Legends of food
CHEFS

Words: Ant Power   Illustrations by Nick Marsh

Legends of food

Take a look back at culinary history, and raise a glass

 

In this day and age, we are inundated and surrounded by food. No longer the three meals a day to sustain us, it’s everywhere, infiltrating our lives wherever we look.
 
Never-ending TV shows (there’s currently over 400 hours per week of food programs on air) advertisements, social media, celebrity chefs, Instagram ‘influencers’, reality shows, street food, you can’t escape it.
 
Ask anyone to name three or four celebrity chefs and they’ll have no trouble rolling off some of the big names, if they’re up to speed they probably can name some upcoming young buck who is about to take the scene by storm. But if we look back through history, you’ll realise that while there have been many celebrity chefs over the years, there are only a few who can be fittingly referred to as chef royalty.
 
So, seeing as this issue is about entertainment, I decided to write about some of my favourite celebrities of the food world. To say it’s akin to going down a rabbit hole is an understatement; the sheer volume of worthy legends that deserve a mention could fill issues upon issues of this humble magazine. So, in no particular order, here are the 5 legends of the world of food that you should, but probably, don’t know enough about.

1. Swedish Chef from the Muppets
 
When I was a kid, Swedish Chef was the only chef I knew. Nowadays most kids would probably name Jamie Oliver when asked to name a celebrity chef, but in the 70s and 80s, Swedish Chef was the ducks’ guts of TV cookery. First appearing in 1975 in The Muppets – Sex & Violence, (what the?) he was an ‘influencer’ long before the rise of social media, holding a weekly slot on the Muppets for decades, throwing utensils round the kitchen, singing and talking in complete gibberish and teaching us kids that you could make donuts, flapjacks and even salad with the use of a shotgun. He once took on a posse of Spanish lobster Banditos who stormed his TV set to rescue a fellow crustacean and invented a catch phrase that is still iconic today in “Børk Børk Børk!”
 
He wasn’t just a TV chef though; he also took to the silver screen with ease and has appeared in every Muppet movie ever made, most notably in A Muppet Family Christmas where he famously targeted arch nemesis Big Bird for the Christmas turkey. Badass. Swedish Chef was the creation of Jim Henson and was one of only a few Muppets to have real human hands, allowing the dexterity required to toss spoons around or employ his unorthodox set of utensils, such as aforementioned firearms, tennis rackets, hand tools or his go-to blade: the cleaver. Never one to shy away from the dangerous, in episode 212 ‘Bomb Egg’, he was badly maimed when a misdirected explosive charge damaged his face, scarring him for years.
 
He was a master of marketing too; capitalising on his global popularity, he launched his own cereal brand in 1988 ‘Cröonchy Stars’. The ingredients on the side panel listed, amongst actual ingredients, items the cereal was exempt from, including ‘no trombones, no broccoli, no shoes and no wheelbarrows’. The merch didn’t stop with cereal; he also had a line of figurines, coffee mugs, a mini flashlight and a Crazy Recipes Card Game. This guy had it all, and inspired me, and I’m sure many other kids of my generation, into the kitchen. Legend.

2. Eugenie Brazier
 
If ever there was a chef who deserved more props, it was Eugenie Brazier (1895 - 1977). Known as Le Mère Brazier, she revolutionized modern cookery, yet few people have ever heard of her. Born on a farm in La Trancliere, in eastern France, she was taught to cook by her mother until at the age of 10, her mother died and she was sent to work on a farm to hone her culinarily skills. With a child out of wedlock at age 19, she was kicked out of the family by her father. Moving to Lyon to work as a nanny during the first World War, she eventually ended up in the kitchen of Le Mère Fillioux, a high-class establishment with a female-only kitchen.
 
In 1921 at the young age of 26, she opened her first restaurant, Le Mère Brazier and in 1933 became the first woman to be awarded three Michelin Stars. This achievement was repeated when she opened her second restaurant Col de la Luere, in the Alpine foothills and her Michelin record remained unmatched by any chef until 1998, when French-born chef Alain Ducasse was awarded his second set of three stars. She developed and championed Lyonnaise cuisine and founded the current lineage of top chefs from Lyon, including Paul Bocuse, her student.
 
She died in 1977 leaving her cookbook unfinished. It was finally completed by her surviving family in 2009 with the English version, La Mère Brazier – The Mother of Modern French Cooking finally published in 2014.

3. Keith Floyd
 
No discussion of food royalty can be had without the inclusion of Keith Floyd (28 December 1943 – 14 September 2009). Born near Reading, his foray into the world of food began modestly while serving in the Armed Forces, where he would constantly pester the mess cook to prepare elaborate meals.
 
After realising that he and the Army were mutually incompatible, he left and found work in the catering industry as a dish washer, a vegetable peeler and, perhaps most naturally, as a barman. After numerous failed restaurant businesses both in the UK and France, he eventually got his break as a radio chef (I can’t imagine how boring it must be to listen to a cooking show without the visuals?!) This in turn led to him being offered his first BBC TV series ‘Floyd on Fish’ in 1984 and the rest is history.
 
