In recent years the career of flamboyant French chef, Alexis Benoît Soyer (1810-1858), has attracted considerable interest from historians. There have been a number of biographies published (see ‘Suggested Further Reading’ section) and his own writings are frequently reprinted. Soyer’s life story has also been turned into a bio-drama, Relish, written by James Graham and performed in 2010 by members of The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at Tramshed, Shoreditch, London.
Alexis packed a lot into his forty-eight years. He began his career at the tender age of eleven as an apprentice chef in the Palace of Versailles. His brother Philippe already worked there as a chef. It made sense for young Alexis to join his brother and take full advantage of an opportunity to train amongst the world’s finest chefs. After Versailles, Alexis worked in several restaurants in France and become second chef to the French prime minister, Prince Polignac.
Following the Second French Revolution of July 1830, Alexis fled to England to join his brother Philippe who was now working as head chef in the London household of Prince Adolphus, 1st Duke of Cambridge (1774-1850). On 24th May 1836, the newly styled Reform Club, Dysart House, 104 Pall Mall, London, next door to the Carlton Club, opened its doors and were looking for a head chef, Alexis was offered the position. Alexis relished the opportunities that such a role could offer to him and began working there in 1837. Together with architect Charles Barry he designed the Club’s spectacular kitchens. He remained at the Reform Club until 1850.
Alexis married the artist Elizabeth Emma Jones (1813-1842) on 12th April 1837. The marriage ended abruptly in 1842 when Elizabeth died of complications following a miscarriage. Alexis was completely heartbroken and threw himself into his work in an attempt to cope with his grief. He died following a stroke in 1858 at his home 15 Marlborough Road, St. John’s Wood, London. He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.
Alexis was more than a chef, he was a culinary genius, visionary, prolific writer of cookery books, entrepreneur (although he was terrible with money!), inventor of kitchen gadgets and one of the most important figures in the history of mass catering – particularly in relation to army field kitchens. He also wrote a comic ballet, La Fille de L’Orage (The Daughter of the Storm), to flatter ballerina Fanny Cerrito for whom he had a particular fascination. However, the ballet was not one of Soyer’s finest creative achievement and its humourous content was by all accounts pretty terrible.
Below are a just a few highlights of Alexis Soyer’s career:
- The first chef to cook using gas;
- Catered for two thousand guests at Queen Victoria’s coronation breakfast on the 28th June 1838;
- In 1847, during the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852), he set-up portable soup kitchens for the starving Irish at the Royal Barracks in Dublin. He cooked and served twenty-six thousand people a day. The portable kitchen carriages were brilliantly clever and subsequently used on the battlefield in army field kitchens. The carriages were pulled by two horses and a driver. Around the driver’s seat there was a reservoir for water which could be drawn from a stream nearby to wherever the carriage came to rest. The water is turned into steam by the heat from a lit boiler. The lower part had a circular steam boiler and the upper part an oven. ’Within one hour after the fire is lighted the steam would be up and rations for 1000 men could be cooked by baking and steaming in about two hours and the apparatus moved on again, or it would cook whilst on the march’ (Soyer writing in 1854);
- He set-up soup kitchens for the destitute Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, London;
- He created a range of bottled sauces and relishes for sale to the public – like a Victorian Jamie Oliver!;
- He invented a range of kitchen utensils and equipment, including: a stewing pan; cooking clock; baking dish and vegetable strainer;
- He invented the famous ‘Magic Stove’ which enabled food to be cooked at the table: ‘….his [Soyer] unique and almost equally celebrated lilliputian apparatus, not inappropriately denominated “The Magic Stove”. The Magic Stove is as simple as it is useful and ingenious. In it there are two spirit lamps – one which rarifies the spirit in a receptacle placed above, and the vapour, thence airing is ignited by the flame of the second lamp. The flame then passes through a bent tube, called the chimney of the apparatus, at the top of which tube the cooking processes are conduced, without any smoke or smut. In this manner, rapid and perfect combustion is produced, and intense heat evolved by means of a self-acting blowpipe.’ (The Leeds Mercury, Saturday February 1st, 1851);
- He was commissioned by the Admiralty to investigate logistics of catering on long sea voyages;
- He rented Gore House (now the site of the Royal Albert Hall, London) in 1850 and took moved in on Wednesday 1st January, 1851. Gore House was built in the 1750s with interior decoration by Robert Adam. Between 1808 and 1821 it had been the home of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who was prominent in the abolition of the slave trade. The Countess of Blessington (1789-1849), a novelist, and Count Alfred D’Orsay (1801-1852) lived there from 1836 to 1849. At Gore House, Alexis created the ultimate ‘pop-up’ dining experience called Soyer’s Symposium. His aim was to mass-cater for visitors to the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. He said of the Symposium: ‘It will be my study to devote this establishment entirely for the display of the gastronomic, where I am now making preparations to accommodate thousands daily at my Symposium of all Nations’ (A letter written to The Preston Guardian and published on Saturday January 18th, 1851). After the Great Exhibition, the Symposium was forced to close at a £7,000 loss. Please see the end of this article for more detail about Soyer’s Symposium;
