Tag Archives: catering

Women chefs before the 1970s

In the late 20th century women began to make serious inroads into restaurant kitchens, sometimes taking the top spot as chef. An account of women’s progress is given in Ann Cooper’s “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs” published in 1998.

But not a lot is known about women’s status in professional kitchens in earlier eras. In an appendix, Cooper lists a “sampling” of women chefs from the past. Though it is not intended to be complete, it includes only 11 women before the 1970s, beginning with Julie Freyes at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the 1840s. Four of the women worked with their husbands or took over after his or another family member’s death, a not-unusual route for many women in the past.

I wanted to see if I could find out more about women chefs in this country before the changes since the 1970s. Were there many women chefs in the past, I wondered, and what kinds of hotel or restaurant kitchens did they work in?

One problem crops up right away: what exactly is the meaning of chef, particularly in the U.S.? Does it refer to a formally trained person who handles procurement, hires staff and supervises them, and can take over any position in the kitchen in a pinch? Or does it simply mean head cook, with someone else with more executive power handling everything else?

What I have learned is that in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries women were actively involved with food production outside the domestic sphere. They were caterers, they taught cooking, and they worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens. Quite a few were not native born and had acquired their skills abroad.

A few notable women of the 19th century are profiled as chefs in The Culinarians (David S. Shields, 2017). Sarah Windust, a trained cook from England, worked with her husband in 1820s New York, running the kitchen of a coffee house that catered to actors and writers. Eliza Seymour Lee was trained by her mother, a freed slave who had been taught by Charleston’s top pastry chef of the 1790s. Eliza and her husband ran a dining room for boarders. When he died she continued in business as a restaurateur and caterer until the Civil War, specializing in pastries. Lucretia Bourquin also catered, supplying the Whig Party’s 4th of July dinner held in the woods outside Philadelphia in 1838. For those with “fastidious taste” her Philadelphia Eating House offered up such favorites as French soups, Beef a la Mode, Canvas Back Ducks, Terrapins, Snipe, and Partridges.

The confusion over who and what was a chef is illustrated in the career of Nellie Murray, a Black cook and caterer in New Orleans in the 19th century. At times she evidently worked as a cook in white households, but she also became known as the caterer to New Orleans society. She catered all sorts of events, parties, and fundraising dinners, providing dishes preferred by the upper class such as trout with oyster sauce. Almost certainly she supervised helpers for some of her clients’ events. This was certainly the case when she was invited to run a Creole kitchen at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. She did not have a restaurant nor work in one but she would seem to otherwise have exhibited the characteristics of a chef.

Despite the handful of women named above who are known to have had notable careers, the U.S. Censuses of the 19th century failed to record women in the role of chef. Often leaving out women’s occupations and uncertain of the meaning of occupational titles, the census does not present a reliable source on this subject. But it’s worth noticing that from 1900 through the 1940 the census shows a steady increase of women chefs from approximately 85 to nearly 2,400.

What accounted for the increase of women chefs in the first half of the 20th century? The short answer is war and decreased immigration. American-born men were not terribly interested in working in restaurant kitchens, but there were numbers of women available who had studied home economics, including dietetics. Many of them went into institutional kitchens, but from there some took jobs in restaurants. [Advertisement, Reno NV, 1905]

Two news items of the early century undoubtedly inspired American women to aim for chef positions. One was the widespread story of Rosa Lewis, “chief culinary artist” of London’s Cavendish Hotel, paid the then-enormous annual salary of $15,000. And, in 1907 the newly opened elite woman’s club in New York, The Colony, hired Sophia Nailer as chef. Like so many women cooks she had previously worked for wealthy families.

But despite the few women at the top, it seems that most women who held chef positions in hotels were hired mainly because they added homely dishes to the menu for guests, particularly residential guests, who were tired of typically routinized hotel menus. This seemed to account for the hiring of Anna Tackmeyer [pictured, 1919] as chef at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania in 1919 to run the “home cooking department,” which operated separately from the main kitchen. In the 1920s some restaurants, cafeterias especially, proudly advertised they featured home cooking with only women in the kitchen. White men often refused to take orders from women, so it was common that restaurant kitchens with women chefs would be entirely staffed with women.

More typically, though, women chefs in the early century would work in the kitchens of small hotels in remote locations, such as in Baxter Springs KS with a population under 2,000. Others worked in urban tea rooms which were often women-owned and where the majority of patrons were women. [Advertisement, 1924, Springfield IL]

It was an established belief that women could not handle meat. Yet, a want ad in the trade journal Hotel World in 1921 defied this conviction. A woman chef sought “full charge” in a high-class place, claiming she could handle it all: “Meat, pastry, carving.”

