I should like to welcome, Frank Clement-Lorford to the Authors Spotlight.
James A Bresco writes on,Frank Clement-Lorford,Author of,
The First Celebrity Chef
I think it’s safe to say that Frank decided to write about Alexis Soyer for several reasons; the foremost being that, he was at one time, married to Alexis Soyer’s great, great Granddaughter and, having a vested interest, Frank began his research into Alexis Soyer in the late 1990s. It wasn’t long before Frank discovered that very little was known about Alexis Soyer, even by his own family. The second reason, I believe was, that due to a sense of fairness, Frank decided that Alexis Soyer, a French Chef of the Victorian period; who was to become the most celebrated Chef of the era, deserved better, and set out to write Alexis Soyer’s Biography. It took many years of research and, a great deal of patience; due in part, to the many erroneous statements written about Soyer over the years, and sadly, much of Alexis’ story remains untold, mainly because it was impossible to find supporting evidence for certain events. However, realising that writing about characters like; Alexis Soyer, were very rare, he continued, until finally, the manuscript was finished and, published with Amazon Kindle on September the 6th, 2011.
James A Bresco
The First Celebrity Chef
Could you imagine a modern day chef committing suicide because he had got the ingredients wrong, or that his soufflé had not risen, or that he had not ordered enough ingredients to enable him to prepare a sumptuous meal? No? Yet in the 16th century a chef did exactly that. He was chef to the King of France, Louis XIV, and in his preparation for dinner for his king, he realised that he had not ordered enough fish for the meal he was preparing. He went to his bedchamber jammed a sword in the door and ran onto it. His name was Francois Vatel.
He did this not because he was scared of his master, but because he could not serve a meal to his own exacting standards. It is to him, the chef this book is about, used to pray to when he felt things were going wrong. He knew that Vatel would understand his own high standards. His name was Alexis Bénoist Soyer and he was without doubt the greatest chef of the 19th century.
Sir George Lewis – Britain’s Secretary of War in 1861 once said, “The indiscretion of biographers adds a new terror to death”. I feel that the story and life of Alexis Soyer has suffered at the hand of various biographers. Volant and Warren’s “Memoirs of Alexis Soyer” published in 1858, was written in the sycophantic way of those times, not wishing to show their late master in a bad light – which is understandable. However “Memoirs of Alexis Soyer” carried many mistakes. Helen Morris’s Portrait of a Chef published in 1938, is more fiction than fact; she simply copied most of “Memoirs of Alexis Soyer” without acknowledging it. Therefore any ‘facts’ she introduced have to be treated with suspicion, as if they never happened. And of course she compounded the mistakes of “Memoirs of Alexis Soyer”. These reasons have forced me to write this book in a chronological style. This book is more about the man than his culinary achievements
Alexis Soyer used to keep a ‘daily tablet’ where he would record daily events and all his achievements, he would ask involved notables to write letters or he would dictate to his secretary a summary of events and gets these various notables to sign the document. All these have been lost. Therefore this book has been based on extensive research in England and France and corrections of misinterpretation of fact by previous biographers, articles in French, English and American newspapers, publications and magazines, and of course Alexis’s own books.
I also introduce you to Nicolas Soyer, creator of a system of Paper Bag Cookery and I explore his claims of being a Royal chef to the Windsor household and to being the grandson of Alexis Bénoist Soyer.
F J Clement-Lorford
Alexis Soyer, or to give him his full name Alexis Bénoist Soyer was born in a small town just outside of Paris called Meaux, which was renowned for its Brie-de-Meaux – the cheese of Kings. He was the youngest child of Emery and Marie Soyer. Alexis was born at 10pm 4th February 1810. Alexis’s birth came as a surprise to his parents because they already had had four boys, although two had died, just leaving Philippe (20th April 1799) the first born, and the second son Louis (7th May 1801.) The next two sons Paul and Rene died in their infancy.
Meaux was also renowned for being the first community of French Protestants who were known as Huguenots. The Bishop of Meaux was one of the Huguenots earliest leaders. It was in Meaux that the Huguenots made a failed attempt to kill King Charles IX, his mother Catherine de Medici heard of this and sent a catholic army to wipe them out. This was in 1572 and started the persecution of the Huguenots, who fled the country mainly going to Ireland, Holland and of course England. One trade that was lost from Meaux because of this ethnic cleansing was stuff-weavers. By 1685 The Huguenot religion was made illegal, by 1750 it was claimed that there were no more French Protestants in France. This was not true as they went underground. However, during the French revolution of November 1789, the national assembly affirmed the rights of the French Protestant’s religion and granted them admission to all offices and professions. It goes without saying that for several years the Huguenots were very wary and it took them some time to rejoin French society. By 1799 Meaux was again attracting Huguenots to settle there.
