Paul Levy

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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

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