By His Wife, Elizabeth Emma Jones.
(All images Courtesy of The British Library.)
In fact, to find the man generally accepted as the first celebrity chef, we must go all the way back to 18th century France, where Antonin Careme became internationally renowned as "The King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings," after commanding the kitchens of Napoleon, the Romanovs, the Rothschilds, Rossini and King George IV. And a new online exhibit of cookbooks created by the British library highlights a 19th century chef who was at once a shameless self-promoter; an advertising genius; an advocate for the poor, the working class, and the infantryman; a masterful culinary innovator and inventor; and one of the most famous men in Victorian England: Alexis Soyer. He was the first English celebrity chef.
There's more than a little irony in the British Library being the organization putting Alexis Soyer back in the spotlight. Soyer was a transplanted Frenchman, who could read and write in his native tongue, but mastered only spoken English. The seven books he "wrote" in English were all dictated to an amanuensis, at first his English wife, and later a series of secretaries. This may be why several of Soyer's cookbooks were presented as chummy "letters" penned to an imaginary friend, allowing for much less formal language than was normally required of a Victorian writer. But however lacking in literary style, Soyer's books were both influential and popular, especially those aimed at home cooks with modest incomes.
Alexis Soyer was born in suburban Paris in 1810, and probably would have remained there had it not been for the French Revolution of 1830. As Soyer told the story, which may or may not have been true, he was well on his way to a stellar culinary career as sous chef in the French Foreign Office, when his kitchen was literally invaded by an angry mob. Two of his fellow chefs were summarily executed before his eyes, and Soyer would have been next, had he not broken into song, offering a rousing rendition of "La Marseillaise." The singing chef had once had aspirations to the stage, and was said to possess a deeply melodious and pleasing bass voice. Whether due to his talent or his song selection, Soyer claimed he was not only spared by the mob, he was carried off on their shoulders to cheers and applause.
Despite looming stardom in the music halls of Paris, Soyer left his homeland for the calmer shores of England posthaste. By 1831 he has established himself as chef to the Duke of Cambridge, and posts with other members of the nobility were to follow. In 1837 he was given his big break, as chef for the newly established Reform Club of London. Soyer designed the ultra-modern, state-of-the-art kitchen for this private meeting place of the more liberal Members of Parliament. It included innovations that today's cooks take for granted, such as gas-powered stoves, temperature-adjustable ovens, and refrigerators cooled by ice water. So valued was Soyer's talent that he was paid the then-exorbitant yearly salary of 1,000 pounds sterling, and he was enlisted to cook breakfast for 2,000 dignitaries at Queen Victoria's coronation.
Included In His Cookbooks' At No Extra Charge.
Soyer's fame as a chef was eclipsed only by the personal eccentricities that ensured he would always be the center of Victorian London's attention. He never forgot his childhood dreams of the stage, retaining an artistic and theatrical air throughout his life. His wife was a well-known portraitist whose work was displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, and upon her death he began a long-term affair with Fanny Cerrito, a famed prima ballerina. His dress, both in the kitchen and out, was outlandishly dandified. In place of chef's white, he wore embroidered silk suits in pastel shades of violet and green. And he even devised his own mode of tailoring, which he fancifully coined "dressing a la zoug-zoug." This meant all of his garments were cut along the bias or zig-zag, and sewn on the diagonal. Such was his abhorrence of horizontal and vertical lines that his hats were specially made to rest at a rakish angle, even his "carte de visite" was a parallelogram rather than a rectangle.
Despite his many achievements, Soyer's flamboyance ensured he came in for his fair share of lampooning and ridicule. His good friend, William Makepeace Thackeray, poked gentle fun at the chef in an 1849 novel, Pendennis. His parody of Soyer is an outlandish French chef named "Alcide Mirobolant," a foppish womanizer who relocates to a small English village, determined to seduce every female who crosses his path. The Times of London criticized him much more savagely. Reviewing his book about his time in the Crimea, Soyer's Culinary Campaign (1857), the newspaper noted, "Alexis the Savoury opens his box of condiments, and shows us indisputably how fields are won. Such and such proportions of pepper and salt went to make such a breach or to repulse such a night attack."