Was Alexis Soyer, culinary hero of the Crimean War, the first celebrity chef?
Who remembers ‘Pie in the Sky’, the BBC series about the large-girthed chef, Henry Crabbe, played by the late Richard Griffiths? Henry paid homage to a picture in his kitchen of Chef Alexis Soyer.
France to England
Alexis Benoist Soyer was born in Meaux, France on 4th February 1810 of Huguenot parents. At the age of 11 he was sent to Paris where his brother Philippe was a leading chef. Philippe arranged an apprenticeship for Alexis and by the age of 20 he became second chef to Prince Polignac, a former Ambassador to England and the reigning King Charles X ’s First Minister. During the riots of the 1830 July Revolution an angry mob stormed the palace kitchens and Alexis was lucky not to have lost his life as two of his colleagues had done. Philippe Soyer, by now head chef for the Duke of Cambridge (youngest son of George III), persuaded Alexis to join him in England. Alexis left his mistress Adelaide Lamain and their son Jean Alexis in France – intending to send for them later.
Alexis did not remain long in the employ of the Duke of Cambridge and in the following half a dozen years he gained a reputation among the nobility and well-to-do gentry as a chef of outstanding ability. These influential people included the Duke of Sutherland, the Marquis of Waterford, William Lloyd of Aston Hall and the Marquis of Ailsa. During these years he met and married Elizabeth Emma Jones (Adelaide Lamain died in France in 1837). Emma Jones was a prolific portrait artist in oils and from the age of ten she exhibited fourteen works at the Royal Academy, while her output rate was in the hundreds. Alexis was on a trip to Brussels when Emma died of pregnancy complications aged 28. Just over a year later he met ballerina Fanny Cerrito with whom he had an enduring relationship, although not marriage.
The Reform Club
In 1837 Alexis was appointed Head Chef at London’s relatively new but prestigious Reform Club situated at 104 Pall Mall. He prepared breakfast for members and guests of the Club on Queen Victoria’s Coronation Day in June 1838; his déjeuner à la fourchette catered to well over 1,000 guests some of whom watched the Coronation procession on its way to Westminster Abbey to the music of Johann Strauss and his ensemble. Alexis was to fulfil this role for the next decade. Despite Alexis’ influential friends, his obvious talent and an annual salary of around £1,000, chefs were not generally held in high regard on the social scale. In fact in the 1841 census, despite being head of the household, the enumerator assumed Alexis was merely a domestic servant and recorded him as such. Ancestry.com has managed to incorrectly transcribe the surnames of all but one of the five people in the household. Were it not for other sources, I would not have found them in Charing Cross Road.
Elizabeth Emma Jones, artist
Soyer’s wife (left)
Fanny Cerito, ballerina
Soyer’s mistress (right)
‘Model’ Soup Kitchens in Ireland
Two years into the potato famine in Ireland, the Poor Law Commissioners were having difficulty in providing food for all those who needed it. To alleviate the problem, the British Parliament introduced the Soup Kitchen Act of 1847. To ensure that the local Poor Law Commissioners and charities provided good quality soup in an efficient manner, the government wanted a ‘model kitchen’ for all of Ireland and Alexis Soyer’s name had been mentioned. The Duchess of Sutherland (his former employer) was asked to negotiate a deal whereby he would design a prototype kitchen and provide appropriate recipes. Alexis agreed to design the model kitchen and go to Ireland to oversee the process free of charge, provided the Reform Club gave him leave of absence. Before he went to Dublin to oversee the set-up and operation of the soup kitchens, he had already seen the sweat shops of London’s Spitalfields weavers and was horrified at the poverty and working conditions of his countrymen. Always the self-promoter, Alexis sent letters to the editor of the London Times about his progress in kitchen design, soup recipes and costing to feed the poor. Alexis was not without his critics; Times correspondents questioned his ability as a ‘celebrity chef’ at the posh Reform Club to be able to compose recipes for the poor. It must be mentioned here that Alexis spoke accented English but probably only had the basics of reading and writing in French (after all, he finished school at 11). He therefore did not personally write his letters to newspapers, books and other publications; for this he employed various French and English secretaries.
Alexis went to Ireland to build his model soup kitchen and decided, once there, to employ local labour for the work – he had initially thought of undertaking the work in England and shipping the kitchens to Ireland. The first Soyer Soup Kitchen was opened to the public in the Royal Barracks Esplanade, Dublin on the 4th April 1847. Only two days before, Alexis (the great promoter) released a 50-page pocket-sized book entitled Charitable Cookery or The Poor Man’s Regenerator; it sold for sixpence, with one penny per copy donated to the poor. In a letter to The Times dated 28th September 1847, Alexis set out his accounts to show that local committees could save the Treasury 50% ‘at any period of scarcity or plenty’ if they adopted his model soup kitchen. Alexis’ contribution was important to Ireland, allowing many more people to be fed – at the peak of the famine, over two million people a day were catered for. His model soup kitchen did not resolve the politics of Ireland, nor cure the potato famine, but it did save lives.