The shortage of men in WWII opened up possibilities for women chefs. The American Hotel Association reported in 1943 that 330 hotels nationwide had women chefs. Working in Miami, one woman hired to replace a male military recruit retained his title as “second chef and broiler man.” She reflected the heady feeling this could give a woman, boasting in a letter to the editor that lifting heavy pots and crates was something she didn’t give a second thought to. [cartoon illustration, 1946]

Sociologist William Foote Whyte observed in 1948 that the French chef had lost control of kitchens and that “many of our modern American kitchens with women cooks and food production managers have completely lost the old distinctions of rank.” Of course this could be seen as the classic situation of women not getting into what had been male-dominated ranks until the positions had lost status. According to a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in 1952, the traditional “hat wearing, and artistic male chef” was being replaced by trained women dietitians who had a more modern outlook on how to run a kitchen.

Despite these advances, though, men still controlled most commercial kitchens through the 1960s and beyond, even into the 1970s when the Culinary Institute of America, which had admitted very few women since its creation in 1946 to train returning GIs, began to welcome women students. It would be slow going for women chefs for many years thereafter, but progress would continue.

After the pandemic, who knows what situation women chefs – or restaurants in general — will face?

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Catering

The catering business is closely related to restaurants, though many caterers work from a rented or home-based kitchen. Frequently caterers have been – and are — cooks or waiters; many later enter the restaurant business as proprietors. Then as now catering provides an important financial supplement to restaurants.

In the 18th and 19th centuries many coffee houses, taverns, eating houses, refectories, etc., not only catered to groups in their own banquet rooms or off-site, but also delivered food to homes and workplaces. Monsieur Lenzi, recently arrived in New York from London advertised in 1773 that he could provide jams, preserved fruits, pâtés, and “sugar plumbs” and could handle balls and masquerades as he had done in “most of the principal cities of Europe.” The early Delmonico café of the 1830s supplied meals to residents of a small hotel located next door on Broad street in New York.

Confectioners, who often ran eating places too, were especially likely to be in the catering business because, unlike many restaurant proprietors, they were skilled in turning out elegant cakes and ice cream. For most of the 19th century ice cream could only be obtained from a confectioner.

African-Americans were quite prominent in the catering business until the latter part of the 19th century. They could be found in Boston, Salem, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and other cities along the East Coast, but especially in Philadelphia. Quite a few earned prestige catering to elite white patrons, often being referred to as “princes.” They were often rumored to have become quite wealthy.

According to W. E. B. DuBois in The Philadephia Negro (1899), “the triumvirate [Henry] Jones, [Thomas] Dorsey and [Henry] Minton ruled the fashionable world from 1845-1875.” Dorsey had been a slave, as had the celebrated caterer Joshua B. Smith, who was Boston’s top man in the field. At the opening of Smith’s new restaurant in 1867, the entire city government was present and former mayor Josiah Quincy gave a speech.

But despite the prominence and success of Black caterers, the fact that they served clients in high society, and the praise heaped upon them for their astute management and taste, they were still regarded as second-class citizens banned from public transportation in Philadelphia as well as theaters and cemeteries there and elsewhere.

According to the 1870 U.S. federal census, there were then about 154 caterers (undoubtedly an undercount), 129 of whom were born in the U.S. The majority of those born in this country whose race was identified were Black (56) or Mulatto (29). But by the end of the 19th century, Black caterers had become less numerous, with much catering having been taken over by the big hotels that by then were dominant in the field, particularly for large banquets.

Only two caterers identified in the 1870 census were women, both white. I feel certain, however, that many more women were caterers in the 19th century. Catering was common among women tea room proprietors of the early 20th century whose clients included civic organizations, women’s clubs, and wedding parties. Harriet Moody was a very successful caterer in Chicago of the 1890s, with a remarkable career that included opening a notable restaurant, Le Petit Gourmet, decades later when she was at an advanced age.

In addition to food, caterers usually supplied linens, china, and silver, as well as decorations, even when the dinner was held in a client’s home. In his book Catering for Private Parties, Jessup Whitehead explained that caterers obtained most of their linens and table ware at auctions, being careful not to acquire monogrammed pieces. A prized item was a large epergne which made a grand appearance on a table. Trenton NJ caterer Edmund Hill spent a good deal of time traveling to other cities to keep up with the latest trends in his field. He recorded in his diary on September 26, 1883: “Went to Wilmington, Del. to see about a Vienna Bread baker. Did not get him. Stopped in Phila on way home. Bought a silver epergne $20.00.”

