Celebrity chef with a recipe for the Famine

A French cook who catered for high society in 19th-century London came to Ireland with a scheme to help feed the starving population…

A French cook who catered for high society in 19th-century London came to Ireland with a scheme to help feed the starving population. Britons regarded him as a saviour. But his vats of soup went down less well here, despite his efforts to put his scientific methods to good use

WHETHER IT is as a boon to our diets or just as an outlet for a bombastic personality, we think of the celebrity chef as a modern phenomenon. But the breed is not new. During the Famine a star performer set out to revolutionise catering for the destitute. A French genius named Alexis Soyer, culinary darling of London, came to Dublin in April 1847 to set up a huge soup kitchen.

Born in 1809 in Meaux-en-Brie – home of the cheese – the cook who came to Ireland’s aid had a frugal boyhood. His grocer parents thought he was best suited for the church, but at the age of 11 he left school to try his skill in the kitchens of Paris, where he moved steadily up the ranks.

When he was 21 Soyer arrived in England, where he landed a job with the Duke of Cambridge. In 1837 he became the founding chef de cuisineof the Reform Club, an elite London meeting ground for Whigs and radicals. After their long days campaigning, these male ideologues dined lavishly on Soyer's breaded lamb cutlets and fish en papillotte.

Soyer was a walking contradiction. He straddled two worlds, one of reformist concern for the poor, the other of serving the appetites of the rich. Married to Emma Jones, an artist, widowed early and then linked romantically with a ballerina, he was a popular and charismatic dandy. He dressed flamboyantly, with crimson velvet waistcoats, diamonds, a hunter's hat, a neckerchief and a gilt cane. A contemporary described his "voluminous lapels", glossy boots and "gloves the colour of beurre frais".

He was the quintessential celebrity chef and the toast of London society. He catered for 2,000 at Queen Victoria’s coronation breakfast and made decadent suppers and 30-course banquets for dignitaries and royalty, including King Albert and the Turkish pasha.

Soyer’s shrewd self-publicity, vanity and wealth were matched by immense communitarian efforts. A chef who kept a spotless public profile – things have changed since – Soyer began in January 1837 to write letters to the influential Times newspaper.

He was concerned about Ireland’s “dreadful calamity of starvation”. It was the second failure of the potato crop, and disease – typhus, yellow fever, tuberculosis, scurvy – was spreading. After a particularly bleak winter labourers were either dying or rioting while Lord Russell’s government fruitlessly pondered what to do.

The Soup Kitchen Act of 1847 called for food to be distributed under Sir Robert Peel’s Relief Commission. But with British taxpayers unwilling to pay for Irish needs, the government was overly dependent on private benevolence. Quaker soup kitchens were rarely productive or efficient enough. But Soyer believed he had devised a palatable soup that was easy to prepare, “of trifling expense” and, if properly administered, capable of helping to arrest the crisis.

The key word was “palatable” – the poor were believed to have simpler alimentary needs than the rich – so the soup required only a leg of meat, dripping, flour, root vegetables, pearl barley and fresh herbs to revitalise. Soyer published his “receipts”, meticulously calculating the price of each ingredient and the measurement needed to minimise waste: 100 tons, he promised with bravura, could be made for just £1.

More than willing to shift responsibility elsewhere, the government sponsored Soyer to set up a soup kitchen in Dublin. In keeping with the philanthropic fashion of the time, so well parodied in Dickens’s novels, Soyer offered an advance of £30 from his own pocket. Donations then flowed from the public.

On April 5th, 1847, the gala launch took place on the esplanade of the Royal Barracks (now the National Museum at Collins Barracks) in Dublin. The soup kitchen was a temporary hall of wooden boards, its centrepiece a towering 1,100-litre steam cauldron and glaze pan fitted with wheels, surrounded by bains-marie, a monumental bread oven and coal fires, chopping tables, tubs on wheels, meat blocks, water basins and tables with spoons chained on, plus a pantry for bread and biscuits that each abject soul would get on leaving.

The press reported “a large and brilliant assemblage” invited to approve the soup and explore the kitchen. These gentry, unaffected by blights or food shortages, could marvel abstractly at the ingenuity, command and flair of Soyer, who held forth magisterially.

Then the paupers were brought in. First they lined up outside the tent in a zigzag passage designed to prevent contamination. In a dehumanising conveyor-belt system, the bell was rung and 100 paupers at a time entered, said grace, ate, cleaned their bowls and left with a biscuit. They were allowed six minutes to eat.

One spectator, Sir John Burgoyne, likened this method of eating to watching chained animals. But the experiment was declared a success. The aim was to have 1,000 diners

per hour and 5,000 per day, but soon the kitchen was serving 8,750 meals per day. A further 3,000 portions were delivered by donkey carts to remoter parish cottages. The Relief Commissioners retained use of the kitchen until harvest time, when distribution stopped.

Although the British press presented Soyer as a messianic saviour, Irish journalists reviled him. The Freeman's Journalmentioned his "wealthy and inappropriate air of celebration" among "a public parade of wretchedness". The angry consensus was that the British had sent, in Soyer, a propaganda emissary with the blinding razzmatazz of an entrepreneur to detract from the real crisis of impoverishment.

Furthermore, the soup wasn’t good enough. The minuscule amount of meat it contained would barely keep the starving labourer alive, while the liquid base was for many unpalatable. The archbishop of Tuam referred to it as a “worthless mass of roots and warm water” while Punch lampooned it as “economical grog” made by “a broth of a boy”.

Soyer defended his creation, saying that "the poor do not want fattening – they want feeding". This was Soyer's dictum: that people can nourish themselves decently and cheaply. Coinciding with the opening of his kitchen, he published The Poorman's Regenerator, a cookery pamphlet. The other day I found a copy, a yellowed tome the size of my hand. Although sentences such as "the mendicant eats with the greatest pleasure a piece of brown bread or a potato" make it unclear who it was written for, it shows a remarkably modern, ecological slant on how to reduce food miles and eat from local sources.

In his pamphlet Soyer urges people to “use and not abuse nature’s productions” – a fastidious critic even in dire circumstances, he describes other Irish soups as burnt, tasteless and unevenly cooked – and lists the wealth of ingredients available in Ireland, including buckwheat, oats, peas, lentils, yams, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, celery, kelp, Irish moss, dillisk, spinach and sorrel.

Soyer didn’t linger. After a magnificent farewell party on April 10th at Freemasons’ Hall on College Green, he disappeared from Ireland and travelled to the Crimean War to tackle the unsanitary conditions of hospital kitchens and malnourishment in the military. While he was there he collaborated with Florence Nightingale and wrote another cookbook.

When he returned from the war he died of apoplexy, in August 1858, aged 48, having worked himself to the end.

Soyer may have been a problematic figure when he came to Ireland in 1847. His genius lay in his economy, his resourcefulness and the productivity he achieved through scientific adaptation. Without modern marketing he couldn’t, in the style of a Jamie Oliver, teach people how to grow food or to cook. Still, he was a prodigious inventor, designing kitchens suited to everyone from soldier to gastronome, plus a “magic stove” and gadgets whose models remain, with his cookbooks, the relics of his public works – as well as patented bottled sauces that, in the spirit of a modern billionaire chef, bore his winking image on the label.