January 30, 2012

Cocktail Talk: Alexis Soyer Week, Part 1

If you’re interested in cooking, in living well, use a gas stove, have eaten while in the military, have worn a beret or enjoy wearing colorful clothes, like French, English, or other European cuisine, have a healthy (or unhealthy) interest in celebrity chefs or celebrities in general, are curious about kitchen inventions, have been known to knock back a bit of bubbly regularly, are wondering where the first American-style cocktail bar was in London, have a thing for Dickens’ era history, or just want to learn about an awfully interesting fella, I strongly suggest you read Roth Cowen’s Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef. It’s quite a rollicking read as far as biographies go, because Soyer was quite a rollicking character. A famous chef in Paris by the time he was 20 (called “The Enfant Terrible of Monmartre”), Soyer really became a hit after political uprising sent him to England (he’d made one amazing, and amazingly described, banquet for the wrong people when the right people were uprising). He eventually became head chef at the famous Reform Club, where he designed the most modern kitchen ever seen, including being one of the first to use gas stoves instead of coal, along with a bunch of other culinary-minded inventions and innovations. Eventually, he did a host of things (I’m not going to mention them all–really, read the book) consumerist and philanthropic, published cookbooks, had his name on condiments, had a hugely fantastic failure of a, well, restaurant isn’t really the word, but at least is related, made and lost lots of money, became well-known, and then died in his late 40s. For the amount of work he did for the poor and military of the U.K., you’d think he’d be better revered, but he hasn’t been (though maybe the last few years have been kinder). As you can tell, I was pretty struck by Soyer when reading the book, so much so that I’ve decided to have a week of quotes from the book (which may mean three posts, maybe more), some by him, and some about him. Starting with one from earlier in his life, and then moving on–all to try and entice you to learn more about the great Soyer.

…he was particularly skilled at mimicking the comic turns of whichever show was playing. He had a musical ear and sang, by all accounts, nearly as well as Levasseur, one of the most admired bass singers in France. A dandy with a penchant for outlandish costumes, a terrible flirt, a skiller storyteller and an impish practical joker, Alexis had even considered switching careers to try his luck on the stage.

By two in the morning he would be at the Provence Hotel, the Ceder Cellars, or Evan’s Late Supper Rooms in Covent Garden–also frequented by Thackeray–where customers descended a flight of stone steps to a smoky basement called the Cave of Harmony, which was in fact a large raucous music hall and café serving simple, alcohol-absorbing meals of fatty chops, sausages, grilled kidneys in gravy, Welsh rarebit, and baked potatoes. Here the exclusively male clientele would stay until the early hours, cheering and heckling the professional glee singers and comic acts while knocking back the cheap booze–stout, pale ale, punch, grog, hot whisky and water.


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Ruth Cowen said:

I’ve just discovered your excellent blog and wanted to thank you for your generous coverage of my book Relish. So glad you enjoyed it and helped to spread the word about this amazing man! Cheers! Ruth Cowen

ajrathbun said:

Ruth, thank you so much for the kind words and I’m glad you liked the posts. I really loved Relish and learning about Soyer–and think the book and story would make an incredible movie (funny enough, I learned about Soyer first from a TV show). Thanks again for writing such a great and entertaining book. Cheers, take care.

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