In a time where our lives are dominated by luscious images of food, countless TV cookery programmes and deluge of cookbooks published each year it is hard to conceive what it would have meant to be a celebrity chef during the reign of Queen Victoria without these visual aids. Today most people will be familiar with the name Mrs Beeton. However, her fame has increased stratospherically since her death in 1865. During her brief lifetime (she died at the age of 28) she did not reach the dizzying heights of what we would consider celebrity in the 21st century. But celebrity chefs did exist during this period although their names are often distant memories.
One of the most renowned of these chefs was Alexis Soyer. A Frenchman he worked for several noble families before becoming the executive chef at the Reform Club in London during the 1840s. It is within the kitchens and rooms of this establishment that MJ (Miranda) Carter has set her latest Blake and Avery mystery, The Devil’s Feast. It is clear from reading this novel that Miranda is as fascinated by Soyer as me.
“Soyer’s name kept cropping up during my research. The more I read about him, the more I wanted to include him in a book,” explains Miranda, whose Blake and Avery novels are set in the 1840s which she describes as a ‘decade of turbulent social and technological change.’
The story unfolds during the days leading up to a prestigious banquet to be held at the club. Someone has been poisoning the club members, but who is the culprit? Is it someone in the kitchen? A disgruntled supplier? Or perhaps a political rival? Enter Captain William Avery who is tasked with identifying the poisoner before the big event. Avery’s investigations are surreptitiously aided by Jeremiah Blake, an early version of a private eye, who has problems of his own to deal with. Like any good mystery there are a few red herrings to throw the intrepid duo of the scent but as the plot twists and turns it makes for an enthralling read.
The thing that stands out most for me after reading The Devil’s Feast is Miranda’s attention to detail. She does a spectacular job of capturing the atmosphere of a bustling yet orderly kitchen. Soyer designed the kitchens himself and they were considered so ‘state of the art’ in their day that tours were offered to the public. She also breathes life into this little known culinary genius. Soyer was a talented and visionary chef and inventor with a penchant for flamboyance. Miranda’s descriptions of him from the manner of his dress through to the way he speaks convey the very exuberance of the man. Her gruesome descriptions of the effects the poison has on each of the victims, are also enough to put anyone of their dinner even if they have made it themselves.
In his lifetime Soyer was known as a wit and a dandy. He comes across as a larger than life character falling somewhere between Lawrence Lewellyn Bowen and Raymond Blanc with a splash of Heston and Jamie thrown in for good measure.
“He was a fully formed precursor to today’s celebrity chef,” says Miranda. “Although his manner of dress and jovial nature added an element of ridiculous to his persona, the breadth of his works from the complex Gastronomic Regenerator to Shilling Cookery for the People demonstrated his versatility as a chef.”
Today Soyer would probably be given his own TV show. But in the 19th century he occupied a kind of social no-mans land (not dissimilar to the highly intelligent, working class Blake whose relationship with the middle class Avery is considered very unconventional in the novels). On the one hand, Soyer’s culinary prowess was revered by the Reform Club’s Whig clients. He could count William Makepeace Thackeray as a friend although Thackeray was quite happy to poke fun at the chef in his novel Pendennis. He was applauded by all sectors of society for his inventions such as the mammoth soup kitchen designed to help during the great Irish potato famine and the field stove which did so much to transform the catering operations during the Crimean War and beyond. However, ultimately he was a servant and there were plenty of people who were happy to remind him of this fact.
“Chefs like Soyer and his mentor Louis-Eustache Ude saw themselves as artists,” adds Miranda. “Soyer in particular was desperate to be taken seriously as such by his upper class clients but at best he was a fashionable toy and at worst merely their employee.”
The Devil’s Feast serves as a reminder that where there is esteem there is also envy, which is brutally apparent in amongst the characters in this book, servants and masters alike. The higher one climbs the further one has to fall. Fortunately, in reality Soyer’s tenure at the Reform Club was not marred by the poisoning of it’s members and for the most part his culinary excellence was revered (albeit perhaps from a conservative distance). And yet even during his lifetime he had his detractors with Abraham Hayward noting in The Art of Dining: or, Gastronomy and Gastronomers (1852) “he is more likely to earn his immortality by his soup-kitchen than his soup.” Perhaps this is why more people haven’t heard of Alexis Soyer (although his soups are rather good). I really hope The Devil’s Feast will prompt more people to delve into Soyer’s works to find out more about this great man.