History’s Characters: Alexis Soyer

Scutari Barracks, Turkey: Soyer’s hospital kitchen. Wood engraving. Iconographic Collections Keywords: Florence Nightingale; Alexis Benoît Soyer; By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/2b/c5/eac0a0de4c24565db6638e14b939.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0014479.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36487656

Apart from enthusiastic foodies, the Frenchman Alexis Soyer (1810-1858) is all but forgotten now. But, in his day, he was arguably the most famous chef in the world and lays claim to being the greatest chef of the 19th century.  

But, more than that, Soyer was a fabulously, gloriously modern and eccentric personality. When I encountered him in the course of research a couple of years ago, I realized, at once, that I had to put him in a book—he leapt so easily onto the page, he hardly needed any embroidering at all. And so he graces my new book, The Devil’s Feast, which is set in the extraordinary, cutting-edge kitchens of the Reform club in London that he designed and opened in 1841, where he was head chef and where he first caught the attention of the press and the public.  

Soyer was the first true celebrity chef. Everything we think of as new about the current kings and queens of celebrity chefs (Ina Garten and Jamie Oliver come to mind) was done by Soyer in the 1840s and early ‘50s. The papers called him “the Napoleon of food.”

He loved cutting-edge culinary technology and cooking methods. He was the first to use and champion gas ovens, thermometers, and accurate clocks; he invented dozens of clever kitchen gadgets, like the first heavy-duty kitchen scissors. He loved a crazy dish that looked like one thing and tasted of something quite different. He would serve up a plate of roast beef or lamb chops and mashed potatoes at the end of a meal, then reveal that it was pudding: sponge, cream, and meringues and peach cream made to look like gravy (I have to say this does sound mildly disgusting).

Like Jamie Oliver, he was a champion of seasonality and an educator and philanthropist, determined to improve the country’s diet and alleviate the sufferings of the poor. A genius logistician, he devised menus for London hospitals and workhouses, reinvented the soup kitchen and took it to Ireland during the famine, and went to the Crimean war with Florence Nightingale, completely reorganizing the provisioning of the British army and inventing a portable army stove that was still being used up to the second Gulf War. And he wrote a series of bestselling cookbooks aimed squarely at middle-class and working-class cooks in which he included the first written recipe for fish and chips and homemade crisps.  

Most of all, however, Soyer is a gift to a writer. Apart from being a brilliant, inventive chef, he was also an irrepressible, joyous, sometimes ridiculous figure, manically energetic, crazily ambitious, enthusiastic about everything, appallingly sycophantic to the rich, a shameless self-publicist, dreadfully pretentious, and very big-hearted. He dressed in lavender-colored velvet suits, wore at least two rings on every finger, and never appeared in public without his hat set at a precarious angle on his head, which he called “a la zoug zoug.” “I abhor a straight line,” he said. Everything that he does in The Devil’s Feast—well almost everything— he did in real life.

Read Angie Barry's review of The Devil's Feast!


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M. J. Carter is a former journalist and the author of two acclaimed works of nonfiction, Anthony Blunt: His Lives and George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I. She is also the author of two previous Blake and Avery novels, The Strangler Vine and The Infidel Stain. Carter is married with two sons and lives in London.