Rebecca Spang explodes a culinary myth that has lasted nearly two hundred years. The story goes more or less like this. Restaurants as we know them were a product of the French Revolution and came into being in order to ensure that pleasurable eating would not remain the privilege of the wealthy. Kitchenless provincial Revolutionaries crowded into Paris, and at the same time the highly skilled chefs of beheaded or émigré aristocrats found themselves out of work. The cooks saw their chance to become entrepreneurs.
Before the Revolution, restaurant meant a kind of soup: a distillation of meat essences, served by restaurateurs in luxurious establishments, to an aristocratic clientele who came to restore their languid energies by drinking small cups of bouillon. These restaurateurs aroused the envy of the traiteurs or cook-caterers of Paris. In 1765, a man called Boulanger began to serve, in addition to his soups, sheep’s feet in white sauce. The traiteurs took him to court for infringing their rights. The magistrates of the Paris Parlement listened to the arguments on both sides, and declared that Boulanger was allowed to serve only restaurants in his shop – sheep’s feet in white sauce was a ragout. Under the Ancien Régime, traiteurs alone were allowed to sell ragouts.
According to the myth, these hair-splitting habits (in some accounts the court had demanded to know whether the feet were cooked in the sauce or had the sauce poured over them just before they were served), the gastronomic hegemony, the denial of customers’ rights, tastes and desires – were all swept away at a stroke by the Revolution. At last, the urban populace’s hunger for food and pleasure in food could be assuaged.
Spang has looked at the sources, however, and found no evidence of a case involving a Monsieur Boulanger and sheep’s feet in white sauce. (The originator of the tale, apparently, was LeGrand d’Aussy in 1782.) It is true that under the guild system exclusive rights to practise specific cooking skills had been variously granted to traiteurs, and also to gingerbread makers, charcutiers, vinegar producers, pastry makers, and so on. But scholars have long questioned whether the guilds were irrational, unyielding impediments to creativity. Guild masterships were very often multiple: a meat pie, for example, wasn’t made by members of two different guilds – one a meat cook and one a pastry cook. The rules were in fact pretty flexible.
We owe the myth of ‘the chefs’ return’ – their brilliant idea of placing their skills at the service of the people by creating restaurants – to the Goncourt brothers, though the Revolution certainly made use of food-related imagery. The Fat had stolen the birthright of the Lean: the rich must be prevented from devouring the bounty of nature, leaving the poor to starve. Restaurants were excoriated. Little cups of concentrated bouillon were the essence of both effeteness and aristocratic gluttony – whole joints of meat liquefied and reduced, simply to please the jaded palates of the rich. The citizens should do things differently. Fraternal meals – everybody sitting down together at long tables set out on the streets – were enacted, then described.
Food at these meals was extremely simple and frugal and, contrary to the myth, chefs who had worked for the aristocracy were not called on to help. Antoine Beauvilliers, a chef from the private kitchen of the King’s brother, opened a restaurant (and is often mentioned as a typical example of his kind) but Spang points out that this was before the Revolution. All the servants of departed aristocrats were regarded with suspicion. One former cook for the aristocracy who found work in a restaurant was executed. In general, there’s not much evidence of a Revolutionary longing to create the modern restaurant.
Then, after the coup against Robespierre in 1794, there was a sudden change. Sick of terror and hardship, the Parisians wanted to have a nice time again, and it was in this spirit that the restaurant was substituted for the fraternal, egalitarian Revolutionary meal. Spang suggests that the myth of the chefs’ return helped to occlude the memory of this substitution.
It also exaggerated the extent to which 19th-century restaurants (as opposed to cheap working-class cookshops or gargotes) involved a process of cultural democratisation. The light that radiated from the restaurants of the late 1790s was the harsh glitter of ill-gotten gold, not the rosy glow of haute cuisine for all. The 19th-century restaurant was different from its predecessor in that it was a bourgeois rather than an aristocratic institution, and also because it gloried in variety and copiousness.
