Foreign Tastes: Continental Chefs Dominated London's Restaurant World in the Nineteenth Century

By Panayi, Panikos | History Today, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Foreign Tastes: Continental Chefs Dominated London's Restaurant World in the Nineteenth Century


Panayi, Panikos, History Today


Today no high street in London is without its restaurants and takeaways selling food from all around the world--China, Thailand, South Asia as well as southern Europe and the Middle East, Mexico and South America. While such establishments have proliferated in recent decades, the origins of the foreign restaurant are inseparable from the development of the modern idea of dining out as it developed in nineteenth-century London indeed, the very concept of the restaurant was a continental import, having evolved, according to common belief, in post-Revolutionary Paris from where it spread to the rest of the world (the word restaurant itself derived from the French 'something that restores', such as a broth, and by extension to the place where such food was sold and eaten).

The first foreign-owned restaurants in London sprang up to meet the growing demand for places to dine out, but sold a version of a French inspired cuisine to a metropolitan clientele greedy for new taste sensations. Continental restaurateurs were responsible for establishing some of the most famous eating establishments in the capital, such as the Cafe Royal, opened by Daniels de Nicols, a French wine merchant who moved to England in 1862. Similarly, the Swiss-born Cesar Ritz established the hotel that bears his name in 1906, after working as a waiter and then restaurant manager in institutions throughout Europe.

Even before hotels and restaurants had taken off, most of the leading celebrity chefs in Victorian London were foreigners. Charles Elme Francatelli, born in 1805 in London of Italian extraction and educated in France, was manager of Crockfords before becoming chief chef to Queen Victoria and later at the Reform Club. Alexis Soyer, born in France in 1810, initially worked in his homeland before moving to London in 1831. He too was chef at the Reform Club and was famous for his attempts to improve the standard of food for the British troops fighting in the Crimea. Auguste Escoffier (1847-1935), inventor of the peche melba, was chef at the Savoy and the Carlton Club in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All were authors of some of the most important Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks, helping to create a style of haute cuisine to suit British palates.

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These celebrities simply represented the tip of a growing iceberg of European chefs working in London. To take just one example, Rudolph von Gorog, born in Budapest in 1878, initially worked in the Grand Hotel in his native city before moving to Paris and then to the Carlton in London, and later to the New Gallery Restaurant in Regent Street. By 1900 a number of organizations were looking after the interests of these continental cooks, including the Society of German Chefs, the Italian Club of Culinary Art, the Italian Culinary Society and the Societe Culinaire Francaise de Londres.

Foreigners also found employment as managers of hotels and restaurants, with many making their way up from waiters and moving from one European city to another, with the hope of eventually securing a position as a maitre d'hotel. A good example is Paolo Contarini. Born to a shoemaker in Ravenna in 1894, he became a waiter at a local hotel where he learnt French, English and German. At thirteen he moved to Genoa and then to Santa Margherita on the Italian Riviera, where his command of languages increased. He worked in France before finding employment in a small Soho restaurant, eventually establishing himself in the Savoy.

Managers often recruited staff of the same nationality as themselves. Before 1914, about ten per cent of waiters and waitresses employed in restaurant work in London were German. Observers from both the late nineteenth century and the 1930s pointed to the readiness of foreigners to work harder and for longer hours than British workers, and to have a greater reliance upon tips. A series of waiters' organizations included the German Waiters Club, the London and Provincial Hotel Employees Society, the Ganymede Friendly Society for Hotel and Restaurant Employees, the Geneva Association and the Union Helvetica. …

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