Celebrity chefs are nothing new. In the 19th century, a high-society French cook named Alexis Soyer came to Ireland during the Famine to teach the starving masses how to eat on the cheap.
Born in 1809, Soyer mastered his skills in the kitchens of Paris before moving to London at the age of 21 to become a culinary darling, according to Maggie Armstrong of The Irish Times.
Despite being the toast of the town – he catered for Queen Victoria’s coronation breakfast – he began writing letters to the Times in January 1837, concerning himself with Ireland’s “dreadful calamity of starvation.”
The Soup Kitchen Act of 1847 was passed to feed the starving Irish, but money from taxpayers to set up the kitchens was not forthcoming. Soyer believed he had come up with a solution – a “palatable” soup of root vegetables, pearl barley, herbs, flour, dripping and a leg of meat that could be made for only £1.
Soyer arrived in Dublin to launch his soup kitchen on April 5th, 1847. Taking place on the esplanade of the Royal Barracks, now the National Museum at Collins Barracks, the temporary hall was outfitted with a 1,100-litre steam cauldron, bread oven, chopping blocks, a pantry, and tables with spoons chained in place.
The gentry were brought in to marvel at the display as paupers were brought in 100 at a time to eat, with a six-minute time limit to consume the food.
The British declared the venture a success, but the Freeman’s Journal, a newspaper in Ireland, mentioned Soyer’s “wealthy and inappropriate air of celebration” among “a public parade of wretchedness”. Plus, many thought the chef’s “palatable” concoction, with a tasteless liquid base and very little meat, was terrible.
Soyer came to his own defense, declaring, “the poor do not want fattening – they want feeding.” Despite the questionable fare it served, the kitchen was soon doling out 8,750 meals per day. The Relief Commissioners used Soyer’s kitchen until harvest time, when meal distribution ceased.
Around the same time, he published a cookery pamphlet entitled “The Poorman’s Regenerator.” In The Irish Times, Armstrong says her copy of the work “shows a remarkably modern, ecological slant on how to reduce food miles and eat from local sources.”
After the farewell party held on April 10th at Freemasons’ Hall on College Green, Soyer left Ireland and traveled to the Crimean War to improve the hospital conditions and feed the military. He also worked with Florence Nightingale while he was there.
He died in 1858 of apoplexy, at the age of 48.
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