The food and the manner in which it was served were original, and suggestive more of 20th-century preferences than 19th. Before the advent of the restaurant, if you had to eat away from home – because you had no kitchen, or if you were a traveller – you paid to be a guest at a table d’hôte. Here an innkeeper, tavern owner or traiteur would spread his table at a set time of day. One would eat the meal that was offered, usually among regular customers. There was no choice of when or what to eat, or of table companions. The system was based on trust – on the assumption that guests would not pocket the tableware and that they would eventually pay the bill.
Spang introduces us to the first restaurateur: Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, a man of many business ventures, one of which was a scheme to rid France of debt. His real talent, however, was for marketing the apparently superfluous essentials of modern urban life. In 1769 he compiled a successful Almanach or business directory; he included himself in the list of Caterers, Innkeepers and Hôteliers, and claimed to offer ‘fine and delicate meals for between three and six livres per head, in addition to the items expected of a restaurateur’. Chantoiseau’s Almanach carried descriptions and recommendations as well as lists – a star-awarding mentality was in place at the very birth of the restaurant.
The soups and foods served by this first restaurant and its imitators catered to rich people who preferred simplicity to ostentation, and sensitivity – one of the proofs of which was a delicate appetite, a weak chest, and poor digestion – to boorish greed. The new establishments offered not only bouillons in small receptacles, but rice creams, semolina, fresh eggs, fruit, butter and cream cheeses. The recipe for a restaurant, from a cookbook dated 1742 (the 18th century saw an unprecedented boom in cookery books), includes onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celery, chickens, partridges, veal, beef, bacon, ham, cloves, basil and another, ready-made bouillon: cover tightly, seal the pot with pastry, simmer for four hours, pass through a silk strainer. Cool.
You could go to a restaurant anytime (by 1786 the word had come to mean the place rather than the soup): the food on offer was such as could be kept always ready to serve. There were separate tables: no sharing was expected. You paid as soon as the meal was over for a plat (its price clearly marked) rather than a place at a table d’hôte. And you were given a menu from which you could choose. Each ‘fine and delicate’ person was expected to have, and to satisfy, his or her individual taste and desire.
A restaurateur never dined with his guests as an innkeeper did. The kitchen was kept out of sight; no food smells assailed the sensitive patron as he entered. Women were welcomed at these refined emporia for the elite, with their luxurious modern decor – mirrors, chandeliers, gilding, ornate clocks, pyramids of fruit – and sometimes service by a bewigged and frilled restauratrice. (Spang provides a contemporary engraving of such a person, posing seductively in the dining room among the guests – the illustrations are one of the book’s delights.)
Spang argues that the 1790s saw not the invention of the restaurant, but the death of the medicalised sensibility that had made the first restaurant customers want, for health reasons, small quantities of simple foods. (This cuisine minceur again seems closer to today’s privileged tastes than to those exhibited at the grosser eating houses of the 19th century.) Spang suggests that restaurants were neither public nor private but a bit of both, and that this has somehow made them invisible to modern historians. It is perhaps relevant that post-Revolutionary restaurants were reviled by the nobles and by the sans-culottes – they catered to the newly triumphant bourgeoisie.
In Napoleon’s time the restaurants acted as a safety valve – places where people were allowed to enjoy themselves without fear of investigation. Early 19th-century Parisian restaurants were fashionable, enjoyable, frivolous and fun – explicitly depoliticised meeting-places.
In fact, a good many of the clients of Parisian restaurants before 1850 were foreigners, especially English and Americans, for whom France, even Paris, was amazingly cheap. And where better to observe the French than in a restaurant? Visitors often wrote home describing what they saw, and occasionally published their accounts. They read restaurants as revealing all of France.
