern kitchen to fruition. He employed 60 chefs in the expansive hotel kitchens. And here is an interesting fact for you to bore people with at dinner parties. I know you love those. One of the 60 chefs included an up and comer named, Van Ba, who started off as part of the cleaning team and later moved up to the pastry team. Van Ba is now better known as Ho Chi Minh, and would later become the leader of Vietnam. There you go. Fascinating stuff. If you learn nothing else, take that away with you. [chuckles] Ho Chi Minh worked for Escoffier.
Back to our story, Escoffier used those 60 chefs as part of his “brigade” system, which allowed him to feed up to 500 diners during a busy service. It was also at the Carlton Hotel, that Escoffier promoted the use of the “a la carte” menu. In French, this literally means “from the card,” and was a way of offering food to the diner by listing each dish on the menu alongside its price and allowing the diner to choose as they wish. Escoffier’s brigade system allowed for this to be possible, whereas the old, more chaotic system meant that most restaurants were only able to offer a system called, “Table d’hôte” or “the host’s table” where a pre-selected range of dishes was offered to the customer for a fixed price.
It was also during this period that Escoffier began to work on one of his other great legacies to the culinary world. In 1903, he published his ground-breaking book, “Le Guide Culinaire” – in English, a Guide to Modern Cookery – which contained thousands of recipes and a glossary of culinary terms. It was a huge success. It is still often referred to as a standard textbook and led to a continued writing career that included later classics such as “Ma Cuisine” published in 1934 shortly before his death.
Escoffier’s fame continued to grow. In 1913, while creating menus with the Ritz Hotel for the German ocean liner “SS Imperator,” he had the opportunity to meet Kaiser the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was so impressed with his efforts that he declared,
“I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of chefs.”
In 1920, Escoffier was the first chef to be granted the “Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur” – or the Knight of the Legion of Honour – a hugely prestigious award created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, which the French government awards to those who have made extraordinary achievements in time of peace and have shown extraordinary bravery during wartime, and who will uphold the French values of liberté and égalité – or liberty and equality, in English. Subsequently, the French government has bestowed the Honour on American culinary luminaries, such as TV chef Julia Child in 2000, Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters in 2010, French Laundry chef Thomas Keller in 2011, and most recently, the International Culinary Center CEO, Dorothy Hamilton in 2015.
Escoffier retired in 1920 and returned to Monte Carlo in Monaco. And, although he did get involved in the development of other hotels over the next few years, his career wound down until he passed away at the age of 88 in 1935, a few days after the death of his wife Delphine Daffis.
That may have brought to an end the life of one of culinary history’s truly great characters, but his ongoing legacy continues to impact anyone who makes their living or wants to in a fine dining kitchen. It was a life that was not without its dark side, which involved a long separation from his wife, and, of course being dismissed by the Savoy Hotel along with César Ritz, as those recently discovered papers by Paul Levy show. However, it was also a life that was dedicated to bringing together almost two hundred years of previous French cooking into a systematized form that could be repeated consistently, to improving the efficiency and well-being of chefs everywhere, and to providing luxury for his dedicated clientele.
And, while in the modern culinary world we might have those who have a more brash profile or a more innovative approach, for those reasons alone, I don’t think we will ever see the like of his character again.
And for that, I think we should say, merci, indeed, Georges Auguste Escoffier.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at w w w dot Eat My Globe dot com, where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar. We’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the UCLA Department of History and Nicole Gilhuis for their notes on this episode. An also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
That’s a fun episode.
Published Date: May 27, 2019
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.