If 19th century French chef Alexis Soyer were alive today, he’d likely have his own cooking show. His name brand sauces, cookbooks and kitchen utensils would fill store shelves, velvet berets would be all the rage, and lines of fans would snake around the block at all his public appearances.
Though he was deliciously famous during Victorian times and has been called the first celebrity chef, today Soyer is curiously the man history forgot.
I’ve been fascinated by his life and work ever since reading Ann Arnold’s beautifully written and illustrated picture book biography. You may know Ann as the illustrator of Alice Waters’s now classic Fanny at Chez Panisse, which is ‘the book’ that got me hooked on illustrated cookbooks.
In The Adventurous Chef: Alexis Soyer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), Ann outlines Soyer’s life from his humble beginnings in the tiny French town of Meaux-en-Brie (1809), till his death from Crimean fever in London at the age of 48. He was quite a colorful and flamboyant character who enjoyed amusing people — not only a celebrated chef with a social conscience, but also an inventor, entrepreneur, and prolific cookbook author.
After getting himself expelled from cathedral school at age 12, Soyer trained as an apprentice chef in Paris with his older brother Philippe. He was cooking for French nobility in no time and began to dress in his own unique style (“à la Zoug-Zoug”), with cloth being cut on the bias (diagonal stripes!), and “his hat at a raffish angle, loose and floppy.”
He then followed Philippe to England to seek his fortune, and was soon cooking for various members of the aristocracy, all the while building up quite a reputation. In 1837 he became chef de cuisine at London’s newly formed Reform Club, accepting the position on the condition that he would be allowed to co-design the kitchen with architect Charles Barry.
With its many revolutionary innovations (gas stoves, adjustable temperature ovens, steam powered dumb waiters, water-chilled marble tables, twelve-sided cooks’ table, warming stations, labeled vegetable bins), Soyer’s compartmentalized model of spotless efficiency enabled him to serve thousands at a single sitting. His kitchen soon became the talk of Europe and a popular tourist attraction.
In addition to catering for the rich and famous, Soyer did a lot of charity work. Most notable was the soup kitchen with portable carriages he designed in Dublin during the Irish potato famine, the first of its kind capable of producing meals on a huge scale for the poor masses. While there, he published a cookbook and donated the proceeds to charity. Back in London, he also exhibited his late wife’s paintings to fund additional soup kitchens in the East End.
Upon hearing about the appalling conditions plaguing British soldiers in the Crimea, Soyer volunteered to go to the war front to set up field kitchens, advise and train army cooks, reorganize the distribution of rations, devise new recipes, and help in whatever way he could to curb food poisoning and malnutrition in the barracks hospital and on the battlefield. He took along several of his own cooks, the portable camp stoves he had invented, and in effect saved hundreds of lives with his reforms, just as Florence Nightingale had done with her work in the hospital wards. (Imagine hot stew on the chilly front lines!) Soyer eventually contracted Crimean fever just as Nightingale had, succumbing to it in 1858.
Though he made several fortunes in his lifetime, Soyer died penniless. One of his creditors destroyed all his papers and he fell into obscurity.
Fortunately, with the publication of Ann’s book, several adult biographies, and frequent reprints of Soyer’s own writings, his legacy has been steadily attracting more interest and attention in recent years. Take that, Mrs. Beeton! (She supposedly plagiarized some of his recipes and to this day is more well known than he ever was.)
The Adventurous Chef is thoroughly charming, as Ann has successfully captured the essence of Soyer’s personality and ingenious, inventive mind with her engaging narrative and delightful pen-and-ink drawings (her cutaway illustration of the Reform Club kitchen is especially interesting).
I love that Soyer invented the first spring-operated kitchen timer, a Magic Stove for outdoor cooking (which was once used atop a pyramid!), a Magic Coffeepot, and a Magic Teapot. He also traveled around the country promoting his books, kitchen gadgets, sauces and relishes. His field stove model was used by the British forces into the modern era, and to this day British Army catering officers hold an annual dinner in his honor, serving dishes adapted from his cookbooks.
But most of all, I admire Soyer’s compassion and humanity. He cooked and wrote books for, and wanted to help people from all classes, and never stopped looking for useful ways to apply his ingenuity to implement new ideas. For all his showiness — he was quite the dandy — he was essentially a practical man who really knew how to get things done.
Could you whip up breakfast for 2000, as he did for Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837?
* * *
🍲 SOYER’S RICE PUDDING 🍲
In the final scene of The Adventurous Chef, Alexis Soyer has prepared a special dinner for military officers to celebrate the opening of the new kitchen he designed at Wellington Barracks. He was proud to show them how he was able to turn basic army rations into a delicious dinner for 300.
‘Gentlemen, you have your battery of weapons; this is my Crimean batterie de cuisine . . .’
‘Instead of twice-boiled beef and watery broth, we will have green pea soup, salt pork and cabbage, roast mutton, beef dumplings, crisp potatoes, and rice pudding.’
Mr. Cornelius located a traditional British rice pudding recipe adapted from the recipe Soyer included in his 1849 volume of The Modern Housewife: Or, Ménagère, a compendium of about 1000 receipts that he wrote for middle class home cooks.
(It should be noted that Soyer dictated the texts of all his books to secretaries. The MH was ‘written’ in the form of an epistolary novel; Soyer created the fictional characters Hortense B. and Eloise L., who stood for the values of the era.)
This classic pudding was listed under the heading “Puddings for Invalids.” However, you do not have to be in your sick bed to enjoy its wholesome goodness. It calls for only one tablespoon of sugar, and since it’s baked for 30 minutes, has a soft brown crust.
108. RICE PUDDINGS. — Wash well two ounces of rice in some water, strain, then put it into a pint and a half of boiling milk, with a small piece of lemon-peel, cinnamon, and a half a bay-leaf tied together; let it boil gently, stirring it occasionally until quite tender; then put to it one ounce of butter, a little grated nutmeg, a tablespoon of sugar, and two eggs; pour it into a buttered tart dish, and bake it half an hour.
- 60 g (2.11 oz) short grain rice, well washed and drained
- 900 ml (30.4 oz) milk
- 1 small strip of lemon zest
- 1 small piece of cinnamon
- 1/2 bay leaf
- 30 g (1.05 oz) butter
- freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 eggs
Pour the milk into a large pan and bring it to a boil. Add the rice and then add the lemon zest, cinnamon and bay leaf (tie these together to make it easier to remove them later). Bring back to a boil then continue boiling gently, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until the rice is completely tender.
Remove the bundle of flavorings then mix in the butter, nutmeg and sugar. Beat the eggs in a heat-proof bowl, add two ladlesful of the milk mixture to temper and whisk to combine. Now whisk the egg mixture into the main bulk of the milk mixture.
Butter a pie dish and pour in the rice mixture. Transfer to an oven pre-heated to 350 degrees and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pudding is set and the top is golden brown. Serve hot with cream or custard.
*This Celtnet.org recipe is posted here with a few adjustments for American cooks
**Soyer had a different rice pudding recipe without eggs or milk for soldiers in the field.
* * *
Enjoy this video about Soyer’s life and work from BBC1:
* * *
THE ADVENTUROUS CHEF: Alexis Soyer
written and illustrated by Ann Arnold
published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), 2002
Picture Book Biography for ages 5+, 40 pp.
*A Frances Foster book
Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.