Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class by Luke Barr
Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class by Luke Barr. Clarkson Potter, 312 pp., $26.00
César Ritz (1850–1918) gave his name to some of the world’s most luxurious hotels—in Paris, Madrid, and London—as well as to the ninety-one hotels in the Ritz-Carlton chain and, posthumously, to a cracker. His surname even became an adjective, “ritzy.” The success of his original hotel enterprises owed much to his partner, Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), history’s most celebrated cook and still the secular patron saint of most professional chefs. They were both crooks. (So was Ritz’s deputy, Louis Echenard.) On March 7, 1898, their employers, the Savoy Hotel in London, where Ritz was the general manager, sacked them for larceny, embezzlement, and fraud. The Savoy managed to recoup £19,137, “a significant amount,” writes the food historian Luke Barr in his new book about the rascally pair. But he does not convert the figure to today’s money to show us how significant: £19,137 in 1898 is equivalent to £2,412,123 (about
$3.2 million) in 2018. For comparison, Barr says, “the hotel’s total profits” that year were £20,276, equal to £2,555,688
(about $3.4 million) today.
They’d been thieving since Escoffier joined the hotel on April 6, 1890; even so, it’s no mean feat of pilfering to have, in only eight years, stuffed their pockets with nearly the entire profits of a good year. While
Ritz, who went on to open the Carlton and then the hotels that bear his name, paid back an enormous sum to the Savoy, Escoffier, who had no head for money, only managed to return £500 of the £8,000 he owed.
Ritz had risen impressively above his background. He was the last of thirteen children from a poor peasant family in Niederwald, Switzerland; Barr says he was ashamed of his “large, peasantsize hands and feet.” At twelve he had the good fortune to go a Jesuit college as a boarder. When he reached fifteen and needed to prepare for a career, he apprenticed for the summer as a wine waiter at a hotel; but the proprietor told him, according to the unreliable memoir by Ritz’s wife, Marie, “You’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It takes a special knack, a special flair, and . . . you haven’t got it.” Ritz went back to the Jesuit college, where he worked as a sacristan, then made his optimistic way to Paris in time for the 1867 Universal Exhibition.
Escoffier, also from humble origins, was the son of the village blacksmith in Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice. At thirteen, he was apprenticed to his uncle, who had opened a restaurant in Nice that catered to the well-off winter visitors; as he showed promise as a cook, Escoffier found a job in Paris in 1865, when he was nineteen. Called up for military service shortly afterward, he spent almost seven years in the army, going to Metz as chef de cuisine of the Rhine Army when the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870. His army experience led to his interest in preservation, especially canning food; he would later bottle and sell sauces labeled with his name.
The two met in 1884. Ritz was managing a hotel in Monte Carlo that belonged to his wife’s aunt and uncle, but lost his chef to the new Hôtel de Paris at the casino. Ritz had heard great things about Escoffier, and finally located him. “Temperamentally,” writes Barr, “they were opposites.” Whereas “Ritz was outgoing, debonair, and excitable . . . Escoffier was cerebral and methodical. Ritz was extravagant, ambitious, and prone to self-doubt, while Escoffier was self-assured and precise.” Both married up socially—Ritz in 1888 to Marie-Louise Beck, and Escoffier in 1880 (some sources say 1878) to Delphine Pauline Daffis, a poet and the daughter of a publisher; both were always in businesses that depended on wealthy, often aristocratic patrons. Social climbing was part of their careers. Barr refers to Ritz’s mental illness and mentions that he had a final “nervous breakdown” in 1902, but he does not mention the often-cited possibility that Ritz suffered from what was then called manic depression. Though mania might provide a clue to why Ritz was drawn to larceny, there is no comparable explanation for Escoffier’s crimes. His sole excuse was that, in taking kickbacks and a 5 percent commission in cash from his suppliers (who made up their losses by shorting their deliveries to the Savoy), he was only following the long-standing customs and practices of his trade.
The land on which the Savoy Hotel stands was bought in 1880 by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Theatre, dedicated to presenting the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which he produced. Impressed by the opulence of the American hotels in which he’d stayed while touring, D’Oyly Carte decided to build, on the same site as the theater, London’s first luxury hotel, with electric lighting, elevators serving the 268 rooms, and marble bathrooms with constant hot water. These were all novel in London in 1889, when the hotel opened, but it lost money in its first year of operation. The board of directors (which included the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, the impresario Carl Rosa, and George Grossmith, co-author of Diary of a Nobody) decided that the general manager, W. Hardwicke, was responsible for the hotel’s poor performance and dismissed him.