- In March 1855 he travelled with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), on Lord Panmure’s full authority, to the old Barrack Hospital in Scutari, Turkey. He had been tasked with re-organizing the Hospital’s catering. Florence said of Soyer: ‘..others have studied cookery for the purpose of gormandizing, some for show. But none but he [Soyer] for the purpose of cooking large quantities of food in the most nutritive and economical manner for great quantities of people.’ (Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 by Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1952, p. 172). ‘He proceeded to attack the kitchens of the Barrack Hospital. He composed recipes for using the army rations to make excellent soups and stews. He put an end to the frightful system of boiling. He insisted on having permanently allocated to the kitchens, soldiers who could be trained as cooks. He invented ovens to bake bread and biscuits and a Scutari teapot which made and kept tea hot for fifty men.’ (ibid. p.172);
- He helped redesign Wellington Barracks which opened in July 1858;
Délassements Culinaires. (1845)
The Gastronomic Regenerator (1846)
Soyer’s Charitable Cookery (1847)
The Poorman’s Regenerator (1848)
The modern Housewife or ménagère (1849)
The Symposiorama: Book of Gore House (1851)
The Pantropheon or A history of food and its preparation in ancient times (1853)
A Shilling Cookery Book for the People:Embracing an entirely new system of plain cookery and domestic economy (1855)
Soyer’s Culinary Campaign (1857)
Instructions to Military Cooks (1857) – Pamphlet.
A Few of Soyer’s Recipes
Camp Soup (For Army Catering): Put half-a-pound of salt pork in a saucepan, two ounces of rice, two pints and a-half of cold water, and, when boiling, let simmer another hour, stirring once or twice; break in six ounces of biscuit, let soak ten minutes; it is then ready, adding one teaspoonful of sugar, and a quarter one of pepper, if handy.
New Way of Making Beef Tea: Cut a pound of solid beef into small dice, which put into a stew-pan with two small pots of butter, a clove, a small onion sliced, and two saltspoonfuls of salt; stir the meat round over the fire for ten minutes, until it produces a thickish gravy, then add a quart of boiling water, and let it simmer at the corner of the fire for half an hour, skimming off every particle of fat; when done pass through a sieve. I have always had a great objection to passing broth through a cloth as it frequently spoils its flavour. The same, if wanted plain, is done by merely omitting the vegetables and clove: the butter cannot be objectionable, as it is taken out in skimming; pearl-barley, vermicelli, rice, etc, may be served in it if required. A little leek, celery, or parsley may be added.
Little Fruit Rissolettes: I also make with the trimmings of puff paste the following little cakes: if you have about a quarter of a pound of puff paste left, roll it out very thin, about the thickness of half a crown, put half a spoonful of any marmalade on it, about one inch and a half distance from each other, wet lightly round them with a paste-brush, and place a similar piece of paste over all, take a cutter of the size of a crown piece, and press round the part where the marmalade or jam is with the thick part of the cutter, to make the paste stick, then cut them out with one a size or two larger, lay them on a baking-tin, egg over, place in a nice hot oven for twenty minutes, then sugar over with finely sifted sugar, so as to make it quite white, then put back into the oven to glaze and serve.
Good Plain Family Irish Stew: Take about two pounds of scrag or neck of mutton; divide it into ten pieces, lay them in the pan; cut eight large potatoes and four onions in slices, season with one teaspoonful and a half of pepper, and three of salt; cover all with water; put it into a slow oven for two hours, then stir it all up well, and dish up in deep dishes. If you add a little more water at the commencement, you can take out when half done, a nice cup of broth.
Soyer’s Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations
The transformation of Gore House, Kensington to the people’s palace of gastronomy was an unbelievable achievement by Soyer and his team. It cost diners one shilling to enter the building, half a guinea to dine in the House and less to dine in the grounds. A French-English meal cost two shillings per diner. From 5pm each day, in the main House, private dining parties took place. Soyer produced a book on the Symposium called, The Symposiorama (Book of Gore House). In it, Soyer enthuses about the eating experience that would await diners:
Dinner in the Temple of Danae, lunch in the vintage chamber, supper with the domains of the ice king, eating and drinking everywhere! Why the sight is enough to turn a heart of stone, enough to make a hermit relinquish his roots and black bread, and a teetotaler break his pledge all to fragments.