Emery and Marie Soyer who were Huguenots came to Meaux in the spring of 1799, on the advice of a distant relative Louis Martin Soyer who was the ‘notaire’ for the town. In 1800 they leased a grocers shop, situated in Rue du Tan, Meaux. This business failed and Emery tried his hand at many things to support his family including being a saddler, silversmith and he was a general labourer on the canal when it was built in Meaux. By the time Alexis was born the family fortune had fallen so much that they were living in the slums of Meaux and Emery was without a profession.
In his earlier years in England, Alexis was somewhat of a self-aggrandiser, he always had a need to be the centre of attention, he wanted to be seen as the equal of whoever’s company he was in, also Alexis struggled with the strangeness of England and the English way of life, which might explain some of the stories he would tell to gain acceptance. The first book written about Alexis was a contemporary memoir written by a disgraced friend and secretary named Francois J Z Volant. This book The Memoirs of Alexis Soyer tells of a tale in Alexis’ youth where his parents wanted Alexis to join the church and because he had a marvellous singing voice they could get him into the local chorister school. Alexis to get out of this, decided one night to ring the bells of one of the churches in Meaux – he decided on the great church St Etienne. Picture the scene. It seemed that France at that time was either going through revolutions, republics or concordats. Therefore the early warning system of attack, trouble or fire was the ringing of the church bells. By Alexis ringing the bell, he would disturb the majority of the citizens of Meaux and the local garrison would be called out. He was caught and next day the family were informed there would be no place for him at the seminary and any further obligation to the church, much to the shame and regret of his parents. As nice as this story sounds and it is the sort of thing that a young Alexis would do I cannot give it too much credence. I believe Alexis might have carried out the bell-ringing prank. But, even in those days the church was largely middle-class to high-class. The family of an entrant would have to pay for him while he was in seminary school. Emery and Marie Soyer simply did not have that sort of money and as previously mentioned they had moved social class.
For a short time, Alexis attended the local school. He was considered very bright; however he was restless soul and became somewhat of a disruptive influence. Consequently at the age of eleven his parents decided that he should go and stay with his eldest brother, Philippe – who was a leading chef in Paris. Therefore off to Paris he went. After seeing what his brother did for a living, he decided that this was something he wanted to do. His other brother Louis was a cabinetmaker and Alexis showed no appreciation for that profession. Philippe refused to have him working in his own kitchen, but arranged with his friend Georg Rignon to teach him and paid for his apprenticeship. Chez Rignon was in rue Vivienne, just near Passages des Panoramas, later moving to Boulevard des Italiens.
Shortly into his apprenticeship Alexis’s mischievous nature again got the better of him. Again, this is a story told of him in “Memoirs of Alexis Soyer”. He attended a function that M. Rignon had catered, where he was encouraged to sing for his supper, which he did gladly. His reward was to be allowed to help himself to food and drink. At thirteen he had tasted food but not much drink. So he quaffed glass after glass of wine, and never lost the taste for it, after this. At the end of the night like other apprentices, he had to take trays of crockery back to the restaurant. Dutifully he set off and as soon as the cold air hit him, he collapsed in a drunken stupor. When he came to, he carried on to Rignon. When he arrived, all the staff laughed at him, he was minus his tray of crockery and he had been debagged. However being Alexis he was forgiven after the tray with the crockery had been handed in later that same day. (History does not tell us if the trousers were returned.) The rest of his apprenticeship continued quite smoothly. M. Rignon soon realised the potential Alexis was showing. He was the top student and even taught some of the other apprentices – which Alexis did not mind.