Observers tended, of course, to find what they were looking for. The mirrors, the gilding, the sartorial finery – how unlike British or American reserve and domesticity. A common assumption was that the French – even, or perhaps especially, those who frequented grands restaurants – were driven to eat out because they had no understanding of the comforts of home. (The British were surprised that whole families ate out together – which merely confirmed that the French had no home life.) France was fickle: she had proved it by changing governments with such unseemly alacrity. Now she was changing clothing and food fashions with a similar wantonness. The finery seen in the French capital was flimsy, all show – at least to people who came from substantial New York or solid London. Foreigners were stunned, too, that restaurants had no qualms about admitting women.
What about the food? Spang has found that visitors rarely described what they had eaten, though they often transcribed the menus. The French, it seemed, channelled all their ingenuity into devising, for example, 22 different ways of cooking veal. The names (pigeons à la crapaudine, épigrammes d’agneau) often revealed nothing about what the dishes were composed of. Spang launches into a detailed and fascinating meditation on the concept of the menu, especially its 19th-century origins. In contrast to the programmatic lists provided to guests at a banquet, early restaurant menus were arranged in closely-packed columns of tiny print, like a newspaper. Later they were composed of many sheets, bound in leather like a book. They listed everything a restaurant might conceivably provide, in any season: only a small proportion of dishes could actually be ordered. Menus often designated the provenances of dishes (ducks from Rouen, veal from Pontoise); dishes also celebrated personalities and events (poulet à la Marengo or à la Béchamel). Spang notes that la carte means both ‘menu’ and ‘map’. The long lists bolstered French pride in their gastronomical greatness, and quietly helped create a national identity.
It is commonly recognised that the European aristocracy invented various key aspects of the modern cultural system: the block holiday, with its bathing, touring and sightseeing; the maison secondaire; fashion; dieting to balance overeating; and the restaurant, the now ubiquitous setting for the public display of private self-absorption. Restaurants gave people a place to go where they could ignore others, but also observe them. One could remain anonymous or be seen – at the latest place or at the best table. Unless, of course, one was condemned to play that other, equally essential role in the drama of the restaurant: that of the man outside staring in at the merry eaters with hungry eyes.
Amy Trubek’s Haute Cuisine takes up the story at the date Spang leaves off, 1850, and ends with the views of modern chefs she has talked to. Her subject is twofold: how it was that France was able to hold on so long to its domination of haute cuisine, and how the French chef in the 19th century struggled to achieve, yet failed to obtain, professional status. She sees the two themes as related, at least in part: French chefs, in their struggle to persuade people that they possessed unique knowledge unattainable by others – part of what’s needed if one is to be thought professional – insisted that their Frenchness was part of the package. Clearly, this wasn’t a quality that could be attained by anybody not trained in French methods of sauce-making, the creation and reduction of stocks, larding, knife-wielding, roasting, braising, clarifying, carving, and the handling of pastry. Foreigners, especially the British, bought into this idea that French cuisine was the best.
It emerges from this rather cramped, over-theoretical book that French chefs were produced by the apprenticeship system inherited from the old guilds; and that kitchen staff spent more than a century trying to get back some of the rights (care of the sick and retired, for example) lost when the guilds were dismantled. With the rise of industrialised production, art became increasingly distanced from crafts. The fact that cooking was considered a craft made it more difficult for chefs to claim professional and ‘artistic’ status.
Men closed women out of professional cuisine. Until recently, women were allotted work as cooks only in private households. Auguste Escoffier dismissed women’s cooking as being merely domestic, to do with managing with what their families could afford. Men are more thorough in their work, he added, and thoroughness is at the root of everything good.
At all the great 19th-century food exhibitions, where French chefs sought to convince the public both at home and abroad that they were artists, women made up the main audience. Not all of them were daunted by the dazzling creations on show. One woman complained after visiting a London food exhibition in 1906: ‘All this glazing and sauce-making and fiddle-faddling can only be done by people who have nothing better to do. I wanted to find a new pudding for Sunday’s dinner, and can’t; if I’d wanted to lay out a ball-supper, it would have been a different matter.’