Coverage in contemporary newspapers of the interior was extensive, below is an extract from The Standard, Monday April 28th, 1851:
You enter the doorway, and stand in the Vestibule de la Fille de L’Orage, you read, ‘Soyer’s Symposium’, struck by arrows of lightning from a hand clenched convulsively over the head. From this you pass into L’atelier de Michel Ange, the walls of which are covered with the existent marvels of architectural and engineering art – the Pyramids, the Palace of Westminster, St. Paul’s, Pompey’s Pillar, the Tubular Bridge, and the like, shouldering each other with amusing defiance of time and concord. Turning to the right, the visitor finds himself in what once, was the Blessington Library, but now La Salle du Parnasse in plainer and less metaphorical English, a spacious dining-room, brilliantly fitted with mirrors, marble consoles, and Grecian vases, the prevailing characteristic of white and gold being extremely effective, and affording a delicate contrast to the ‘Salle des Noces de Danaë, the speciality of which is the Alhambra spirit of the ceiling, displayed in its gorgeous varieties of colour, while gem-like tears cover the pale green walls, dropping, as it were, from the heavily gilt cornice. The eight globes of silvered glass which are to hang here will produce an ensemble, when reflecting the floods of gas with which the salle will be charged of which, we can form but little conception….the ante-chambers of the mansion of which is striped and starred a la Jonathan.. La Cabinet de la Pompadour – embellished with flutings of white and pink, and a triumphant arch of roses and foliage; La Foret Peruvienne, the colour of which is blue.. La Chambre ardents d’Apollon a circular apartment, intended for the Ghebirs, who can, if they like, before they eat their curried spiders, prostrate themselves before the before the brazen sun which fills half the plafond with its circumference..Grotte des Neiges Eternelles encrusted with sparkling pendents…Vintage Palazzo, Italian Saloon enclosed in a trellised gallery overhung with vine leaves, through which the eye looks upon the plains of Lombardy, the fastnesses of Calabris, and the ruins of Campagns…Bourdoir de la Valliere, enter the state bed-chamber, papered with zig-zag stripes and diagonal bands of black velvet and silver lace… Pagode du Cheval de Bronze, Chinese hall, tea-chest, crimson curtains, statuettes of Fo and Buddha, fat-bodied bronzes and lantern.
There were nine acres of gardens at Gore House and Soyer ensured that he packed every inch with dining opportunities. He installed an American bar, serving egg noggs, shandygaffs, mint juleps and brandy smashes. Les Pavillons des Zingari had a Grotto of Ondine showcasing cases of gold and silver fish. The centrepiece of the gardens was the Baronial Banqueting Hall, measuring 100ft long and housing paintings produced by his late wife Emma as well as a selection by Count d’Orsay. It was also possible to dine in the Baronial Hall, a 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.
Another feature in the grounds were the Pyramids of Morning Dew. Grassy mounds upon which plaster figures were placed, surrounded with layers of vases filled with flowers. Le Pavillon Monstre d’Amphytrion, measuring 400ft long, provided an opportunity to experience Soyer’s brilliance for the logistics of mass catering. This gigantic dining encampment could seat one thousand five hundred diners at any one time. Covering the dining table was an enormous one-piece tablecloth that took two men to carry it across the meadow to the Pavillion and six people to unroll it. 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 was also fireworks and music for dancing.
As you can see, Soyer was a culinary genius who has, until now, been overlooked by historians, in favour of that other Victorian cooking genius, Isabella Beeton. Finally, Soyer is emerging from Mrs B’s shadow and exciting historians with his body of work and contribution toward the evolution of Victorian social and domestic cookery. Incidentally, a quick check of my 1915 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management reveals that a number of Soyer’s recipes were included by Mrs B in her publication. These include his recipes for goose stuffing and a sauce for plum pudding.
Suggested Further Reading
- The People’s Chef: Alexis Soyer, a Life in Seven Courses by Ruth Brandon (2004), published by John Wiley & Sons;
- Relish:The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef by Ruth Cowen (2007), published by Phoenix;
- The Portrait of a Chef: The Life of Alexis Soyer, Sometime Chef to the Reform Club by Helen Soutar Morris (1938), published by The University Press;
- The Chef at War by Alexis Soyer (2011), published by Penguin;
- ‘Hot on the Trail’ by Professor Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen, Cabinet magazine, Issue 37, Bubbles, Spring, 2010. An excellent and well-written article on Soyer’s field stoves, including images of the Magic Stove, field stoves in the Crimea and the Dublin soup kitchen in 1847. This article inspired me to research Soyer further. For article, CLICK HERE.