Hotel catering, with its backstage mishaps, staffs of curious characters, and endless haggling over costs and contracts was described with humor by Ludwig Bemelmans who worked as a busboy at the fictitiously named New York “Hotel Splendide” before World War I. In the book Life Class (1938) he described how a group of well-bred but penniless blue bloods bargained for reduced rates based on their status and decrepitude, while accepting a simple supper menu of nothing but consommé and scrambled eggs.

After World War II catering continued on as before, distributed among hotels, restaurants, and independent caterers, the main change being the incorporation of frozen convenience canapes and better equipped kitchens to simplify and speed up the work. Some restaurants, and especially deli restaurants, such as Wolfie’s in St. Pete FL, offered party platters. By then large hotel banquets tended to lose their appeal for many people who had experienced too much Chicken a la King. Thanks to glittering parties thrown by Hollywood stars, it become clear that status accrued to the host or hostess who hired a famed restaurant’s celebrity chef to present novelties that piqued guests’ interest.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Habenstein of Hartford

habrenstein's1880stradecardsIn the late 19th century having your party catered by Edward Habenstein was proof that you had arrived socially. The newspapers of Hartford CT and Springfield MA were filled with descriptions of lavish social events that carried the phrase “catered by Habenstein of Hartford.” That said it all.

Edward Habenstein was born in Saxony, Germany, around 1844 and came to the US with his parents when he was young. They settled in Utica NY where, at age 15, he joined a catering business. When he was 18 he went to New York City, moving to Hartford in 1865 and starting his business in 1868.

habenstein's1891Wesleyanpub

Although his was a retail confectionery and bakery selling its own products as well as Whitman’s candies, French candied fruits, and holiday favors, Edward and his wife Adelia specialized in weddings and large affairs given in private homes. By 1880 they also ran a restaurant but, judging from advertisements, catering remained a prominent part of their business. In Massachusetts the company was known simply as “Habenstein, the Connecticut caterer” while in Connecticut newspapers it claimed the title “The State Caterer” as reflected in an 1890 advertisement consisting solely of that line and a Main Street address in Hartford.

habenstein'sEasterEggsIn addition to providing edible refreshments and dinners, Habenstein supplied receptions and parties with “silver of the latest pattern,” decorated French china, awnings, camp chairs, cloth to cover valuable carpets, orchestras, and “first-class” cooks and waiters.

In June of 1886, a Springfield MA alderman opened his house to the city’s elites who danced, spilled out into an enclosed piazza, and enjoyed Habenstein’s refreshments “of all conceivable forms and kinds.” In summer 1895 an even splashier affair was hosted by the Skinner family who owned one of the nation’s largest silk mills in Holyoke MA. Youngest daughter Katherine entertained about 300 guests at a lawn party at their palatial home “Wistariahurst,” whose grounds were lit with clusters of Chinese paper lanterns hung from trees. The younger set danced for hours outdoors on a specially constructed platform illuminated by arc lights while Habenstein served “lunch” in the mansion’s dining room.

habenstein'sdinner

Students at Wesleyan College in Middletown CT also enjoyed Habenstein’s hospitality. In June 1890 the all-male sophomore class boarded a boat on the Connecticut River to travel to the Hartford restaurant. The boat got hung up on a sandbar and, despite its departure at 11 P.M., did not arrive until 2 A.M. Edward was a bit cross, according to an illustrated account in a student magazine, but served the Class of 1892 a delicious “midnight” supper nonetheless. I’m struck how unlike the menu is compared to what 19-year-old students might order today. They might agree with Milton’s epigram but would they quote it atop their menu?

MENU.
“What hath night to do with sleep.
Welcome joy and feast, midnight
Shout and revelry.” – Milton’s Comus.

Little Neck Clams,
Olives               Celery           Radishes
Vermicelli Soup
Salmon, with wine sauce
Currant Jelly
Brown Mashed Potatoes                           Broiled Chicken on Toast
Saratoga Potatoes                  French Peas
Roman Punch
Lobster de Newburg               Chicken Salad
Fruit                         Assorted Cakes
Ice Cream                  Neapolitan Ice
Coffee
Cigars        Cigarettes

Over its more than 50 years in business in Hartford and up and down the Connecticut River valley, Habenstein’s moved about half a dozen times. In 1902, when it was at 805 Main Street, it advertised that it was the best restaurant in Connecticut. Edward died around 1920. Adelia carried on the business for a short time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Diary of an unhappy restaurateur

hill'sTrenton1882or1883Edmund Hill began working in his father’s bakery and restaurant full-time in 1873 when he was 18. His help was needed because of his father’s poor health. He wanted to go on to Yale, yet he devoted his career to the business, which was operated under his father’s name Thomas C. Hill.