D’Oyly Carte had been courting Ritz for some time, and now made him the irresistible offer of an annual salary of £1,200 (about $200,000 today), with equally generous wages for Echenard, his deputy and wine buyer, and Escoffier, who was by now the first celebrity chef de cuisine. The chef became the chum of Émile Zola and the friend (some say lover) of Sarah Bernhardt; he attracted the favors of the famous, for a few of whom he named dishes—pêche Melba (after the Australian soprano), poularde Adelina Patti (after another soprano), filets de sole Walewska (after the mistress of Napoleon III). Soon their most important client was the Prince of Wales, who probably used other parts of the Savoy to entertain at least some of his mistresses (rumored to have numbered fifty-five).
Ritz and D’Oyly Carte’s business plan, says Barr, “was for the Savoy to occupy the very heart of cosmopolitan London, to bring together in spectacular fashion socialites and celebrities, royalty and bohemian artists, and newly minted millionaires, night after night— all the energy and drama of the city in one place.” They also wanted to attract a female clientele, as women then seldom ate or entertained outside their homes, so they paid special attention to features of the dining room, such as flattering lighting. But it was Escoffier’s cooking “that was of utmost importance to the Savoy’s success,” Barr tells us. “It was the cooking that would entice new visitors, and bring them back.” What was Escoffier’s cooking like? There’s a clue in the fact that it was the target of the culinary rebellion by the nouvelle cuisine chefs that began in the 1970s. In his day, Barr writes, Escoffier’s cuisine was novel,
less complicated than [that of his famous predecessor Carême] had been, shorn of unnecessary ornamentation, inedible decoration, and too many sauces. Food should be food, said Escoffier. Surtout, faites simple was his motto— “above all, make it simple.”. . . Ultimately, he wanted the ingredients to shine through.
Escoffier, of course, made genuine changes to the haute cuisine of his predecessors, but for the nouvelle cuisine chefs, who sought even more lightness, freshness, and simplicity, his cooking was fussy, overelaborate, and oversauced. One sixteen-course banquet—including bird’s nest soup, borscht, crayfish, chicken, lamb, ortolan, quail, and braised turtle fins— had four sweet courses, but only one of vegetables or salad. At a dinner put on by the Prince of Wales, the quail was “stuffed with large-dice foie gras and then wrapped in bacon and lined up in large terrines.”
Escoffier is revered, even by today’s chefs, for his kitchen reforms and for elevating the social status of the profession. Kitchens were hot, sweaty places, even after coal-fired ranges were replaced with gas burners. Cooks rehydrated themselves with beer, which meant a good deal of drunkenness by the time dinner was served. Escoffier banned alcohol consumption (and smoking and shouting) in the kitchen and insisted that no one ever appear in public with dirty chefs’ whites or wear their whites on the street.
Even better for the chefs, waiters, diners, and profits, he restructured the kitchen, introducing the idea of brigades under his overall command. Now, instead of being responsible for cooking dishes from beginning to end, the cooks were divided into parallel teams, each dealing with a single aspect of a dish as assigned by the appropriate chef de partie, or station chef, who oversaw each brigade. This organization greatly sped up the time needed for preparation, reduced waste, and increased the chances of customers getting their food while it was hot. Escoffier also solved the problems, Barr writes, of English clients not understanding menu French and not knowing “how to arrange a
pleasing series of courses” by developing the prix fixe meal: “For any party of at least four people, Escoffier would create a personalized seven-course menu for a set price.”
Ritz, for his part, saw that their business depended on the Savoy’s attracting “respectable” society women of the sort who formerly did not dine in restaurants. He had somehow to rid the hotel of the many high-class prostitutes who frequented it. Ritz’s solution was to require formal evening dress. “No unaccompanied women,” Barr writes, “would be admitted, nor any woman wearing a hat. (An extravagant hat worn in the evening, Ritz had discovered, was a sign of trouble.)” He was not so worried by the teenaged male prostitutes Oscar Wilde brought to the hotel—despite “the stains on his sheets” during his and Lord Alfred Douglas’s stay in March 1893—or by Wilde’s taking more than a year to pay the bill. Notwithstanding the glitz, glamor, and high turnover of Ritz and Escoffier’s first year at the Savoy, there was not enough profit to pay a dividend to the ordinary shareholders. But revenues and profits increased—until September 1897, when profits suddenly went down 40 percent. That month, D’Oyly Carte’s wife and partner, Helen, who had long had doubts about Ritz, received a letter of nine foolscap pages. Signed only “One Who Knows,” it alleged wholesale corruption. The bestattested charge was the complaint of the managers at Bellamy’s, one of the Savoy’s chief grocery suppliers, that they were finding it hard to “allow 5% off the Savoy account, give 5% to the chef and supply Ritz and Echenard’s private homes for nothing.” Kickbacks were almost the least of it—Ritz was charging his taxis and even his family’s laundry to the hotel. Escoffier collected his bribes in cash, paid for, writes Barr, by “a stunning 30 to 40 percent shortfall in the deliveries to the Savoy.”