By the time Alexis was seventeen, he was chef de cuisine for the celebrated La Maison Douix, with twelve chefs working under him. La Maison Douix was considered one of the top restaurants in Paris, it was patronised by actors, opera singers, theatre people and dancers from the ballet. Suddenly Alexis’s whole life changed. La Maison Douix was situated on Boulevard des Italiens in the heart of Montmarte. He quickly became known as the enfant terrible of Montmartre. Montmarte was a mixture of both sides of life. On one side it was home to the underworld of Paris. From before the Revolution, rustic Montmartre was infamous for its dangerous taverns – at some of which it was reputed that unwanted daughters could be sold to the wealthy, who had country pleasure houses in the vicinity. Yet on the other hand you had some of the finest restaurants in Paris, together with The Opera Comique, Théátre des Variétés, Comédie Française the Ballet and in Boulevard des Italiens, the Opera House. To Alexis this was El Dorado and Pandora’s Box all rolled into one, and he enjoyed life, whilst increasing his fame and reputation. Many times Alexis was invited up on the stage of the Théátre des Variétés to sing and the Opera Comique heightened his taste for fun. The patrons of La Maison Douix all wanted to be seen with the enfant terrible of Montmartre sitting at their table, sharing a glass of wine. At one time Philippe thought he was going to lose his brother to the stage; luckily this did not happen but it left Alexis with a very strange dress sense.
However in 1829, at the age of nineteen he met and fell in love with a woman and his life settled down. Her name was Adelaide Lamain and she was very much in love with Alexis. Working at Douix did not allow him much chance to be with Adelaide. He left that establishment and worked for several notable Parisian families, supplying and cooking banquets – a culinary master had arrived in Paris with no equal.
Yet Alexis was shortly to make two decisions that were to change the direction of his life. On the 2nd of June 1830, Adelaide gave birth to his son, Jean Alexis Lamain. He made the decision, with the help of his family’s advise not to marry Adelaide. At twenty he was the talk of Paris and his family felt with his youth and potential future it was too soon to settle down. The second decision was to work for Prince Polignac at the French Foreign Office. He was impressed by the title. One of Alexis’s failings was that he was very impressed and in awe of royalty, nobility, ruling classes and people of power. He wanted to be considered their equal. Up to 1829 Prince Polignac had been King Charles X’s Ambassador to England. On his return he was made Foreign and First Minister. Then in July 1830 Prince Polignac, in violation of the Charter of Liberties, abolished freedom of the press, dissolved the Chamber of Deputies and altered election laws. Next day, 5,000 printers and press workers were in the street. Three newspapers defiantly published. When police tried to seize copies, artisans and shopkeepers joined the riot. On 28 July, the disbanded National Guard came out rearmed, Republican organised insurrection committees and whole regiments of the Paris garrison defected. Three days of fighting followed, known as “Les Trois Glorieuses.” King Charles X was forced to abdicate. Polignac was sentenced and imprisoned for life, yet was released in 1836. On one of these nights, Prince Polignac, totally oblivious of the rioting on the streets and feeling he was invulnerable, was in fact celebrating the decrees that he had put in place. Then, suddenly, strikers and insurrectionists invaded the palace, killing and maiming all who stood in their way. Alexis and his staff were in the kitchen, when they heard the commotion overhead; they tried to make good their escape. However the strikers caught up with them and killed two of Alexis’s colleagues. Alexis stopped running and pretending to be one of them – started singing the ‘La Marseillaise’ then ‘La Parisienne’. The mob believing he was one of them, joined in the singing. Alexis, who normally loved the limelight, was quite happy to blend into the background this time and make good his escape.
However, the aftermath of this adventure left Alexis without a job. His fame taking a dent – the Paris newspapers did not forgive him for working for Prince Polignac – Alexis therefore looked across the waters and to a family member for guidance. Mind you, he might have changed his mind, if he had been aware that the Swing Agricultural riots were taking place in southern England, when he decided to join his brother in London in August 1830.
 Sometimes referred to as Meaux-en-Brie
 Emery Roch Alexis Soyer.
 Marie Madeleine Francoise Chamberlan.
 Paul Alexis Soyer 22nd November 1803-23rd May 1807.
 Rene Alexandre Soyer 7th June 1805-14th June 1805.
 Forerunner of cloth weaving (silk)
 Volant uses the word ‘Secretary’, yet I think he was more a companion-at-arms to Soyer and not always in his employ.
 Also know as St Stephens.
 It was in Montmarte that the world’s first restaurant opened on rue des Poulie in 1765 by Boulanger.
 Adelaide Angelique Lamain, born in Fountainbleu.
 Prince Armand de Polignac.1780 – 1845. He lived in London between 1836 and 1845. His son Carmille Marie served as a lieutenant for the French forces in the Crimea. Later, as a general in the Confederate army of America.
The First Celebrity Chef