Continental chefs dominated London’s restaurant world in the nineteenth century, says Panikos Panayi.
Today no high street in London is without its restaurants and takeaways selling food from all around the world – China, Thailand, South Asia as well as southern Europe and the Middle East, Mexico and South America. While such establishments have proliferated in recent decades, the origins of the foreign restaurant are inseparable from the development of the modern idea of dining out as it developed in nineteenth-century London – indeed, the very concept of the restaurant was a continental import, having evolved, according to common belief, in post-Revolutionary Paris from where it spread to the rest of the world (the word restaurant itself derived from the French ‘something that restores’, such as a broth, and by extension to the place where such food was sold and eaten).
Even before hotels and restaurants had taken off, most of the leading celebrity chefs in Victorian London were foreigners. Charles Elmé Francatelli, born in 1805 in London of Italian extraction and educated in France, was manager of Crockfords before becoming chief chef to Queen Victoria and later at the Reform Club. Alexis Soyer, born in France in 1810, initially worked in his homeland before moving to London in 1831. He too was chef at the Reform Club and was famous for his attempts to improve the standard of food for the British troops fighting in the Crimea. Auguste Escoffier (1847–1935), inventor of the pêche melba, was chef at the Savoy and the Carlton Club in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All were authors of some of the most important Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks, helping to create a style of haute cuisine to suit British palates.