Edward White’s new monthly column, “Off Menu,” serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
When the potato blight arrived in Ireland in September 1845, many of those in power downplayed the threat it posed. The disease had already blackened potato crops across the Americas and Western Europe, but dire predictions about the damage it could wreak on Ireland’s staple food were dismissed as irresponsible scaremongering, “deluding the public with a false alarm,” in the words of the mayor of Liverpool.
That line didn’t last long. By October it was obvious that the lives of millions were at risk. In response, the British government offered half measures, unwavering in its determination that the solution should not be worse than the problem. To break economic orthodoxy by providing direct aid to those in need would be tyrannical, it was argued, and create a culture of dependency and deception. Charles Trevelyan, the government official leading the relief effort, put it bluntly: “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated … The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
1847 was the nadir of the crisis. Countless people died of starvation and disease, others fled in droves. The mayor of Liverpool could no longer contest the reality of the crisis; so many destitute refugees came to his city that it was described by the registrar general as “the cemetery of Ireland.”
Into the bleakness stepped Alexis Soyer, the most famous chef in London, a man who had made a fortune from catering to the outsize appetites of sybarites and playboys, and about as unlikely a savior of the famished as it’s possible to imagine. A peacocking, Rabelaisian embodiment of modern London, Soyer was as adept at self-promotion as he was at creating the extravagant high-society banquets for which he was famed. Nevertheless, in Dublin on April 5, 1847, he unveiled his plan to end the suffering of the Irish people: a specially designed soup kitchen, combining the traditional craft of French cooking with the efficiency of modern science.
The launch was attended not only by thousands of famine victims, but by representatives of the press, and hundreds of well-to-do observers, including the Duke of Cambridge and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As the hungry stood behind metal railings outside, VIPs were given a first look inside the kitchen, where they sampled for themselves what the famous Soyer had rustled up with food aid rations. “The contrast was sudden and striking,” reported the Dublin Evening Post the following day. “A moment before, and the lovely faces which lighted up the pavilion, smiled their approval of every thing they saw; a moment after, their places became filled by the poor, upon whose persons famine and misery and time had seemed to have done their worst.”
As laudable as it was unsettling, Soyer’s soup kitchen experiment was a precursor of the awkward union of celebrity and humanitarianism so familiar to our own times. But it was also the emblematic moment of Soyer’s unique culinary life, lived at extremes—poverty and wealth, toil and glamor, feast and famine.
Soyer was born in France on February 4, 1810, in Meaux, a town best known for its rich wholegrain mustard and its brie. When leaders from across Europe met at the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the French diplomat Talleyrand, confident that nowhere on earth contained such edifying delights as a French kitchen, arranged a tasting contest of sixty cheeses from across the continent; Brie de Meaux was declared the winner.
Despite the gastronomic distinction of his hometown, Soyer grew up poor and knew what it was to be hungry. Yet, as was the case with many of his compatriots then and now, he was raised to believe that good eating and good cooking should not be the preserve of the affluent. Aged eleven, he was sent by his parents to Paris where his older brother Philippe was already making his way as a chef. When Philippe helped Soyer get his first taste of a professional kitchen, the boy’s talent for cooking was immediately obvious, as was his ebullience and charisma, qualities that allowed him to command a kitchen in the heat and smoke of service. His career soared, but when revolution rattled Paris in the summer of 1830, Soyer fled to London. There, he worked for some of the richest and most powerful aristocrats in England, and built a public profile as a hard-drinking extrovert with a fabulous singing voice, an exotic young genius in and out of the kitchen.
In 1837, still only twenty-seven, Soyer was named chef de cuisine of the Reform Club, the social center of the Liberal movement, and a magnet for foreign dignitaries and celebrated Londoners. On the occasion of Victoria’s coronation the following year, he prepared a huge celebratory breakfast for thousands of paying customers, filled with such wonders as Turban of Larks à la Parisienne, pigeon in vine leaves, and turtle soup. Over the next decade, Soyer developed something of a culinary empire based on his reputation as the most brilliant chef in the land, selling the idea that you, too, could create dishes fit for a queen. He authored several extremely popular cookery books, and his dandyish red beret was used as a brand logo for the wildly successful range of sauces and drinks he launched under his own name, as well as various gadgets and utensils of his own design.
