The French Chef who fed the Irish Famine Victims
Copyright © 2005 Bruce Tober - All Rights Reserved
Not the first TV Chef
Had there been Television back then, it's been said that Alexis Benoît Soyer, arguably London's most famous 19th Century chef, would certainly have been its first celebrity chef.
Soyer wrote that, "In ancient times a cook, especially if a man, was looked upon as a distinguished member of society; while now he is, in the opinion of almost every one, a mere menial."
My, wouldn't he be surprised how the situation has once again reversed itself, with many chefs once again, becoming household names, celebrities. "If he were working today, Soyer would be a titan of television and the best-seller lists, disgustingly rich, on equal terms with models and footballers," as Lewis Jones wrote in The Daily Telegraph last year.
Helen Morris, in her 1938 biography of Soyer, Portrait of a Chef the Life of Alexis Soyer Sometime Chef to the Reform Club, described him as being "among the less eminent Victorians... a man who wrote a book which sold a quarter of a million copies and who was caricatured in one of Thackeray's novels; who figured more often in the pages of Punch than many a Cabinet minister; who was a dandy and a `card'; who saved the lives of thousands of soldiers and benefited hundreds of thousands . . . and who won the respect of Victorian England for his practical resourcefulness and powers of administration."
It's very likely no one did more to bring quality and healthy cooking to the British Middle Classes than Soyer. No better example of this than his 1861 book, A Shilling Cookery for the People, in which he produced recipes for "the People" who could neither afford the expensive cookery books of the time, let alone the ingredients or utensils needed to implement such recipes.
The French town know for its cheese and...
Meaux-en-Brie, now probably best know for its gorgeous Brie and wonderful mustard, was Soyer's birthplace in 1810. A bit of a tear-away as a youth, he was expelled from school at about 12 years old and went to work as chef's apprentice to his older brother at one of the first restaurants in Paris. While in Paris, he adopted an increasingly flamboyant style and couture.
Soyer did so well in Paris that by 1830 he was working for the Prince de Polignac, prime minister under King Charles X. But then came the revolution. At one point a mob burst into his kitchen, and Soyer saved himself from almost certain death by singing the "Marseillaise". He saw the writing on the wall at this point and soon crossed the Channel to England where initially he worked for the aristocracy in Shropshire and Surrey.
But his really big break came in 1837 when he was appointed chef de cuisine at The Reform Club, "The most influential of [London's] Liberal clubs". It had been founded just a year earlier by the Liberal members of the two Houses of Parliament, and is probably best known as the starting point for Phineas Fogg's journey around the world in 80 days. "The promoters of the Club intended that it should become famous, not only as a political centre, but also for its books, its comfort, and its cookery, and in all these directions their ambition has been amply realised," according to The Victorian Dictionary.
The Illustrated London News at the time, raved, "There is hardly a person of distinction who has not sought to visit that mansion of good things of the life terrestrial, and departed from it with a due impression of the sublimity of the art that is practised within its walls." And there was little more sublime in Soyer's art than the huge feasts he prepared.
One highlight of those feasts was his turtle soup (which incorporated "a good turtle weighing from 140lbs to 180lbs"). Such feasts brought Soyer the celebrity he apparently so desired. And that celebrity brought with it, as it does today, a ready-made place at the top of the best-seller lists for his several cookery books (having "left" school at 11 or 12 years old, he could scarcely write in French, let alone in English, and so his letters, cookbooks and memoirs were written with the assistance of amanuenses).
But celebrity was not his only goal in life.
He never forgot his impoverished childhood (his father was a failed grocer in Meaux-en-Brie) he developed a finely-tuned social consciousness. During his time at The Club, he designed and opened cutting-edge soup kitchens for the inhabitants of London's rookeries and also trained those who worked with London's poor to create thrifty yet tasty meals. In 1847 at the Lord Lieutenant's request, during the Irish famine, he did the same in Dublin, selling his meals at half-price.
The Reform Club position also enabled him to develop friendships with other celebrities of the era. William Makepeace Thackeray, for example, wrote about him in "Punch" and featured him as the flamboyant chef, "Alcide Mirobolant" in Pendennis in 1849. But his fame was getting bothersome to many members of The Club. They decided he was too posh for their tastes and so he left in 1850.
In 1851 he transformed "the Gore Hotel into a Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations, in effect a garish food themepark." A more prosaic description would be that it was London's first Parisian-type restaurant
The venture was, unfortunately, a dire disaster. Which is rather ironic considering that he'd been offered the chance to cater for the Great Exhibition, but turned it down in order to open the Universal Symposium directly across the road in Kensington Gore. And so Joseph Schweppe took up the Great Exhibition catering with what has been called great mediocrity, and yet he remains a household name.
Although the restaurant was a failure, fear not gentle reader, for by now he was, as are many of today's celebrity chefs, a very wealthy man. He translated a French history of food into English, calling it The Pantropheon, and it sold 400,000 copies in four years. Not too shabby in those days. He wrote five other books, including his autobiography.
His first, The Gastronomic Regenerator was probably the "sexiest" of them. It included recipes for the kinds of dishes he served in the Reform Club. The Regenerator's first printing of two thousand copies was a smash his, selling out in just two months, at two guineas a copy. (Don't ask, I haven't a clue what that equates to in modern money).
And then there was his Shilling Cookery for the People. It was intended to enable readers to manage "with rigid economy" by cooking with cheap cuts of meat. But was mostly intended to help them achieve a healthier diet by showing them how to make more tasty dishes from those cheaper foods.
In 1855, after the death of his restaurant, he read that many soldiers in the Crimea, were being issued with salt pork, but no means by which to cook it. This meant huge amounts of raw meat (hard enough to get in the first place) were rotting while soldiers were starving. And so the chef volunteered to help feed them properly.
Off to the Crimea
Before his reforms, Ann Arnold says in her children's biography of Soyer, The Adventurous Chef: Alexis Soyer, "meat was lashed tightly in bundles. The outer parts were boiled to shreds; the inner parts remained raw. After Soyer, the joints of meat hung separately so that they could cook evenly and be ready at the same time".
He had soon improved the kitchen operations of both the British Army and Florence Nightingale's hospital at Scutari with better, healthier, tastier, well-prepared meals. One of his reforms was to introduce dried "cakes" of vegetables to prevent scurvy. Another was the Soyer Stoves, which wood-burning field stove remained in commission until the 1940s.
Soyer in 1857
Soyer in 1857
But he never completely recovered from the fever he caught while work, and died in 1858, aged 48.