Reading Note:
25 June 2018

On Thursday, 26 June 1902, the coronation of Edward VII did not take place. The new king (no longer a young man) was recovering from appendectomy surgery conducted two days before. The ceremony was performed six weeks later, on 9 August. By then, César Ritz, proprietor of the Carlton Hotel in St James, with its plenitude of fully-booked rooms overlooking the route of the coronation procession, was in Switzerland, prostrated by the typhoon of cancellations that flattened what ought to have been the summit of his spectacular career. Lingering on until 1918, he never really recovered. Ironically, no one had furthered Ritz’s career more emphatically than the former Prince of Wales.

Luke Barr’s Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef & the Rise of the Middle Class, which draws toward its close with this catastrophe, is nevertheless a great treat. I gobbled it down in a day. Barr has omitted from his title a third name, that of the D’Oyly Cartes, Richard and Helen, with whom I hope you are familiar thanks to your thorough familiarity with Gilbert & Sullivan. Richard D’Oyly Carte was a showman, and Helen was his manager. He had the big ideas; she tempered them with pragmatism. There’s something brash and American about D’Oyly Carte; his passion for embedding luxury with newfangled technology (elevators, electric lights, en suite bathrooms) was not exactly staid.

Having built the Savoy Theatre for Gilbert and Sullivan, he spent the later Eighties erecting and opening the adjacent Savoy Hotel. Beautifully sited on the bend in the Thames where John of Gaunt built the eponymous palace, the hotel had great views, from St Paul’s to Parliament, and of course the wide river right in front, a more interesting variety of deer park. Among other things, Oscar Wild and Lord Alfred Douglas would do a great deal of carrying-on at the Savoy, running up tremendous bills and making witnesses of the menials whose evidence would be used against the playwright in the criminal prosecution that followed his ill-advised action for libel. Somehow far more gripping are the accounts of grand dinners, for which Barr includes the extravagant menus.

There was the infamous dinner — £15 a head — for a group of City merchants, some of them Jewish furriers, and there was the unprecedented ladies-only dinner, conducted by semi-discreet screens. There were the concurrent feasts for the Prince of Wales (in the grand private dining room) and the Duc d’Orléans (in the fabulously overhauled basement billiard room). At the heart of all this food was Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier and Ritz had known each other for years by the time D’Oyly Carte came begging Ritz to manage his new hotel. Neither Ritz nor Escoffier was drawn to the idea of life in London, although Escoffier would soon become quite attached to the town, where he immediately became a superstar. They turned D’Oyly Carte down, and watched the hotel slip from its very successful opening to red-alert six months later. The three men thereupon came to a deal that promised to give everyone what he wanted. For the two foreigners, this meant the freedom to pursue independent ventures and to spend months at a time back on the Continent. Unfortunately, Helen D’Oyly was not enthusiastic about the arrangement; she correctly foresaw that all that freedom would lead to making free. Ritz hardly endeared himself to her when he began his superintendancy by removing acres of upholstery and tons of mahogany that had been carefully chosen by Helen to decorate the public rooms. She also disapproved, constitutionally, of Ritz’s ethos, shared by Escoffier: to make a lot of money, you have to spend a lot of money. Helen could not overlook the fact that Ritz was spending her money. 

It was great while it lasted; happily for Ritz and Escoffier, when it ended, they could fall back on their new venture, the Hotel Ritz in the Place Vendôme, Paris. In 1899, the duo returned to London to open the Carlton. This time, they did not have to account to a resentful, beady-eyed accountant. They spent money and they made a fortune. In the process, Escoffier reformed grand cuisine, by stabilizing the recipes and lightening the portions, and by overhauling the method in which dishes were prepared.

Ritz & Escoffier tells the story of a transformation. Royal palaces, which had been obliged to become more discreet and less spendthrift throughout the Nineteenth Century, spun off the sybaritic aspect of courtly life to new public palaces, open to any suitably-dressed visitor with a wallet to match. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the great people rubbed shoulders with the commoners in the brightly-lighted, lavish salons and restaurants, but they did at least share the same rooms, if not at the same time. At the dinner for the Duc d’Orléans, honoring the wedding of his sister to a royal Italian prince, the Princess of Wales, who had parted from her husband in the lobby of the Savoy (he had his own do upstairs, remember), signed the menu, “Alix,” for Ritz, and so did everyone else at the head table. It was not the sort of thing that would ever happen at Marlborough House.

The book is all the more fun because nobody wants to eat like that anymore. Let them eat ortolans!


Comments are closed.