The Sensitivity of Cooks

We’ve talked a bit before on this blog about the fiery tempers and perfectionist working environments of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cooks in grand establishments. Let’s hear about a few more.

I heard this story in E.S. Turner’s What the Butler Saw. Turner talks about how French chefs were scattered across the Continent in the aftermath of the French Revolution. A great many of them ended up in the UK, bringing with them wild diversity from the endless joints of mutton that was the staple of the British upper-class diet.

“The French cooks also brought to Britain their tradition of outrageous extravagence; the extravagance which had once caused the Prince de Soubise to query the item ‘fifty hams’ in a dinner estimate by his cook Bertrand. Only one ham, explained Bertrand, would appear on the table; the others were needed for his espagnoles, his blonds, his garnitures and so forth. When his master still protested, Bertrand exclaimed:  ‘Oh, My Lord, you do not understand our resources; give the word and these fifty hams which confound you, I will put them all in a glass bottle no bigger than my thumb.” The estimate was passed” (154).


A chef named Felix changed jobs from Lord Seaford’s establishment to the very prestigious Duke of Wellington’s house, ‘but very soon afterwards Felix called on Lord Seaford asking to be taken back at reduced wages or even none at all, rather than stay any longer at Apsley House. Asked whether the Duke had been finding fault, he replied: ‘Oh, no, my Lord, I would stay if he had. He is the kindest and most liberal of masters, but I serve him a dinner that would make Ude or Francatelli burst with envy and he says nothing. I serve him a dinner dressed, and badly dressed, by the cook-maid, and he says nothing. I could not live with such a master if he was a thousand times a hero” (156).

Felix should have done his research: Wellington was notoriously abstemious and slept on a camp bed, even when he wasn’t in active army service. He didn’t give a crap about much except beating Napoleon and sleeping with Napoleon’s mistresses, and he’s not really the type of guy who’s going to go to pieces over a meal, either terrible or extraordinary.

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One Response to The Sensitivity of Cooks

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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