Resignation from the Reform
In May 1850 Alexis tendered his resignation to Lord Marcus Hill, Chairman of the Reform Club. Hill’s response included the following words: the committee have unanimously desired me to assure you of the great reluctance with which they accept that resignation; and to express to you the high sense which they entertain of your very valuable past services, as well as of the zeal, ability, perfect integrity, and uniform respectability of conduct which you have devoted to the well being of the club, during a period of nearly thirteen years duration. There were probably several reasons for Alexis’ resignation. Foremost was the fact that the Club’s Committee had decided to open the coffee room to non-members on a daily basis which required more work for Alexis. In a private letter written to Hill after the acceptance of his resignation, Alexis cited the additional workload and the fact that he had other offers of ’high importance’. He was 40 years old and had recently suffered a near-fatal accident when ice-skating in St. James’ Park and wanted to experience pastures new. Perhaps more to the point, Alexis probably felt that despite his long service, his international fame and talents, and his connections with influential people, he was still regarded as a lowly servant by many in the Club. The advertisement placed in The Times to replace him gives us a flavour of this.
A search for Alexis in the 1851 Census found him the householder at Gore House, Kensington. His occupation was described as ‘Soyers Universal Symporium’ [sic]. Others in the house were Joseph Feeny ‘partner with Mr Soyer’, George Sala ‘artist’ and a number of assistants to artist and domestic servants, eleven people in all. Further research uncovered quite a story.
Season tickets were advertised in all the major newspapers, the grand opening was on 17th May 1851 and within a week it was the most popular eating place in London. There were nine acres of gardens at Gore House and Alexis ensured that he packed every inch with dining opportunities. He installed an American bar, serving eggnogs, shandy gaffs, mint juleps and brandy smashes. The centrepiece of the gardens was the Baronial Banqueting Hall, measuring 100ft long and housing paintings produced by his late wife Emma. It was also possible to dine in the Baronial Hall, an English-French dinner cost three shillings and sixpence. At 2pm, each day in the Hall, hot meat joints, vegetables, Symposium pies, mayonnaise salads, cold meats, hams, poultry, pastry, jellies and creams were served. The kitchens in the main house had the capacity to roast six hundred joints of meat each day and on the green an ox was roasted every hour. Each night there were fireworks and music for dancing. As the Exhibition’s Crystal Palace did not serve alcohol, the Symposium, which did, at first was a huge success. Ultimately, however, cracks appeared in this huge enterprise and it finally wound up with a financial loss. Gore House was sold to the Commission of the Great Exhibition and was eventually demolished to make way for the Royal Albert Hall.
Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert, had been busy working on the Great Exhibition which was to take place in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, financed through private subscriptions, not the public purse. Alexis was asked to tender for the refreshments at the Exhibition. Alexis refused this commission because he was already committed to another plan involving the Exhibition. Joseph Feeny, a Liverpool businessman, had offered to put up the capital for a venture whereby Alexis would run a ’theme’ restaurant close to the Exhibition grounds. Alexis chose Gore House which he leased for the low sum of £100 per year.
The Chef at War
On 28th March 1854, France and Great Britain declared war on Russia, aligning themselves with Turkey which had been at war with Russian the previous year. The Crimean War was possibly the first time the public, through newspaper accounts, was made aware of the details of warfare and the conditions under which the British soldiers fought and the state of the hospitals caring for the wounded. William Russell and Thomas Cheney (Times) and George Henty (Morning Post) war correspondents, sent home the words, while Roger Fenton and James Robertson sent back the photographs in confirmation; reporting without the customary vetting by the Army. By the beginning of 1855 things were not going well and Alexis was appalled at the news of hardships on the Crimean Peninsula and hospitals at Scutari and Constantinople in Turkey.
In a letter to the editor of The Times, Alexis stated, I purpose offering my services gratuitously, and proceeding direct to Scutari for a short time, at my own personal expense, to regulate that important department [Barrack Hospital kitchen], if the Government will honour me with their confidence …. Once again, Alexis’ mentor, the Duchess of Sutherland interceded and organised letters of introduction to notables in Scutari (including Florence Nightingale). Lord Panmure, who had recently taken up the post of Secretary of State for War, was an acquaintance from the Reform Club. He advised Alexis: You must, after you have done there [Scutari] go to the Crimea, and cheer up those brave fellows in the camps; see what you can do!Furthermore, Panmure offered to pay his travel expenses and agreed to Alexis’ conditions which were to have complete autonomy in the matter of invalids’ and soldiers’ diet and that he would try to limit the cost to the army allowance and ration scale. He also wanted to look into the army’s cooking facilities and methods. Ultimately he was paid 27 shillings a day (approx. £500/year) plus six months’ termination pay.
