Alexis Benoît Soyer was born in France in 1810. Originally destined to go into the Church he decided it was a vocation he did not want to follow and managed to get himself expelled from the cathedral where he was studying. He then went to study as a chef under the tutelage of a brother and became well known as a brilliant cook and inventor of mobile soup kitchen equipment in Victorian London.
Soyer’s Early Cooking Career
By 1830, he was cooking for the French statesman, Jules, Prince de Polignac. Soyer was rustling up a banquet when a mob attacked the building. Two fellow cooks were shot but Soyer managed to escape injury by singing the Marsellaise. It was not long after this that he came to England where his brother was chef to the Duke of Cambridge.
In 1837, Soyer married a London lady – Emma Jones. Emma was a renowned artist whose works were exhibited at the Louvre in Paris and other galleries to a fair bit of acclaim. She was particularly well known for her portraiture. Emma tragically passed away in 1842 after giving birth prematurely.
Soyer Becomes Chef of the Reform Club
In the same year that he married, Soyer became the head chef of the Reform Club which was being built in Pall Mall, London. He was responsible for the design and layout the building’s kitchens and Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal of 1846 reports that “… Everything is there done… not only as respects taste, but economy … economy in time, fuel and space.”
Soyer resigned from his position at the Reform Club in 1850 because he disagreed with a decision by the committee to allow members to entertain guests daily instead of twice weekly. But by this time, he had become quite renowned in culinary circles not only for his gastronomic delights at the Reform Club but because of his work in opening soup kitchens to help victims of the Irish Famine of 1847.
Alexis Soyer and the Famine of Ireland in 1847
The Irish Famine was caused by potato blight decimating the crops which the poor relied on for food. The British Government’s attempts to ease the situation were not particularly effective. Soyer used his ingenuity to invent a mobile soup kitchen capable of making up to 1000 gallons of economical but nutritious soup for distribution to the poor. In early February 1847, he wrote to the newspapers requesting subscriptions towards the cost of making the soup.
The request was a success and soup kitchens were opened in Dublin and London. According an article in the journal Leisure Hour in 1859 between April 6 and August 14 1847, 1,147,278 portions of soup and bread were distributed from Soyer’s mobile kitchen at Dublin. Whilst he was in Ireland, Soyer also produced a cheap cookery book called The Poor Man’s Regenerator giving ideas and recipes for inexpensive but nutritious meals.
Soyer and the Hospital Kitchens of the Crimean War
In January 1855, conditions for the Army in the Crimean War were extremely poor and a correspondent wrote to The Times asking for help and ideas for cooking army rations. Soyer replied with some recipes for dishes that he was confident would be “… found practicable, economical and nutritious …”
He wrote again to The Times in February 1855 saying “…although the kitchen under the superintendence of Miss Nightingale affords so much relief, the system of management at the large one in the Barrack Hospital is far from being perfect.” He then offered to go to Scutari at his own expense to sort the kitchens out.
Within a month of being at Scutari, Soyer organised a grand opening of the refurbished hospital kitchens. The changes he implemented meant that two civilian and six military cooks could rustle up decent, nutritious meals, ensuring that military personnel could be properly fed from their rations. He also supplied a portable stove he had invented which was used to cook up rations in the field.
The Death of Alexis Soyer
Soyer’s time in the Crimea was not without its hazards and he suffered bouts of diarrhoea and dysentery whilst he was there. This weakened his health and he died at the relatively young age of 48 at his home in St John’s Wood, London. There is little doubt that his ingenuity in inventing soup kitchens and portable cooking stoves helped save the lives of many of the most disadvantaged of Victorian society.