Hill'sMenuCardSAMPLEThomas Hill founded the business in 1860, rapidly becoming one of the city’s leading caterers and furnishing everything needed for soirees, suppers, and weddings except, as a 1866 newspaper story remarked, the brides and bridegrooms. Located in the center of Trenton, New Jersey, the restaurant advertised in 1882 that it was “the largest and finest between New York and Philadelphia” and could provide in its dining rooms or beyond all the fancy dishes of the day: boned turkeys, croquettes, rissoles, jellied meats, carved ice blocks, charlottes, spun sugar centerpieces, and bon bons. Hill’s hosted many organizations at its Greene Street location, including the Young Men’s Gymnastic Association whose members stuffed themselves in 1883 with many of the above plus a variety of ice creams, meringues, and walnut kisses. He specialized in fancy desserts, as is demonstrated by a portion of an 1883 souvenir menu shown here (courtesy of Henry Voight — The American Menu).

Hill'sDiningRoomsEdmund’s diary from 1876 through 1885 has been transcribed and digitized by the Trenton Historical Society and makes fascinating reading. Among other things it gives rare glimpses into the running of a bakery/restaurant/confectionery/catering business in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Edmund was a reluctant restaurateur. As the Historical Society’s site says, “Edmund severely disliked, even hated, working in the restaurant business and he focused much of his energies elsewhere, such as pursuing real estate and civic affair concerns throughout Trenton.”

Despite Edmund’s lifelong disappointment over being forced to take up a trade, he ran a successful business which he diligently kept abreast with the progress of the times, remodeling the restaurant, increasing baking capacity, and installing electricity. In the 1880s Hill’s restaurant and catering service, almost certainly run on a temperance basis, was known throughout New Jersey. And it made money as his diary entry of December 31, 1881, shows: “Finished up accounts in store. We took in $18,146.60, against $15,294.40 last year. Very satisfactory all around.”

Edmund became an expert cake baker and could, and did, fill in for just about any employee. In 1880 he paid his German baker to teach him how to make the Vienna bread made popular by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. (“Bargained with Karl to teach me baking for twenty five dollars.”) On at least two occasions he organized a series of public cooking lessons taught in Trenton by cookbook author Maria Parloa of New York. In his diary he wrote that he found her lecture on bass with tartar sauce, baked fish with hollandaise sauce, ginger bread and vegetables “very instructive.”

Hill'sADV1880When he traveled to New York City or other cities he often ate at leading restaurants and probably toured their facilities. He mentions going to Dorlon’s, the renowned oyster restaurant in Fulton Market as well as Delmonico’s, the Hotel Bellevue, the Astor House, and the Vienna Model Bakery, all in NYC. He went to Moretti’s – Charles Delmonico’s favorite place for ravioli – but evidently did not care for it. (“Do not like Italian cooking.”) He even attended the French Cooks Ball to check out the fare. (“Dresses and dancing were ridiculous. The tables were superb.”)

In addition to ensuring the reputation of Hill’s Restaurant and Bakery, he was a well-off, well-read man of the world who traveled to Europe several times, a successful real estate developer, a banker, a city councilman, an esteemed civic benefactor, as well as a devoutly religious family man. He was friends with famous people, including Leo Tolstoy, whose son he hosted at an honorary dinner at Delmonico’s. Yet, according to the Historical Society’s site, he never got over having to end his education to take over the family business and considered himself a failure.

He sold the restaurant building and all his catering equipment in 1905 while moving the bakery which continued in business for many years thereafter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Harriet Moody

It’s a good bet that there have not been many women, or men, who have opened their first restaurant at age 68 – and, furthermore, made a success of it.

Harriet Tilden (Brainard) Moody [pictured below at about age 20] was exceptional in many ways. She built a culinary reputation long before she opened Le Petit Gourmet in 1920 in Chicago’s Italian Court at 615 North Michigan Boulevard. She had been one of the city’s premier caterers since 1890 when she founded the Home Delicacies Association. Despite her status as a divorcée, she managed to stay afloat in Chicago society, catering teas for charitable affairs and remaining a member in good standing of elite clubs such as the Fortnightly, the Twentieth Century, and the Chicago College Club. Working with her friend Bertha (Mrs. Potter) Palmer, she was one of the “lady managers” of the Chicago World’s Fair.

