Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Soyer, Alexis Benoît

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SOYER, ALEXIS BENOÎT (1809–1858), cook, youngest son of a small shopkeeper, was born at Meaux-en-Brie on the Marne, France, in October 1809. At the age of nine he became a chorister in the cathedral church of Meaux. From 1821 till 1826 he served as apprentice to a cook at Grignon, near Versailles. In the latter year he was engaged by the well-known restaurateur, M. Douix of the Boulevard des Italiens, where he remained above three years. He was soon chief cook, with twelve men under his charge. In June 1830 he was second cook to Prince Polignac at the foreign office, but the revolution in July caused him to leave France, and in 1831 he joined a brother in the kitchen of the Duke of Cambridge in London. Subsequently he was a cook to the Duke of Sutherland, to the Marquis of Waterford, to William Lloyd of Aston Hall, Oswestry, and to the Marquis of Ailsa at Isleworth. In 1837 he was appointed chef to the Reform Club, London, then temporarily established at 104 Pall Mall. On the day of her majesty's coronation, 28 June 1838, he prepared a breakfast for two thousand guests at Gwydyr House, whither the club had removed during the erection of the present clubhouse (1838–41). One of Soyer's best remembered dinners there was that given to Ibrahim Pasha on 3 July 1846, when covers were laid for 150 persons (cf. Cunningham and Wheatley, London Past and Present, iii. 158).

In February 1847 Soyer turned his attention to the famine in Ireland, on which he wrote various letters to the public press. In April he received an appointment from the government to proceed to Ireland, where, on the Royal Barracks Esplanade, Dublin, he erected and conducted with the greatest economy kitchens, from which he issued rations of soup and meat at half the usual expense. He was for his services entertained at a dinner at the Freemasons' Hall, College Green, and at another banquet at the London Tavern on his return to England. While in Ireland he published a sixpenny book, ‘Soyer's Charitable Cookery, or The Poor Man's Regenerator,’ part of the proceeds of which he gave away in charity.

In 1849 he brought out Soyer's magic stove, a small kitchener, with which food could be cooked on the table. At his office, 15 Charing Cross, he every day exhibited before aristocratic crowds his dexterity in dressing food with this stove, which had a large sale. In May 1850 he resigned his situation as chef at the Reform Club, where his salary and the fees he received from improvers brought him in almost 1,000l. a year. In May 1851 he opened Gore House, Kensington, the late residence of the Countess of Blessington, as a restaurant, hoping that the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park would bring him numerous customers. The place was well patronised, but resulted in a loss of 7,000l.

On 2 Feb. 1855 he wrote a letter to the ‘Times’ offering to proceed to Eastern Europe at his own cost to advise on the cooking for the army engaged in the Crimean war. The government accepted his services. He commenced his duties by revising the dietaries of the hospitals at Scutari and Constantinople. In two visits to Balaklava he, in conjunction with Miss Nightingale and the medical staff, reorganised the victualling of the hospitals, in addition to undertaking the cooking for the fourth division of the army. On 3 May 1857 he returned to London, and on 18 March 1858 he lectured at the United Service Institution on cooking for the army and navy. His cooking wagon for the army was soon adopted in the public service. He next reformed the dietary of the government emigration commissioners and of the military hospitals, and erected a model kitchen at the Wellington Barracks, London.

He died at 15 Marlborough Hill, St. John's Wood, London, on 5 Aug. 1858, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery on 11 Aug. His wife, Elizabeth Emma Soyer, is separately noticed. His personalty was sworn under 1,500l. The French cook, M. Mirobolant, in Thackeray's ‘History of Pendennis’ (1849 edit. pp. 230, &c.), is said to be a sketch of Soyer. Soyer wrote many books on the culinary art. Of his ‘Gastronomic Regenerator, a simplified and new system of Cookery’ (1846), two thousand copies at a guinea each were sold. It contained plans and drawings of kitchens, from the matchless establishment of the Reform Club to a cottage cooking-place. In 1849 he brought out ‘The Modern Housewife or Ménagère,’ and in 1853 a ‘History of Food in all Ages,’ under the title of ‘The Pantropheon.’ The latter is a careful and laborious compilation, containing three thousand references to various authors. His other publications were:

  1. ‘A Shilling Cookery Book for the People,’ 1855.
  2. ‘Soyer's Culinary Campaign, with the plain Art of Cookery for Military and Civil Institutions,’ 1857.
  3. ‘Instructions for Military Hospitals: the Receipts by A. Soyer,’ 1860.

[Volant and Warren's Memoirs of A. Soyer, 1858, with portrait; Fagan's Reform Club, 1887, pp. 64–9, 77–9, with portrait; Sala's Things I have seen, 1894, i. 12–17, 101, ii. 240–9; Punch, 9 Jan. 1847, p. 14; Harper's Mag. Feb. 1858, pp. 325–34, with portrait; Illustrated News of the World, 1855, ii. 140; Morning Chron. 6 Aug. 1858, p. 5, 9 Aug. p. 5, 12 Aug. p. 5; Times, 6 Aug. 1858, p. 8. See also Camp Cookery by Alicksus Sawder in Yates and Brough's Our Miscellany, 1857, pp. 135–40.]

G. C. B.