The base of his operations was the futuristic kitchen of the Reform Club, designed from scratch by the man himself. Every square inch of the space made extensive and imaginative use of the very latest science and technology: there were refrigerators, speaking tubes, ventilation devices, and lifts, pulleys, and steam-powered machines of all sorts. Traditional charcoal ovens—which clogged the lungs of kitchen workers and hastened the deaths of innumerable chefs—were banished in favor of gas, allowing chefs to regulate the temperature of each pan as never before. The word “ergonomics” was not coined until 1857, when the Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzebowski first used it in an essay on “the science of work,” but the essential concept was evident in Soyer’s new kitchen, where space was created from nothing—wheels were added to tables and cabinets while chopping boards slid in and out of countertops. The kitchen was a modern marvel, covered extensively in the press and tied firmly to the chef who had designed it. Amazed visitors arrived daily for a guided tour. Soyer reckoned that in 1846 alone, he welcomed at least fifteen thousand people.
That same year, 1846, was when the Great Famine really took hold—but it was also the moment of Soyer’s most lavish banquet, in honor of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt. Dozens of dishes were laid on, starting with several different soups and ending with a thirty-inch-high pyramid made of meringue, grapes, nuts, pineapples, and sugar work, on top of which stood a perfect miniature model of the Pasha’s father. That Soyer should have been serving up such indulgence at a time of extreme privation seems to have pricked his conscience. He didn’t even have to look as far as Ireland—or Scotland, which was also suffering the effects of the blight—to find those in need; it was the want, disease, and squalor of 1840s London that led Henry Mayhew to write London Labour and the London Poor, an immensely influential account of the wretched living conditions endured by millions of the city’s poorest inhabitants, who rarely received any more from the laissez-faire government of the day than did the impoverished in Ireland.
When Soyer investigated the charitable efforts in place to feed London’s needy, he was appalled to discover soup that was innutritious, unpalatable, and—perhaps worst of all—wasteful. He could scarcely believe his eyes when he witnessed “one hundred pounds of meat cut into pieces of a quarter of a pound each, put into one hundred gallons of water, at twelve o’clock of one day, to be boiled until twelve o’clock the next day,” leaving nothing but thin, discolored water. Those in charge of the existing soup kitchens were well-meaning and kindhearted, he acknowledged, but severely lacking in the skills he had as a chef, and the knowledge he felt was an immanent part of French culture. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the Platonic ideal of the nineteenth-century French gastronome, considered soup to be “the foundation of French nutrition,” and fundamental to the living of a properly French life. To the mind of a French chef, an inability to make a soup that was both tasty and healthful was a shameful failure.
So, Soyer embarked on a new scheme to nourish the starving and educate the ignorant, designing a soup kitchen in the Spitalfields district that was run with the same inventiveness, professionalism, and efficiency of his space at the Reform Club. He also gave cookery lessons to “respectable” ladies who wanted to provide for ailing communities, and published some of his “famine soup” recipes in newspapers, and in the pamphlet Soyer’s Charitable Cooking. Soyer calculated that he could produce one hundred gallons of soup—meat, fish, or vegetable—for less than £1, and that daily portions were, on their own, nutritious enough to sustain the average person. Exactly how the idea came about to transfer these methods to Ireland is unclear, but by the beginning of the 1847, Soyer had been granted leave from the Reform Club to travel to Dublin, where he spent several weeks exploring the desperateness of the situation.
By early April, the model kitchen in Dublin was complete. When Soyer flung open the doors of the kitchen on its launch day, the dignitaries encountered a space of two thousand square feet, which resembled an assembly line more than a restaurant. In order to maximize space, Soyer had people queue in eight lines, all in a precise zigzag formation. At the end of these lines was a three-sided counter—as one might find in an enormous pub—behind which stood a gigantic bread oven, and a three-hundred-gallon soup boiler, surrounded by eight bains-maries, in which freshly made soup was kept warm before being ladled into bowls on the counter. Next to each bowl was a metal spoon, fixed to the countertop by a chain. Each recipient was given exactly six minutes—measured by the ringing of a bell—to finish their soup, before walking to the exit, where they were given a chunk of bread or a biscuit to take with them. The bowls were rinsed and refilled for the next in line. With this method, Soyer could feed close to nine thousand people a day.
