The People's Chef, by Ruth Brandon

Celebrity chef's kitchen hell in the Crimea
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The Independent Culture

Nowadays, there is nothing too surprising about an ambitious chef who draws fashionable London to his establishments, publishes best-selling cookbooks, designs kitchen utensils and sells a bottled sauce under his name. But Alexis Soyer (1809-1858) did all this first, and much more. A social climber with a conscience, he designed and ran model soup-kitchens in London and Ireland. During the Crimean War, he worked wonders through his efficient management of the kitchens in Florence Nightingale's vast hospital at Scutari.

Nowadays, there is nothing too surprising about an ambitious chef who draws fashionable London to his establishments, publishes best-selling cookbooks, designs kitchen utensils and sells a bottled sauce under his name. But Alexis Soyer (1809-1858) did all this first, and much more. A social climber with a conscience, he designed and ran model soup-kitchens in London and Ireland. During the Crimean War, he worked wonders through his efficient management of the kitchens in Florence Nightingale's vast hospital at Scutari.

Raised in reduced circumstances - his father was a failed grocer in Meaux-en-Brie - Soyer could scarcely write in French, never mind English. He wrote letters, cookbooks and memoirs with the assistance of amanuenses. Turning this paucity of personal material to advantage, Ruth Brandon uses each phase of Soyer's meteoric career to explore a different aspect of 19th-century life, including the destruction of the English peasantry, the growth of London clubland, the Irish famine, the Great Exhibition and Britain's disastrous involvement in the Crimea.

The result is a biography of great interest and readability. Perhaps the most fascinating sections are the chapter introductions in which Brandon essays one of Soyer's recipes. His signature dish of Mutton Cutlets Reform turns out to be a "true delicacy", though its complex sauce has an "unexpected" taste. "Here, to all intents and purposes, after hours of labour ... was - tomato ketchup!" The Marsala jelly served in Crimean hospitals proves to be like "jellied iced tea ... genuinely refreshing". His beetroot salad is "unexpected and delicious". Even the Famine Soup, whose cost Soyer estimated at 3d per gallon, is "palatable".

Soyer was also a celebrity chef avant la lettre. The spacious kitchens he designed for the Reform Club, the first to use gas for stove-top cookery, became a fashionable attraction. When Lord Melbourne asked why he had so many pretty female assistants, he shot back: "My lord, we do not want plain cooks here."

Offered the chance to cater for the Great Exhibition, Soyer instead opened Britain's first real restaurant across the road in Kensington Gore. This enterprise virtually ruined him, while Joseph Schweppe, mediocre caterer of the Great Exhibition, remains a household name. Brandon's critique of her hero's defects ("his impatience with tedious detail, his desire always to move on and try something new") might be applied to many of today's chef-entrepreneurs.

The chef bounced back with Soyer's Shilling Cookery for the People, but Brandon maintains that his name would scarcely be remembered were it not for his brave work in the Crimea. Faced with more than 4,000 sick and wounded, Soyer was at first overwhelmed, but overcame the British army's lethal indifference to food. Though he was "extraordinarily cheerful" while enduring the ghastly conditions at Scutari, Soyer never recovered from the experience and died a year after returning to Britain. He emerges from this book as a figure of great talent, energy and humour.

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