Who was this great man? Kate Young writes
If you wrote him as a character, your audience wouldn’t believe him for a moment. A gifted chef, he was born and trained in France before moving to England in 1830. He became one of the first ‘celebrity chefs’ in London. He was the chef de cuisine at the Reform Club for 13 years; some of his dishes are still on the menu. He revolutionised the kitchens during his time there, introducing gas hobs, ovens with adjustable temperatures and refrigeration. Outside of the kitchen, he wrote books, developed menus for and worked in soup kitchens during the Irish famine, worked with Florence Nightingale to improve cooking in military hospitals, and invented a simple cooking stove used by all British soldiers from the Crimean War into the 1980s. He is unquestionably an extraordinary character.
BTW, have you ever wondered how the “celebrity chef” phenomenon evolved? After all, chefs were once considered to be servants
Under the ancien régime, chefs had long been lowly, largely itinerant domestic servants, giving rise to a persistent vision of them as comical, subservient figures, which survived well into the post-revolutionary period, in popular and humorous contexts,
It was in the early 10th century that a select few morphed into public figures. Alexis Soyer was among the early innovators. He was born and trained in France. In 1830, he was employed in the kitchens of the foreign office. And then revolution swept across Europe. We only dimly remember that one, but it was a very big deal at the time. And it was followed by the revolution of 1848-No mon ami, the 19th century was not boring.
Back to Paris at the foreign office kitchens. The mob burst in and …
The cooks were driven from the palace, and in the flight two of Soyer’s confrères were shot before his eyes, and he himself only escaped through his presence of mind, in beginning to sing ‘la Marseillaise’ et ‘la Parisienne;’ when he was in consequence carried off amid the cheers of the mob.
Time to head for London. And there, he cut quite a figure.
Soyer … would make his reputation, notably as chef of London’s prestigious Reform Club from 1837 to 1850. But his close call during the July Revolution remains an oddly revealing point of departure for his later, successful career. Casting him in the suggestive role of the faux-revolutionary, it already offers a glimpse at his general propensity for theatrics; his talent for rallying the public, and for making the most of unlikely opportunities; as well as his ambivalent class status and loyalty. A modestly-born opportunist, slaving away in service to the upper crust, and belting out Rouget de Lisle’s or Casimir Delavigne’s rabble-rousing lyrics at gunpoint, he appears at once a man of the people and lackey of the elite.
A revolutionary Victorian? Sacre bleu!
Back to Kat Young at the Guardian. She prepares Soyey’s omelette as depicted in “The Devil’s Feat”. Not bad!