Antiqua Print Gallery Alexis Soyer: Victorian Celebrity Chef
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Alexis Soyer

Alexis Benoît Soyer (4 February 1810 – 5 August 1858) was a French chef who became the most famous cook in Victorian London. He also tried to alleviate suffering of the Irish poor in the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849), and improve the food provided to British soldiers in the Crimean War.


Alexis Benoit Soyer was born at Meaux-en-Brie on the Marne in France. His father had several jobs, one of them as a grocer. In 1821 he was expelled from school and went to live with his elder brother Phillipe in Paris. He became an apprentice at G Rignon restaurant in Paris. Later, in 1826 he moved to restaurant Boulevard des Italiens, where he became a chief cook of the kitchens. By June 1830, Soyer was a second cook to Prince Polignac at the French Foreign Office.
During the July revolution of 1830, Soyer fled to England and the next year joined the London household of Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, where his brother Philippe already worked. Later, he worked for various other British notables, including the Duke of Sutherland, the Marquess of Waterford, William Lloyd of Aston Hall and the Marquess of Ailsa at Isleworth.
His wife, Elizabeth Emma Jones, achieved considerable popularity as a painter, chiefly of portraits. She died in 1842 following complications suffered in a premature childbirth brought on by a thunderstorm. Distraught, Soyer erected a monument to her at Kensal Green Cemetery.
Soyer died on 5 August 1858. At the time he was designing a mobile cooking carriage for the Army. He was buried on 11 August in Kensal Green Cemetery.


In 1837, Soyer became chef de cuisine at the Reform Club in London. He designed the kitchens with Charles Barry at the newly built Club. He instituted many innovations, including cooking with gas, refrigerators cooled by cold water, and ovens with adjustable temperatures. His kitchens were so famous that they were opened for conducted tours. When Queen Victoria was crowned on 28 June 1838, he prepared a breakfast for 2,000 people in the Club. His salary was more than £1,000 a year. His Lamb Cutlets Reform is still on the menu of the eponymous club.
During the Great Irish Famine in April 1847, he invented a soup kitchen and was asked by the Government to go to Ireland to implement his idea. This was opened in Dublin and his "famine soup" was served to thousands of the poor for free. Whilst in Ireland he wrote Soyer's Charitable Cookery. He gave the proceeds of the book to various charities. He also opened an art gallery in London, and donated the entrance fees to charity to feed the poor.
In 1849 Soyer began to market his "magic stove" which allowed people to cook food wherever they were. It was designed to be a portable stove or a stove that can be used in cramped conditions.
Soyer resigned from the Reform Club in May 1850. The next year, he opened his "Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations" opposite the gates of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, on a site now occupied by the Royal Albert Hall. He was forced to close his great venture after losing £7,000.
Soyer wrote a number of books about cooking, possibly with assistance. His 1854 book A Shilling Cookery for the People was a recipe book for ordinary people who could not afford elaborate kitchen utensils or large amounts of exotic ingredients.
During the Crimean War, Soyer joined the troops at his own expense to advise the army on cooking. He and Florence Nightingale reorganized the provisioning of the army hospitals. He designed his own field stove, the Soyer Stove, and trained and installed in every regiment the "Regimental cook" so that soldiers would get an adequate meal and not suffer from malnutrition or die of food poisoning. He wrote A Culinary Campaign as a record of his activities in the Crimea. Catering standards within the British Army would remain inconsistent, however, and would not be turned into a single Army Catering Corps until 1945. His stove remained in British military service into the late 20th century.
Soyer returned to London on 3 May 1857. On 18 March 1858, he lectured at the United Service Institution on army cooking. He also built a model kitchen at the Wellington Barracks in London.

(Source Wikipedia)