Although he was English, it was John Dingle’s lifelong ambition to be regarded as a French chef. Ironically, it was while working at a Bronx roadhouse that he attained that recognition when he was dubbed “Monsieur Jean Dingle.” He expected his former co-workers in New York’s Ritz Hotel kitchen to ridicule him about it, but it turned out they were proud of him. [pictured: the roadhouse, ca. 1912]
His few years spent in New York capped what he regarded as on-the-job professional training. To help support his family, he had begun as kitchen boy at the Old Drawbridge Hotel in his home city of Bristol, England, at age 13. At 14, he resolved to become a first-class chef, even though he knew that it was an unusual aspiration for an Englishman. He knuckled down, working 12-hour days and teaching himself French. By the time he came to the U.S. nine years later, in 1911, he had worked in hotel and restaurant kitchens in London and throughout Europe. Despite facing ridicule because he was English — especially in France — he managed to work his way up. [Majestic Hotel, Paris, approx. when he worked there]
He tells his story in the book International Chef: Paris, New York, London, Monte Carlo, Lisbon, Frankfurt (1953).
He was recruited off the streets of London for a kitchen job at the soon-to-open NY Ritz-Carlton by an agent who offered him free passage and a wage of $27.50 a week. This was good pay contrasted with much of Europe where, he had discovered, the more prestigious the kitchen, the lower the wages. At the Ritz he was assigned to make hors d’oeuvres, but soon requested a move up: “I considered that I had already spent longer than was necessary in the cold department of the industry. I made my customary request to be transferred to the main kitchen and I was soon working in the sauce department, which is the most important in any kitchen . . .”
French was the language of the Ritz staff. Soon after he arrived his colleague “Monsieur Robert” showed him how to write out the daily supply requisition. Robert was surprised how well he did it, leading Dingle to reply, “I ought to be able to write it considering I’ve spoken it all my life.” Monsieur Robert (Trudge) was astounded, saying, “Well I’m blown, I thought I was the only English chef living.” Neither of them had ever met an English chef before. Of course, since an English chef had to masquerade as French, they might have been wrong. [pictured: Ritz dining room, ca. 1911]
Dingle decided to move on and, after a few short stints at summer resorts, landed a job at the Woodmansten Inn, on the Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Adjoining a racetrack in its early years, it also had the distinction of being one of the roadhouses closest to Manhattan.
If everything was in order at the Ritz-Carlton, with its 70 chefs and well-equipped kitchens, that was far from the case at the Woodmansten Inn. Hired as chef, he immediately began correcting problems. He discovered that waiters had quite a few tricks such as substituting cheap wines for good vintages, and getting kickbacks from suppliers who were furnishing inferior foods while charging for higher grades. Refrigeration was supplied by three ice boxes located in the hot kitchen where the ice melted rapidly and dripped on the floor. He moved one to the cool cellar and used the others as storage cabinets. He rescued the inn’s vegetable garden and fruit trees which had been allowed to go wild. He converted abandoned, rundown stables and sheds into chicken houses. Another major coup was his introduction of broccoli onto the menu after he found an Italian neighbor growing it. It was not widely known outside of Italian communities – he referred to it as “green cauliflower.” He guessed that it would be a novelty to guests, who would tell their friends about it. Apparently he was correct because the next proprietor of the inn, well-known NY restaurateur Joe Pani, earned the title “broccoli king” by claiming he had introduced it to the U.S.
After a couple of years in New York, Dingle decided it was time to return to England, to his fiancé and his aging parents. He announced the decision to his boss, a man simply identified as “Mr. Roberts” in the book. Roberts then proposed that Dingle return after his marriage and become a co-proprietor with him. He convinced Dingle to hand over his savings, which amounted to $1,000 – equal to 70% of his annual income. After his return to Bristol, Dingle received urgent messages from Roberts informing him that the owner of the property was about to sell it and was demanding accumulated back rent. Roberts claimed he had paid off the debt and moved to Chicago.
I’ve come to suspect that Dingle was the victim of a scam by Roberts, who knew that the actual property owner – and the restaurant’s proprietor – was planning to sell, and who had no intention of going into business with Dingle. In fact, Roberts was also probably in on the various fiddles that Dingle attributed to the cooks and waiters.
Despite seeing his plans for the future ruined, and having lost his savings, the ever-determined Dingle went on to open two successful restaurants in Bristol.
© Jan Whitaker, 2021
2 responses to “Anatomy of a chef: John Dingle”
I love stories about chefs. Being a former one myself, it’s interesting to see not much has changed over the years!
I thought of you! But can you imagine being recruited right off the street?