The chef, his wife, the British Army and all that fish

On Monday 30th March 2009, I attended a ceremony to rededicate the monument the chef, Soyer, erected to his wife, Emma, at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London, and where he is buried as well. It was a glorious day, and about 50-75 people, including the French Ambassador, were there to hear a contemporary Franco/British chef, Raymond Blanc, give a moving, sometimes funny account of Soyer's life. Alexis Benoît Soyer (1810-1858), was a big-hearted, genial man, whose public benefactions and good deeds far outweighed his personal shortcomings. Though he was never good with money, and though his ambitions often exceeded his grasp, leading to repeated business failures, he showed vision and social concern, and was never involved in the petty thievery or the corrupt kitchen practices that characterised later Victorian chefs, particularly Escoffier. As M. Blanc said, Soyer probably learned from Napoleon that an army marches on its stomach -- he was certainly the founder of modern military catering in Britain.


As a cook, Soyer invented several dishes for the menu of the Reform Club, whose first, and most famous chef he became in 1837, including Cutlets Reform, which is still on the menu to this day. He enjoyed a fairly high social position, as is shown by the fact that in the same year he married Emma, a modestly successful artist known for her portraits of aristocrats. Soyer's first ill-fortune was to lose her in 1842, when she had a miscarriage and died, while he was in Belgium at a meeting with the king. Soyer never forgave himself for his absence, not even when, in 1850, receiving a letter from Alexis Lemain claiming to be his son - the result of an early liaison in Paris - he accepted paternity.

He made his own reforms to the kitchens at the Reform Club, doing away with the dirty and unpleasant coal-fired ranges that were standard at the time, in favour of much cleaner, more controllable and healthier gas cookers; and when the Club moved to its present Pall Mall building, he designed a kitchen that was such a showplace that tours of it were given, and a large print of it made and offered for sale. He was a micro-manager, and his attention to detail eliminated some of the heavy lifting and other dangers of the pre-Victorian kitchen. For Queen Victoria's Coronation on 28 June 1838. Soyer prepared breakfast for 1500 guests (of the Reform Club, I believe, as the new queen had decided to follow her predecessor's example and dispense with the elaborate traditional banquet, and breakfasts were held all over London). In his preparations Soyer stuck to some principles we can endorse today, especially using only seasonal ingredients. The June date meant he still had white asparagus and spiny artichokes, as well as British soft fruit, salmon, sturgeon and trout, lobsters, prawns and red mullet, plovers' eggs, spring chickens, goslings and peafowl.

In 1847 Soyer really showed his management skills, as the Government asked him to go to Ireland to see what could be done to help alleviate the famine caused by potato blight. He installed a soup kitchen at the Royal Barracks in Dublin that could feed a thousand people an hour, with good-flavoured, cheap soup - he eventually made 1.1 million portions of it. It is partly because of his testimony that we know that the Irish peasant refused to eat fish. He pointed out that, while the waters around Ireland teemed with fish, they were not used as food, but as fertiliser for the potato crop. He is supposed to have said of this practice, "they sow gold, but reap copper." Back in London he published Soyer's Charitable Cookery, or, The Poor Man's Regenerator (1848). It was sold for sixpence, with 1 penny of each sale going to the Poor Fund. He also carried on with his soup kitchens, this time for the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields. A treaty with France that allowed cheap imported silk into Britain was hitting them hard.
Soyer had an inventive, creative mind, and he devised the prototypes for lots of utensils and kitchen gadgets. The most successful was the Magic Stove, a portable cooker not unlike the one used today in some restaurants for cooking or finishing dishes at the table. This also showed one of his character flaws, for, though he claimed the credit for its invention, it was actually only an improved design of an already existing device.

Leaving the Reform Club in 1850, he was asked to tender for the catering for the 1851 Great Exhibition. But he didn't like the idea of being tied to this, and he had a grand idea for something that would continue for long after the Exhibition was over. On the site of what is now the Albert Hall, he rented Gore House, which he would turn into the Symposium of All Nations, not just a restaurant, but an amusement park, with replicas in the gardens of the Seven Wonders of the World, fireworks, fountains and dancing. But this closed after seven months, with a loss of £7,000 (more than £5million today calculated by average earnings). He had failed to realise that a day ticket for the Great Exhibition did not allow re-entry, so he had no lunch trade.

However, the Admiralty asked him in the early 1850s to investigate what could be done about preserving food on long voyages, and Soyer was once again in his element, dealing with practical details and not having to cope with the budget. Still, Soyer required adulation and liked being in the public eye. This led him to claim the credit in 1853 for a scholarly work called The Pantropheon, which dealt with most aspects of food production, preparation, and history. Even contemporaries noticed that it was not in the style of Soyer's previous books, and though his early biographers were deceived, we now know that it wasn't written by him, but by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet, who sold it to Soyer to translate from the French and complete. It probably didn't occur to Soyer that he was doing anything wrong, for, as in the case of the Magic Stove, he had made some additions.

In A Shilling Cookery for the People (1855) he wrote recipes designed for the working classes, for very un-fancy dishes, such as boiled meats, sweet and savoury puddings, offal, and leftovers. The paucity of recipes for soup in it might indicate that he thought that the combination of his name with soup carried the stigma of the soup kitchen. This year the Crimean War was raging, and news of appalling conditions at the front was the talk of London. The generous Soyer offered his services to his adopted nation for free, and he went to Scutari, to do what he could about the poor standard of hospital catering. Later he went to Balaclava and Sebastopol with Florence Nightingale to do the same. Before he left London he had designed field stoves, and these were installed in the camp kitchens. They were so efficient and economical that the army used a modified version of them until the last consignment of them was lost in 1982 when the Atlantic Conveyor was shot down by an Argentine Exocet missile. His last couple of books were about field cookery, and he redid the kitchens for Wellington barracks in 1857.

Soyer had many writer friends. He knew Dickens, and Thackeray modelled a character on him. Despite what should have been a lucrative arrangement with Messrs Crosse and Blackwell, he left only £1500 at his death; and a rum distiller called David Hart succeeded in taking the lot in lieu of an unpaid debt. He seized and seems to have destroyed all Soyer's papers and notes. Soyer's funeral at Kensal Green was just as badly handled as his financial affairs: there had been a last-minute change in the time of the service, and half the mourners, including much of his extended family, failed to turn up. There was no one there from the Reform Club, from the Army or Navy or the Government. This time the head of the Army Catering Corps delivered a handsome eulogy, a Brigadier laid a wreath on the tomb, an Army padre said a prayer or two and a bugler played the Last Post. Soyer's great-grandson was there, too. Altogether a better crowd this time around - and there were drinks afterwards at the Reform Club, where the Club archivist Peter Urbach had put together a terrific small exhibition, which included a Soyer Field Oven, and lots of Crosse and Blackwell sauce bottles. Unlike the ignoble Escoffier, who is wrongly remembered as the patron saint of chefs, Soyer was a genuine benefactor of humankind - and by restoring and rededicating his tomb, a wrong has been put right.



March 30, 2009 6:32 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on March 30, 2009 6:32 PM.

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