Alexis: Victorian Britain’s celebrity chef pioneer
11 September, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary
Frenchman Alexis Soyer was a foodie genius turned philanthropist in Victorian Britain
AH, to be standing outside the O Bar in Brewer Street, pint in hand, and to pause to consider how last week we cast our minds back to Muddy Waters and Bob Davenport perf m orming upstairs.
And while these seven days have passed since we last strolled, Diary has remembered stumbling into a raucous karaoke party made up of just four very sweet men taking place in its basement one random Wednesday night. Your correspondent lived out his Dean Martin dream and enjoyed much merriment.
But back to the here and now: we’ve reached Soho on a zig-zagged course set by Captain Random since mid-March and face much historical treasure to pick through.
Let us go forth, steadily, from Brewer Street, and swing into Ham Yard.
Its name doesn’t – surprisingly – come from a connection with pigs, but because of an inn situated there in the early 18th century called The Ham.
While there is no clear link to the butcher’s trade, the yard does remind one of a story about a culinary master.
French chef Alexis Soyer was a star in Victorian Britain – a foodie genius turned philanthropist. He came to London after narrowly escaping murderous intent as he cooked for the French prime minister Jules, Prince De Polignac, by members of the anti-Royalist “Trois Glorieuses” during the Second French Revolution of 1830.
A group burst into his kitchens and shot dead two of his staff. He got the message and scarpered.
In England, he campaigned for the victims of the Irish famine, gave a contribution of a penny for every copy sold of his cook book, Soyer’s Charitable Cookery; or The Poor Man’s Regenerator (1847), improved the diets of Crimean War soldiers and invented the Soyer field stove, which the British Army used up until 1982.
In 1852 in Ham Yard Soyer showed quite how big both his talent and his heart were: he set up a kitchen over Christmas and served 22,000 hungry people a free dinner.
Next up, Denman Street, home to the Piccadilly Theatre, whose owners boasted on opening in the 1920s it was so big if you laid all its bricks out end to end, they’d reach from London to Paris.
Its Art Deco interior has borne witness to a number of firsts: in 1934, it was taken on by Warner Bros, and the Al Jolson film The Singing Fool was screened. Never before had a UK cinema audience watched a talkie. They’d fitted a Vitaphone sound system, which worked by printing the soundtrack on vinyl and then attaching a record deck to the projector with pulleys.
Before the war the theatre became known for its cabaret shows but closed for the duration when hit by a Blitz bomb. Refurbished in the 1950s, by 1960 it hosted Les Ballet Africains, featuring the master drummer Professor Famoudou Konaté. Born in Upper Guinea, he was a child protégé and lead Djembe soloist for the company. Transferring from Broadway, it kickstarted the Piccadilly as the place to see the hot shows from New York. A Street Car Named Desire premiered there.
In 1983 Turin-born world record-holding quick change expert and magician Arturo Brachetti was booked in for a season with his new show, I. It was meant to be another groundbreaker, with the stalls removed and a dinner and cabaret set up.
Brachetti learnt magic from a “Gospel Magician” monk called Silvio Mantelli and by the age of 15 had perfected a performance where he would change in the blink of an eye into a new costume.
Despite having the Almighty on side, Brachetti’s big London break was a disaster.
His show was riddled with technical issues. His tricks failed spectaculary with audiences able to see exactly what should have happened and how, dinner was served late, and mean journalists muttered mean things to readers and each other.
Brachetti wasn’t defeated: he closed the curtains after a few performances, and put it right. Renamed Y, it won him awards.
Onwards: let’s head to Air Street, featuring an odd corner plot, now redeveloped. There was a decades-long discussion through the 1800s about how best to bookend Nash’s great Regent Street creation, and this quadrant was at the heart of it.
In 1840, after allegations of corruption in the Metropolitan Board of Works over this prized real estate set back improvements, 73-year-old retired architect Norman Shaw was appointed. In what is described as “an astonishing burst of creative energy”, by historian FHW Shepherd, “he produced in a few months a design of heroic conception, as well as a number of schemes for the rearrangement of the Circus”.
It would, critics said, make Piccadilly Circus a wonder of the world by sorting out the mess of the roads round the centre and completing Nash’s vision. But it was stymied by the stinginess of the Crown, who refused to chip in “for the sake of either architectural effect or municipal improvement”, which meant it was a non-starter.
Shepherd described it as “one of the greatest of all the many lost opportunities in the architectural history of London”.
And on that note, we’ll stare dead-eyed at the advertising slogans blaring out across the circus, and paraphrase that quote from Evelyn Waugh: “Piccadilly and its lights are very nice – if you can’t read.”
Diary suspects Mr Shepherd and Mr Shaw would agree.
Stay well, stay safe.