A chef’s life: Charles Ranhöfer

Or, how Americans got dishes fit to set before a king.

In the middle of the 19th century highly trained European chefs began arriving in the United States. Many were lured to California by the inflated gold mining economy while others stopped on the East coast. Charles Ranhöfer (he soon dropped the umlaut) arrived in 1856, first working for a Russian diplomat in NYC, then for a Washington DC restaurant and a private family in New Orleans. After spending some time in his home country of France in 1860, he returned to New York and in 1862 accepted a position as chef at the “uptown” Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue near Union Square.

At this time New York City was engorged with wealth from the Civil War. The rich bought up yachts, race horses, fancy carriages, and real estate. It was the perfect time to introduce them to fancy French cuisine. Despite his young age, 26, Ranhofer had extensive experience, having begun his career as a child and running Paris restaurants and the kitchens of European royalty.

The reputation of Delmonico’s as the premier American restaurant, the one most nearly resembling the finest in London and Paris, was built largely during Ranhofer’s reign which lasted from 1862 to his death in 1899, with a brief interruption when he returned to Paris in 1876 around the time Delmonico’s moved from Union Square to Madison Square (shown).

The restaurant’s glory was founded less on regular patronage than on lavish banquets given to honor prominent men. Grand dinners of the 1860s included one given by British railway tycoon Sir Morton Peto and one for President Andrew Johnson and another for Charles Dickens. The Peto dinner, costing $30,000 in 1865 (over $400,000 now), spread Delmonico’s fame across the nation. Another celebrated dinner planned by Ranhofer featured a 30-foot pond set into the banquet table, banked with flowers to protect guests from splashing by four live swans.

Ranhofer’s name became widely known after he published his vast cookbook, The Epicurean, in 1894, divulging how “haute” restaurant cuisine was produced. The cookbook reveals just how many props and quantities of plaster of paris and glue (jelly) are needed to turn out highly decorated French dishes. The illustration of salmon steaks from The Epicurean shown here exhibits salmon coated along the sides with butter paste onto which circles and diamonds cut from truffles have been attached. Truffles also cover the yolks in the boiled egg border. On either side of the salmon dish are decorative spears (hatelets/attelets) of prawns. Ranhofer is also known for inventing baked Alaska – in his recipe ice cream is stuffed inside a hollowed out cone-shaped cake before the meringue is added.

Although his early training was similar to other top chefs, he was atypical in holding one job for over 30 years. Perhaps his percentage share of profits explains his long tenure with Delmonico’s. His base pay was good for its time – $300 ($7,300 today) a month in 1890 – yet not the highest on record. William K. Vanderbilt’s top kitchen man reportedly earned $6,000 a year. However when his share was added, it’s likely Ranhofer’s income exceeded Vanderbilt’s chef’s as well as those of the top men at New York’s Savarin Café and Hoffman House.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Filed under food, history, restaurants

One response to “A chef’s life: Charles Ranhöfer

  1. Pingback: Food A chef’s life: Charles Ranhöfer | India Restaurants

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