It was undoubtedly efficient, though horribly redolent of the workhouse, and even at the time, the presence of the gawping gentry on opening day struck some as unforgivably exploitative. One observer wondered why these respectable ladies and gentlemen hadn’t simply gone for a day out at the zoo. Others were more concerned that Soyer’s claims that his soups were nutritious enough to sustain the starving were unfounded, the sort of promotional puffery one could expect of a man who was as much salesman as chef. “Soup quackery” was how one skeptic summed it up.
For all its flaws, Soyer’s soup kitchen was an impressive achievement, and its example produced clones all over the country. His model kitchen up and running, he returned to the excitement of London. But, Soyer was never quite the same again. His love of food now served a profound purpose; for the decade of life he had left in him, he continued in his efforts to teach the inhabitants of the British Isles the true value of cooking and eating.
As it turned out, Soyer’s legacy in Ireland was short-lived. By September 1847, the government had closed all the soup kitchens, thinking the blight had finally left and the crisis was coming to a close. It was an awful miscalculation. Hundreds of thousands more would die or emigrate as a result of the famine over the next five years.
In 1850, Soyer parted ways with the Reform Club after thirteen years of service. Thirsting for a new challenge, he sank all his money into a madcap scheme he called Alexis Soyer’s Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations, for which he transformed a stately home adjacent to Hyde Park into a cornucopia of world cuisine during the Great Exhibition of 1851. The project hemorrhaged money, and Soyer lost practically everything.
Gradually, he clawed it back, by returning to his roots as a chef who knew how to make a little go a long way. In 1854, he published Soyer’s Shilling Cookery for the People, his first book aimed not at the wealthy, or even the middle classes, but “the million,” as he referred to the laboring people of Britain. Aside from the recipes—often Soyer’s take on hearty English standards—he provided his readers with an elementary education in kitchen skills: paring, skinning, and carving, even how to boil an egg and make toast, a reflection of how lacking he felt the British were in their feel for food. His ultimate hope was that the book would not just allow ordinary people to eat better, but reconnect them with what they put in their bellies, and educate them of its origins. In Ireland he had been outraged to see fish taken from the teeming stocks surrounding the island used not as a source of food, but as a fertilizer for potatoes, the monocrop that had driven the country to famine. Consequently, much of Shilling Cookery is dedicated to avoiding waste, having diversity in one’s diet, and the importance of eating locally and seasonally. This focus on what we now call biodiversity and sustainability strikes modern readers as remarkably prescient, though Soyer would perhaps answer that these were simply the traditional standards of the food culture in which he was raised.
A few months after Shilling Cookery was published, Soyer found himself cooking in a crisis zone once again, this time in the Crimean War. Bogged down by the exigencies of life on campaign, British soldiers were beset by illness, disease, and malnutrition. The reports of Florence Nightingale’s work in reforming the military hospitals had made her a household name back home, and in early 1855 Soyer joined her to sort out the shambolic state of their kitchens. Though wildly different personalities, the pair admired one another, became friends, and formed a formidable, if brief, partnership. Soyer’s impact was transformative. He taught soldiers how to run a kitchen, catering more and better meals faster, cheaper, and with a minimum of waste, all of which helped to slash mortality rates. He also designed a portable gas stove that could be used in the field, a variation of which was regulation kit in the British Army until the eighties.
Within three years of his return from Crimea, Soyer was dead. He succumbed to a stroke on August 5, 1858, aged forty-eight. Today, Florence Nightingale’s memory is as strong in Britain as ever: seven new hospitals across the country, built in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, are named in her honor, evoking the values of compassion and resolve with which she has become synonymous. Soyer’s presence is less obvious, but still detectable. Over the last few weeks, Jamie Oliver, another ball of entrepreneurial energy who became a household name by trying to teach Brits one end of a carrot from the other, has been hosting Keep Cooking and Carry On, a TV series in which he shows lockdown Britain how to make something exquisite out of our stockpiles of canned fruit and frozen vegetables. Soyer would have loved to have done the same. And, the lessons he preached about savoring what you have, knowing where it comes from and how to use it, and appreciating that every time food fills the stomach it also soothes the soul, seem urgently relevant to us all.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. He is currently working on a book about Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for The Paris Review Daily was “The Lives of Others.”