The directors had no option but to fire Ritz, Escoffier, and Echenard, telling them to leave the premises immediately. Ritz responded by persuading his coconspirators to join him in suing for wrongful dismissal and breach of contract, and the hotel then had to investigate their crimes even more carefully. The result was the Savoy’s countersuit, and on January 3, 1900, all three culprits signed confessions. Ritz’s describes his looting wine worth £3,476 ($555,539 today), some of which he had used to entertain potential investors in his new schemes outside the Savoy; he had also had the gall to charge these lunches and dinners to the Savoy and allow his friends to run up colossal unpaid bills. His personal stockbroker owed £281 ($44,910 today) for meals, which he never paid; his doctor never paid either.
The scandal emerged only in 1983. I was food and wine editor of the Observer newspaper, and a friend, the late Sarah Howell, a commissioning editor for the Observer magazine, handed me an envelope that contained copies of the signed confessions and supporting documents that had obviously come from the Savoy’s archives. Sarah said she was merely an intermediary, giving these to me to use on the condition that I didn’t inquire into their sources. The late Ann Barr (no relation to Luke) and I first published the Ritz-Escoffier saga in The Official Foodie Handbook in 1984. In print (and in the several TV documentaries that followed), I called my benefactor “Deep Palate,” and he has only now given me permission to reveal his identity: it was Ian Bostridge, the opera and lieder singer (and contributor to The New York Review) with a doctorate in history, who gained access to the Savoy’s archives when working for a major accounting firm during his year off between secondary school and university.
Luke Barr almost makes good on the promise of his subtitle to describe “the rise of the leisure class.” He does give the reader a glimpse of how mobile (and slippery) Edwardian social life was, so that anybody with money could dine at the Savoy. Barr is especially sensitive to, and frequently mentions, the anti-Semites who resented the part wealthy Jews had in the creation of this new, democratic leisure class; he bridles at an anti-Semitic remark about a party host in a gossip column: “A very large specimen of the Hebrew fraternity, and if his manners are not quite as polished as the Earl of Beaconsfield, it is not to be wondered at.”
Not every reader, perhaps, will get the punch line. “The Earl of Beaconsfield” was the title created for Disraeli, and the columnist is nastily saying that you would not expect an uncouth Jew to have the good manners of a prime minister, even one of Jewish origin. In general, Barr has trouble with British titles (which are important to telling the story of a pair of rogues whose livelihood depended on snobbery), listing “lords, barons, and earls” even though barons and earls are ipso facto lords. He also writes that to be made a peer is to be “given the title of ‘Lord,’” apparently without realizing that, in the late nineteenth century, a peerage was primarily a seat in the second chamber of Parliament, which, of course, came with a title. Barr is excellent on food except when he gives the ingredients of ratatouille but calls the dish “cassoulet.” He understands the history and culinary properties of ingredients and recipes, however—even of Escoffier’s bizarrely beloved birds’ nest soup. He knows what chefs actually do, as when he explains the division of labor in the professional kitchen and the preparation of the quail described above.
The real failing of this entertaining book, though, is the novelization of the narrative: Barr constantly tells us, with no source cited, what is going on in his characters’ heads. And he does not address the issue of why the D’Oyly Cartes and their directors never made public the confessions of Ritz and Escoffier. After all, from 1896 to 1899, Ritz was building the Carlton Hotel in Haymarket, designed to be the sole competitor to the Savoy. Why didn’t the Savoy reveal the dirty secret and run him out of town? The answer, I believe, is that though the Prince of Wales exacerbated the situation by remaining loyal to Ritz, even to the extent of planning to use the Carlton for his eventual coronation events (“Where Ritz goes, I go”), the gentlemen of the Savoy did not wish to distress the ailing, elderly Queen Victoria by making royal trouble—and perhaps they were also a little nervous, lest it come out that Ritz and the Savoy had facilitated the frolics of the future king.
The dining room of the Savoy Hotel, London, circa 1898