His eccentric, often chaotic, style of cookery (perhaps inspired too by Swedish Chef) was always perfectly balanced with a glass of red wine in one hand and regularly, as the programme progressed, it would become evident that Keith was getting more and more pissed and jovial, talking to the cameras and the crew manning them. Often filmed in unusual locations such as on a boat in rough seas or in the middle of an Italian market, he was the pioneer of taking cookery shows outdoors on location and paved the way for the plethora of TV chefs you see today. While his on-camera persona endeared him to millions of viewers, off camera, a chronic smoker, he struggled with alcohol throughout his career and his personal life bore the brunt. Numerous failed restaurants, four divorces, twice bankrupt, he once lost his licence for crashing his car whilst driving three times over the legal limit.
 
The excesses eventually took its toll on his health and we lost him to a heart attack in 2009 at the age of 65, ironically whilst settling into the couch to watch a documentary about his 25 years in the public eye. A legend and royal personage of the highest order, he was a master, appearing in over 25 TV series and publishing 19 books.

4. André René Roussimoff
 
André René Roussimoff, best known as André the Giant, wrestler and actor (May 19, 1946 – January 27, 1993). Now, I know what you’re thinking, He aint a chef, and you’re correct, but when researching legends of the food world for this article, I stumbled onto some facts about André and his unbelievable drinking exploits, so I figured, on this merit alone, he deserves a mention. A giant, literally, he stood at 7’4” and weighed around 500lbs and was a champion of the WWF Wrestling, having taken on some of the greats such as King Kong Bundy and Hulk Hogan. But it’s the stories of his ability to consume booze that are truly out of this world. His huge size led to severe pain throughout his body as it struggled to carry such a frame, and, refusing to take prescription painkillers, often it was alcohol he turned to. He once drank 156 cans of beer in one sitting (it should be noted that a can of beer could easily fit in the palm of his huge hands).
 
He drank the entire stash of vodka on a flight to Japan. He once met with Hulk Hogan at Tampa Airport on a layover and drank, in 45 minutes, 108 12oz. glasses of beer, or around 60 litres — about 55 time more than the average human stomach can hold. He would often order pitchers of ‘rocket fuel’, any combination of spirits and liquors and would regularly drink six bottles of Mateus wine before a match. He once drank 12 bottles of wine on a three hour long bus ride through Japan and reportedly told an anaesthetist that it takes him two litres of vodka to ‘get warmed up’. On one trip to the UK, he was told it was last call and to leave a bar unless he was drinking so he promptly ordered 40 vodka tonics and drank them all. Surprisingly there isn’t much information on what the big man could eat, however stories of him ordering 12 steaks and 15 lobsters at dinner with friends circulate and, given the tales of his thirst, I’d believe it.
Chef no, but legend, yes. I feel like a beer.

5. Georges Auguste Escoffier
 
Georges Auguste Escoffier is, arguably, the grand master of them all (28 October 1846 - 12 February 1935). From outside of Nice, in Southern France, he cut his teeth at his uncles’ restaurant at age 15 before moving to Paris, only to be called up to active duty in the Army where he was given the position of army chef. After seven years, he left and, in 1878, opened his first restaurant in Cannes called Le Faison d’Or – The Golden Pheasant. Strong name.
 
By 1884 he had moved to the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo to work alongside Cezar Ritz. Yes, that ‘Ritz’, but it wasn’t long until the two of them were poached to London to run the new Savoy Hotel. It was here that Escoffier proved himself as one of the greatest chefs to ever bone a duck. Adapting and refining the technique of arguably the greatest chef of all time (and quite possibly the very first ‘celebrity’ chef) Marie-Antonin Carème, Escoffier simplified and modernised the elaborate and ornate style of his master and, perhaps most importantly for cooks ever since, codified the recipes for the five Mother Sauces – the fundamental sauces of French cookery that are still taught to student chefs to this day.
 
It was at the Savoy that he took cuisine to a new level, creating dishes that are still famous, most notably, the Peach Melba; a dessert he made for Dame Nellie Melba, the Aussie soprano opera singer who at one time lived at the Savoy. The dessert was a vanilla ice cream with peach and raspberry sauce. Simple you might think, but he presented it on a trolley with a giant ice sculpture of a swan, the dessert nestled in its outstretched wings. Now that’s how you serve dessert.
 
His time at the Savoy didn’t last forever and in 1898 he and Ritz were fired for gross negligence and mismanagement. Apparently, it took a force of Met police to eject the kitchen team who had taken up arms with their knives and refused to leave. (I could see this happening in today’s kitchens). The case was eventually settled out of court when it became evident that more than £6000 of wine had been ‘diverted’ through the kitchen and Escoffier was found to be taking bribes and ‘gifts’ from suppliers. (This too, I have seen happen in today’s kitchens.)
 
After the Savoy he set up kitchens at The Ritz Paris and The Carlton London, that went on to lure over much of the Savoy clientele. In 1913 he cooked an elaborate multi-course lunch, followed by another even more elaborate dinner feast for Kaiser Wilhem II and hundreds of dignitaries upon which The Kaiser proclaimed ‘I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs’. His legacy is unquestionable. He codified modern French cookery, invented the hierarchical system of kitchen management that is still used throughout kitchens around the world and he set the standard for haute cuisine. And he ‘diverted’ £6000 of wine through the kitchen. King of chefs, Emperor of chefs. Royalty.

 

Nick Marsh illustration