tables made of mahogany, crystal chandeliers, and tablecloths of fine linen, an extensive wine cellar, and elegantly-dressed waiters. Dishes on the restaurant menu included partridge with cabbage, veal chops grilled in buttered paper, and duck with turnips. The restaurant Beauvilliers became a rendezvous of conservative political factions, in which Beauvilliers was implicated; in 1795 he was forced to close his establishment and to live away from the trade that was his life.
Poor guy. Then, as people do still, he appears to have paid the price for his political persuasions.
Although he was giving the concept of “dining out” a new twist, Beauvilliers was simply one more in a long line of well-established figures: the head of a large cooking enterprise–the chef. Mithaecus, a 5th century BC Sicilian, brought knowledge of Sicilian cooking to Greece and wrote several cookbooks on the subject. The fourteenth-century Giullaume Tirel was the principal chef at the court of several European kings during the Hundred Years’ War. His cookbook, Le Viandier is considered to be the basis for the then-emerging French gastronomic tradition. Bartolomeo Scappi was a chef of the Italian Renaissance, chef at the Vatican, and author of Opera dell’arte del Cucinare, a massive compendium of over 1000 recipes, written in a chatty style that’s caused him to be described as the world’s first “celebrity chef.” And Hercules, a former Mt. Vernon Slave who, not long after Beauvilliers opened his restaurant in Paris, became the first chef to a United States President.
I found several lists of “chefs in history” on the Internet, and I noticed two things about them. Their members were all men. None of them were English. Go figure.
Meanwhile, the ladies were knocking ’em dead in the field of what used to be called “Domestic Economy.” And here, the English were leading the way! Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, and largely consisting of plagiarized recipes strung together with bits of advice on the way to run a household, was a runaway best seller. Isabella Beeton died in 1864, at the age of 28, probably as a result of syphilis contracted from her philandering husband, but she is credited with hugely influencing the Victorian middle class and the way the kitchen was run.
Most cooks in British stately homes of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century (think Downton Abbey and Mrs. Patmore), or in upper-class urban establishments (think Upstairs Downstairs and Mrs. Bridges), were women. They were cooks, not chefs, and their skills ran the gamut from simple country fare to banquets fit for a king. Well, an English king anyway (snark off). And just as women did not intrude in the exclusively male world of the aristocratic chef (except in the role of the lowliest scullery maid), men did not often find themselves in the position of “cook” to Lord and Lady So and So.
By the first or second decade of the twentieth century, restaurant chefs were becoming celebrities in their own right, and people were starting to dine out at particular establishments in order to patronize the chef. Chefs were recognized as temperamental geniuses, ruling their domains with an iron fist, striking terror into their underlings, and producing stunning examples of culinary art on a daily basis. And the heads of such commercial establishments were still almost exclusively male.
All that changed in the latter half of the twentieth century with the popularization of the celebrity chef, and the technology which made such celebrity accessible to millions, without ever, or even, the need to run a restaurant or manage a staff. Suddenly, the playing field was leveled, and experienced and excellent women “cooks” could become “chefs” either through study or natural inclination, some becoming household names overnight. Thus, and almost mononymously (I don’t think that’s a real word, I see that, Ricochet editors) we have Nigella. And Jamie. And Gordon. And Rachel. And Emeril. And Ina. And Mario. And Paula. Some who came to their celebrity and fame as authors and TV presenters, with never a restaurant to their name. Some who came to celebrity from their restaurants and an instinct for superior self-promotion. And some who backed into the restaurant business as a result of their celebrity on television or the Internet. All of them with books galore!
But first among equals, before all of them, of course, we had Julia.
Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born on August 5, 1912, into a well-off California family with its own cook, from whom Julia has stated she learned absolutely nothing. During WWII, she served in the Office of Strategic Services. While posted to Kunming, China, she had her first culinary success when she was asked to work on a project to develop a shark repellent, to keep sharks away from mines targeting German U-Boats (so that the sharks would not inadvertently detonate them). She mixed various ingredients and cooked them, and the result was shredded and sprinkled in the water. The product is still in use today. (Julia’s entire OSS file is available here. If you’d like to look at it, just be aware that it’s 280MB to download).
Also while she was in Kunming, she met fellow OSS employee Paul Child, and the two married after the war. Paul was fond of food and of cooking and introduced his new wife to the pastime. Shortly after their marriage, and with Paul working for the US State Department, the young couple moved to Paris.
Julia loved France and French food. She attended and became a diplomate of, the Cordon Bleu school, buffed up her credentials, and began to collaborate with fellow foodies Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle on classes and cookbooks. Finally, in 1961 their massive tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published, and with a 1962 appearance to promote her book on Boston’s WGBH-TV, a star was born.
More than anything, Julia’s TV show, The French Chef, convinced us that we could all cook marvelous gourmet meals in the style of the best French restaurants. That the occasional mistake (and she made plenty, most of which were left in the show) didn’t matter. That enthusiasm and good humor could go a long way to ameliorating inexperience and ignorance. And that “having a go,” and failing nobly, was so much more worthwhile than being tentative and afraid. The show’s budget was so tiny that, quite often, the food was auctioned after the show ended, to help cover expenses. And to save money, it was filmed in one take, without subsequent editing.
The viewing public adored her, mistakes and all. They loved it as all six-foot-two of her galumphed around the kitchen dropping things, enjoying her (several) glasses of wine per episode, and brushing off any and all calamities as they arose. The show ran in its original incarnation for ten years and was followed by a couple of spinoffs, and a number of specials.
Many books, hundreds of episodes, and a long and happy retirement later, Julia Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. Few American chefs are better known, and after Julia, I think it’s fair to say that no-one in their right mind thought that the term, le chef de cuisine, despite the gender assigned to it in its original language, and despite social and cultural conventions to that point, was exclusively the province of men. The concept of complementarity had, in the words of the popular song from the 1920s, come to the high-end kitchen:
You’re the cream in my coffee,
You’re the salt in my stew
You will always be my necessity,
I’d be lost without you.
I’ll close, not with a clip from any celebrity chef, but, because I love it so much, and because I’m old enough to remember when Saturday Night Live was actually funny, with Dan Ackroyd as The French Chef. One of the reasons it’s so funny is because, in many ways, it’s so close to the mark. Bon Appetit!
(The lady in the photo at the top of this post is Christeta Comerford, the first female White House Chef, who served in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.)