Friday, December 17, 2010

Britain's Original Celebrity Chef: Alexis Soyer

By Nancy Mattoon

Portrait of Alexis Soyer in 1849,
By His Wife, Elizabeth Emma Jones.

(All images Courtesy of The British Library.)

With the arteries of the television airwaves virtually clogged with shows like Hell's Kitchen, Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Ace of Cakes, we tend to think of celebrity chefs as a relatively recent phenomenon. But earlier in the twentieth century Julia Child, James Beard, and Alice Waters were all at the top of their game, each establishing a culinary empire through restaurants, television appearances, and cookbooks.

Soyer's Name And Likeness Appeared On The Labels
Of His Many Kitchen Necessities.

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.

Soyer's Shilling Cookery for the People,
Published in 1855.

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.

Title Page And Frontispiece From An 1858 Edition
Soyer's Most Popular Cookbook.

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.

A Typical Full Page Ad For One Of Soyer's Products,
Included In His Cookbooks' At No Extra Charge.

But cooking and publishing cookbooks were only part of Soyer's culinary trade. He also marketed a huge range of products, all carrying his name, likeness, and endorsement; including sauces, relishes, cooking gadgets, and tabletop stoves. Like many Victorian volumes, Soyer's recipe books included full page advertisements, encouraging readers who purchased his books to spend a little more of their household income on his unparalleled kitchen accoutrements. But Soyer wasn't completely mercenary, donating a portion of the proceeds from many of his books to various charities. And he was widely praised for setting up the first fully functional soup kitchens to aid victims of the Irish Potato Famine in 1847. (Although his famous recipe for inexpensive broth was lambasted in Punch as "not Soup for the Poor, but rather, Poor Soup!" )

A Elaborate Dessert, Designed By Sawyer
In Honor of His Longtime Love, Dancer Fanny Cerrito.

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.

Soyer's Shapely Carte de Visite,
Displayed On A Black Backdrop.

The last thing one might expect from such a flamboyant showman would be an appearance on the battlefield, but during the Crimean War in the 1850's, this is precisely where Soyer chose to lend a hand, and where his longest standing contribution to culinary history was established. Soyer joined British troops on the continent at his own expense, and at great danger, to reorganize the provisioning of army hospitals alongside Florence Nightingale. He designed a field stove which was so efficient it remained in use through the First Gulf War in 1990. And he trained enough cooks for one to serve each regiment, ensuring that good nutrition and food safety would promote the morale and health of the English soldier. London's Morning Chronicle said of Soyer, "he saved as many lives through his kitchens as Florence Nightingale did through her wards."

The Famous Soyer Stove,
Used By The British Military For Nearly 150 Years.

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."

A Punch Cartoon Of Soyer's Melodramatic
Resignation As Chef Of The Reform Club.

But in Victorian times, as today, for a celebrity the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity. Soyer remained one of the best-known figures in Victorian England until his death in 1858. Sadly, at the end of his life, Soyer was broke, and at the mercy of creditors. They seized his assets and destroyed most of his correspondence and his personal diaries, erasing much of his legacy. He was nearly a forgotten figure, until the first reliable biography of his life was published in 2008. Ruth Cowan's, Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef, returned the larger-than-life culinary star to center stage, where he undoubtedly belongs.

1 comment:

  1. I would recommend Ann Arnold's delightful and informative THE ADVENTUROUS CHEF (2002), nominally a children's book but chock-full of detail of Soyer's life (including a pretty amazing view of his kitchen at the Reform Club).

    (In addition to her work as a painter, illustrator and amazing cook, Ann might also be known to some as the wife to the man of letters and occasional bookseller Ian Jackson in Berkeley.)


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