Alexis arrived at Scutari in March 1855 and immediately, with Nightingale’s blessing, stormed the kitchens of the Scutari hospitals making changes to kitchen organisation, the invention of new bakers’ ovens and kitchen stoves, better ways of storing Army rations, improved methods of cooking meat, the training of soldier-cooks and composing tastier recipes. About six weeks later he and Nightingale left for the Crimea where they toured the frontline as well as the hospitals and sanatorium. Alexis also met up with ‘the other nurse’ of Crimean War fame: Mrs Mary Jane Seacole proprietor of the British Hotel. On one point Alexis failed, like Nightingale he objected to the way meat was distributed. Since weight was the only criteria, one might get all bone or gristle. He suggested the meat be boned, so that every man would receive boneless meat and the bones be used for nourishing broth. The Army’s answer? That a new service regulation would be required to bone the meat!
After many more adventures, Alexis arrived back in England in May 1857; he had been away for over two years. These years took their toll on Alexis who had suffered on and off with typhoid, dysentery, fever, ulcers and certainly overwork. And typically, he paid little heed to his physicians. He died at his home in St. John’s Wood on 5th August 1858 aged 48. 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.
Alexis’ inventions included a variable temperature oven, a refrigeration unit and most famously, a field stove for the Army which was in use until WWII (some say the first Gulf War). When asked if he had taken out a patent as he would make a fortune, Alexis replied, You may be right; but upon such an occasion I should fancy myself wrong. I will therefore give it, ‘pro bono public’. I am well aware that by making it more complete I could take out either registration or patent, but I would not do that for the world, as it would be immediately reported that I expected to be repaid for my services by the profits of the patent of the stove, and upon these grounds I decline any such proceeding. One can find at least ten patents in the name of Soyer and various business partners in the Board of Trade records at the National Archives. These patents included all manner of kitchen equipment including a stewing pan, teapot, flasks and bottles, a tendon separator and something termed ‘Soyer’s modern housewife’s kitchen apparatus’. Long before anyone had heard of Coca Cola, Alexis created and marketed a drink made of fruits, such as raspberry, quince, lemon, lime and apple and mixed it with aerated water; he called it Soyer’s Nectar Soda Water. Alexis went into business with Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell; Soyer’s Sauce for Gentlemen and a milder version for ladies became Crosse & Blackwell’s leading brand in 1850.
George Augustus Sala, wrote of his friend: Alexis Soyer [was] as kind a hearted Christian as you might find, an admirable cook, an inventive genius, a brave, devoted, self-denying man, who served his adopted country better in the Crimea than many a starred and titled CB [Companion of the Order of Bath].
Probably the first television ‘celebrity chef’ appeared on the BBC programme ‘Cook’s Night Out’ at 9:25 p.m. on Thursday 25th January 1937. Marcel Boulestine demonstrated making an omelette as the first in a series of five dishes.
A Culinary Campaign, A Soyer, 1857 (republished as The Chef at War, Penguin Books, 2011).
Alexis Soyer and the Crimean War, Sir Zachary Cope, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Vol. 18, 1959.
Alexis Soyer: The First Celebrity Chef, F J Clement-Lorford, 2011.
Florence Nightingale, Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1951.
Alexis Soyer and the Rise of the Celebrity Chef, Michael D. Garval, Romantic Circles, University of Maryland.
Soyer’s Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations, Come Step Back in Time, August 10, 2012.
Hot on the Trail, Professor Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen, Cabinet magazine, Issue 37, 2010.
Soyer’s Culinary Campaign, Jude Harris, Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institution.
Radio Times Television Supplement, January 15, 1937.
Alexis Soyer, a stipple engraving Henry Bryan Hall, 1849 from a sketch by Soyer’s wife, Emma Jones.
Richard Griffiths (1947-2013), star of the BBC production ‘Pie in the Sky’.
Elizabeth Emma Jones, self portrait 1828.
Francesca (Fanny) Cerrito, lithograph Josef Kriehuber, 1842.
Soup Kitchen in Ireland, from Illustrated London News 17 Apr 1847.
Soyer’s Resignation from the Reform Club from a Punch cartoon 25 May 1850.
Symposium Gore House, Kensington from Illustrated London News 10 May 1851.
Opening of Field Kitchen Before Sevastopol, an illustration from A Culinary Campaign, A Soyer, 1857.
© Diane Oldman 2015