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César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier / The London Magazine

By Harriet Griffey

The London Magazine

25 Juillet 2018

The men who changed London's fine-dining

When theatrical entrepreneur Richard D’Oyly Carte opened his Savoy Hotel in London in 1889, there was only one man who he wanted to run it: César Ritz, whose reputation had been forged in Monte Carlo and Cannes. But although Ritz visited The Savoy, marvelled at its modernity and delighted in its clientele, the beau monde of La Belle Époque, initially he refused. Then D’Oyly Carte made him a financial offer he couldn’t refuse. More importantly, he agreed to Ritz  having his own team, including the renowned chef de cuisine, Auguste Escoffier. 

Ritz had first hired Escoffier for the Grand hotel in Monte Carlo in 1884, realising that the success of a luxury hotel rests in the excellence of its restaurant. But, as Luke Barr writes in his new book, “Ritz was outgoing, debonair, and excitable, while Escoffier was cerebral and methodical. Ritz was extravagant, ambitious, and prone to self-doubt, while Escoffier was self-assured and precise.” 

Ritz recognised that along with the immaculate surroundings, discreet service and fresh flowers in the lobby, his wealthy customers wanted to be tempted and seduced by the food, and Escoffier was the chef du jour. Escoffier recognised that a professional association with someone who was on his way to becoming the premier hotelier in Europe would only benefit him. 

The Savoy had been five years in its building and was considered a technological marvel of its time, seven stories high with electric light throughout its 400 guest rooms, 250 of which were suites with sitting rooms and varying numbers of bedrooms. Throughout the hotel were 67 bathrooms, some private to the suites, with hot and cold running water, unlike its nearest rival the Hotel Victoria, newly opened with only four bathrooms for 500 guests. There were also six American-made lifts, which meant that the seventh floor-rooms were as desirable as the first. It was revolutionary in its modernity.

London society in 1890 flocked to it, including the bon vivant and gourmand Prince of Wales, and here aristocrats mingled happily with the nouveaux riches, American heiresses and theatrical personalities. The famous and ‘divine’ Sarah Bernhardt was an early guest at The Savoy, while appearing as Joan of Arc at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Reputed to be one of the Prince of Wales’s lovers, she was also said to be Escoffier’s. Ensconced in her fourth-floor suite overlooking the Thames, Escoffier brought her Moët et Chandon champagne and scrambled eggs which, she said, were the best in the world. 

Famous guests, such as Bernhardt, attracted other theatrical notables including Oscar Wilde. Athough he complained, half seriously, about the modernity of the place, saying that the electric light was “harsh and ugly” and the lifts moved too fast, Wilde was a frequent guest  at The Savoy who loved the restaurant and ate there often in the company of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and others from the literary salons of bohemian London. 

Escoffier had become famous for the delicacy of his recipes, the freshness of their ingredients, the balance he brought to his menus and the systematic record keeping of his clients’ individual tastes. He revolutionised the kitchen at The Savoy, banning smoking and drinking on the job, insisting that cleanliness was as important as the sharpness of the knives, and instituted the completely new concept of an assembly line in the kitchen. 

With specialisations among his 80 staff, Escoffier ensured the smooth preparation of large quantities of exquisite meals for which The Savoy was fast becoming celebrated.

But disaster struck when Ritz and Escoffier were unceremoniously fired on 7 March 1898, allegedly for some sort of financial impropriety, partly because although profits were good and the shareholders were  happy, there was a certain flamboyance about Ritz that D’Oyly Carte’s wife Helen had found hard to stomach. Ritz issued a writ for wrongful dismissal and breach of contract and felt vindicated by the Prince of Wales’s immediate cancellation of a party at The Savoy when he heard news of the duo’s departure. “The story of the scandal that ended their employment at The Savoy was kept secret for many years – the truth only began to come out in the mid 1980s, almost 100 years after the event, when documents were leaked,” says Barr, in his book Ritz & Escoffier. Undaunted, they moved to Paris to repeat their winning formula all over again – this time, by opening the Hôtel Ritz. 

The hotel in the Place Vendôme would have modern plumbing and electricity and, assisted by his wife Marie, Ritz realised a hotel of supreme comfort and luxury. Not only would rooms have en-suite bathrooms, unlike the majority of other hotels, there would be adequate hanging space in the closets for women’s clothes and, at Marie’s suggestion, extra drawer space was included for the false hair pieces and accessories worn by all the fashionably elite women. Electric lighting was designed to be as flattering as candlelight and a discreet brass hook was attached to the arms of half the chairs, on which a woman could hang her handbag. 

When the Hôtel Ritz opened in Paris in June 1898, it was a triumph, attracting the sort of society clientele they’d previously entertained at The Savoy. Ritz also imported the English concept of afternoon tea, which went a long way to ensuring the hotel’s prestigious reputation among the Parisian elite. Eight years later, in 1906 Ritz opened the London Ritz and the word “ritzy”  entered the British lexicon, a lasting synonym for style and glamour and elegance that continues to this day. 

‘Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef and the Rise of the Leisure Class’ by Luke Barr is published by Potter, £16.99

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