The First Celebrity Chef

3D front cover of Portrait of a Chef: The Life of Alexis Soyer by Helen Soutar MorrisIt appears that, in the UK at any rate, it’s no longer enough to be an excellent cook and have a well-regarded, or even Michelin-starred restaurant. What you need are (a) a television series, (b) a lucrative sideline involving books and/or artefacts  – your own (allegedly) design of pots, pans, and utensils, and (c) a nickname or other identifier: the Domestic Goddess, the Naked Chef, the One Who Swears, the Sexy (again allegedly) Baker, etc., etc.

Like so many aspects of celebrity, this is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, occasional names surface: ‘Apicius’ to whom a surviving Roman cookery book was attributed; Vatel, a chef at the time of Louis XIV, who, it is claimed, committed suicide because the fish wasn’t delivered in time for a banquet; Carême, the Parisian orphan who, in an extraordinary trajectory, became in succession chef to Talleyrand, Napoleon, the Prince Regent, Tsar Alexander I of Russia (though very briefly), and the Rothschild family; Ude, who moved from France to England, cooked for the nobility and for gentlemen’s clubs, and published a book on French cookery in 1813.

These modern chefs were usually French, and usually cooked, whether in England or France, for men. Traditionally, cooking in ‘normal’ homes, as opposed to those of the super-rich, was done by women – either the housewife herself or a female cook. Many of the earliest published cookery books were also written by women – Hannah Glasse, Maria Eliza Rundell, Christian Johnstone (alias Mistress Meg Dods, of St Ronan’s Well), the expatriates Mrs Steel and Mrs Gardiner, and of course Mrs Beeton.

But the first chef who became widely known outside the rarefied atmosphere of the great houses and London clubland was Alexis Soyer. Born near Paris in 1810, he was destined by his parents for the priesthood, but various juvenile scrapes and practical jokes made his unfitness clear, and he followed his elder brother into cookery, first in France and then in England. At the age of 27, he was appointed chef to the Reform Club, which had been founded the year before by a group of liberals and radicals to further their political agenda.

Soyer’s enthusiasm, energy and inventiveness rapidly gained the Reform Club a reputation for the best food in the country, and the kitchens, designed by Soyer himself, and using gas for cooking, were opened to the public for tours. A tireless self-promoter, well known (and caricatured in Punch) for his eccentric style of dress, he was also a superb organiser, and a wildly original cook, for whom the visual effect of his creations was almost as important as the taste.

We are reissuing three of Soyer’s own books, and two biographies, one published by his friends very soon after his early death, and incorporating his own writings, and the other – Portrait of a Chef, by Helen Soutar Morris – published by Cambridge University Press in 1938. This is a very readable résumé of his life, using his own works as a source, and concentrating especially on his remarkable activity during the Crimean War.

In 1846, Soyer published The Gastronomic Regenerator, an illustrated culinary textbook – complete with plans for different types of kitchen and nearly 2,000 recipes – written primarily for grander households with a large kitchen staff. He followed this up in 1849 with The Modern Housewife or Ménagère, dedicated to ‘The Fair Daughters of Albion’. Designed for more modest households, and ‘Comprising Nearly One Thousand Receipts for the Economic and Judicious Preparation of Every Meal of the Day’, it was organised around an exchange of letters between two ladies, Hortense and Eloise, in which the former explained to her admiring friend how she managed to feed her husband and children, and entertain her guests, on a restricted budget. (In later editions, a sort of soap opera developed, in which Hortense fell on hard times and eventually retired to a cottage, but continued to match her housekeeping to her varying circumstances.)

Soyer’s fame and organising ability were such that the government asked for his help in alleviating the disastrous effects of the Irish potato famine in 1847, and he devised a soup kitchen with which, installed in Dublin could feed 1000 people an hour; similar kitchens for poor relief were set up in London and elsewhere in England. In the mean time, he had resigned from the Reform Club, and was asked to tender for the refreshment concessions at the Great Exhibition: he refused because these were required to be teetotal, but set up his own ‘Gastronomic Symposium of all Nations’ in Gore House, Kensington (the home of the countess of Blessington before she had to flee her creditors), transforming the house and gardens into a series of dining rooms and entertainment areas which included fireworks, music and dancing.  As so frequently with Soyer’s enterprises, the Gastronomic Symposium brought him great applause and even more fame, but made a financial loss – the cost of creating the Seven Wonders of the World and other spectacular features meant that, even when feeding 1000 people every day, he ended up in debt.

The next great enterprise was Soyer’s Culinary Campaign, which probably cost him his life. In common with the entire reading public, he was appalled by W.H. Russell’s reports of the incompetence of British military organisation during the Crimean War, and impressed by Florence Nightingale’s efforts to improve the condition of the hospitals. He wrote to The Times, offering his (free) services to the government to set up kitchens on his familiar model, and his book describes, in great detail and with tremendous narrative verve, his experiences at the Scutari hospital and later at the front line, before Sebastopol and Balaklava.

The inadequacies of the military commissariat, and the insane bureaucracy which made the bad conditions so much worse, would be laughable were it not for the suffering for which they were directly responsible. Soyer worked long hours in appalling conditions, browbeating doctors and officers, cajoling reluctant army ‘cooks’ to change their unhygienic and wasteful ways, installing his own patented field stoves for cooking, inventing an effective and indestructible teapot, providing basic cookery training, and demonstrating how the same basic army rations which, before his arrival, were more or less wasted because bad cooking made them inedible (especially for the sick and wounded) could be transformed into dishes that might be monotonous but were at least tasty and nourishing.

He was an enormous admirer of Miss Nightingale, and also met Mary Seacole, the Jamaican woman who had, like him, gone out to the Crimea at her own expense, setting up a restaurant where the off-duty troops could get an inexpensive meal tastier than the army could provide.

Like Nightingale, he became seriously ill with the notorious Crimean fever, and like her refused to take the necessary time for rest and recovery. He was ordered home in spring 1857, and immediately began to press for the improvements he had brought to the military diet to be replicated elsewhere, writing a pamphlet of instruction for military cooks, and redesigning the kitchens at the Wellington Barracks in London. Just after they were opened, he died suddenly, in August 1858: many believed that his death at only 48 had been hastened by the strain of his efforts in the Crimea.


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7 Responses to The First Celebrity Chef

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  7. Lesley Parilla says:

    I find so many wonderful stories on the blog! This by far one of the best. Amazing what a difference one can making through good food.

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