When her father, a once-wealthy cattle shipper, died in 1886, the recently divorced Harriet was forced to put her Cornell degree to work to support herself and her mother. She took a job teaching high school English but found she needed more income. Although she had never cooked, she deployed her refined tastes to produce dainty salads and baked goods of the sort appreciated by women of the upper classes. She supplied delicate dishes to Marshall Field’s department store tea room, to dining cars in trains departing from Chicago, and to fashionable private clients. Rising at 4:00 a.m. she spent several hours before she left for the classroom each morning supervising the Home Delicacies crew which numbered about 50 by 1899.

She became so successful that she not only supported her mother’s household, but also bought a second house where she lived and ran the catering business on the top floor until transferring it to larger quarters. She also owned a Greenwich Village townhouse on Waverly Place and a summer place, the historic William Cullen Bryant homestead in Cummington MA.

Harriet married poet William Vaughn Moody in 1909 and after his death the following year began to befriend other poets, often putting them up at her places in Chicago, New York, and Cummington, sometimes for months-long stays. At Le Petit Gourmet in the 1920s she organized poetry nights at which Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others, read their work.

In 1911 Harriet established a branch of the Home Delicacies Association in London. Harry Gordon Selfridge, who as former manager of Marshall Field’s had jump-started her catering business in Chicago by ordering gingerbread and chicken salad from her, now asked for dishes for Selfridge’s, his department store which opened that year in London.

Seven years after establishing Le Petit Gourmet, Harriet and a woman partner opened another Chicago restaurant, Au Grand Gourmet, in a modern setting on the ground floor of a new building at 180 East Delaware. But her luck changed and in 1929 financial exigency required her to sell out. She attempted to recoup her losses a couple of years later with the publication of Mrs. William Vaughn Moody’s Cookbook.

Le Petit Gourmet, known simply as Le Petit, survived for decades under various owners, most notably Grace Pebbles, who also ran similar restaurants in Oak Park, Miami, Denver, and Hollywood. The Italian Court, constructed from 1919-1926 as a complex of shops and apartments for artists, was razed in 1968 to make way for an office building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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The checkered life of a chef

suitcases“Become a chef and see the world!” might have been the motto of many of the chefs who came to the United States from Europe in the 19th century. Take Joseph L. Legein, born in Belgium in 1852. He compressed a lot of traveling into his young working life. His biography could be used as a recipe for a colorful culinary career. Did he ever imagine he would end up as an ice cream maker in Springfield, Massachusetts?

To duplicate Joseph’s career, follow these directions carefully:

When you are 14 apprentice with the famous Paris caterers Potel & Chabot, the largest firm in Europe in the late 1860s. (They are still in business today.)

After earning a diploma two years later, secure posts at Paris restaurants such as the celebrated Café Anglais.

Then, take positions in the households of rich and powerful men such as Baron Rothschild and Louis Faidherbe, the latter a general recalled from Senegal in 1870 to battle the Prussians who are advancing on Paris.

icedpuddingalavictoriaEvery chance you get, travel throughout Europe visiting international exhibitions where pièces-montées made by chefs of spun sugar, gum and almond paste are displayed. You will need to make these for centerpieces at formal dinners.

Go to Brussels and work in the Café Riche as night chef.

Next, take a position in the Hotel de Suède in Brussels and get chummy with Alexander, chef to the Belgian royal court, who gets you a gig working with him.

At 20 you are ready to take charge of a banquet staff of seven at the Hotel de la Paix in Antwerp, a highlight of which will be overseeing a 12-course dinner for 1,400 guests.

Go to London to run a kitchen in one of the Inns of Court (but do not get sick after 7 months and return to work at the Hotel de la Paix).

On the spur of the moment decide to sail for America to attend the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. You are about to take up residence in your 4th country and your 8th major city.

Immediately upon landing, accept a position as chef at the restaurant connected with the Globe Hotel, one of the huge hotels thrown up overnight to house Centennial visitors which will be demolished as soon as the fair ends.

After a few months, quit this job to become chef at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Leave this a couple of months later and take a job opening the new Ogden House at Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Why would you leave the Palmer House for this?)

Decide you aren’t paid enough. Go to New York and sign on at the new Windsor Hotel.

While at the Windsor accept a job as chef at the Massasoit House, the top hotel in Springfield MA. You are now 25 years old and this is your 14th or 15th job. Maybe you should stick at it for a while.

Stay at the Massasoit House until you are 34, in 1886, then open your own catering company specializing in ice cream manufacturing.

legein1892

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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