Tag Archives: chefs

Anatomy of a chef: Joseph E. Gancel

At an antiquarian book show last weekend I picked up a copy of Gancel’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking originally published in French in 1918, with an English version in 1920. Gancel’s Encyclopedia was an enlarged and enhanced version of his 1909 Ready Reference of Menu Terms which he compiled to assist waiters in explaining to diners the bewildering number of dishes, mostly in French, found on menus of the best restaurants of that time.

Joseph E. Gancel was a Frenchman who had a long career working in hotels and restaurants in the United States, France, and Belgium, as well as clubs and organizations such as the Brazilian Embassy in Brussels and the Press Club in Paris.

In 1874, at age 12, Joseph began his culinary apprenticeship in Rennes, France. In the 1880s he worked in the kitchens of European hotels such as Paris’s Grand Hotel and restaurants such as the Café de la Paix and the Moulin Rouge in Paris and the Antwerp branch of the Paris oyster house Rocher de Cancale.

In 1892 he immigrated to the United States with his wife and five children, finding work at the Waldorf-Astoria [pictured], the Plaza, Sherry’s, and others. He worked at many places; I’ve counted 21 and I’m sure the total is greater. When he published his 1920 edition of the Encyclopedia, he was about 58 years old and living in San Francisco where he was a member of Cooks’ Union Local 44. The self-published book, mailed from the author’s lodging house, cost $2.50. I hope he made some money from the book – evidently he had not become rich as a chef.

Just how confusing menus could be is indicated by the number of egg dishes included in his 1920 book: 477! To keep the book pocket-size he had to do a lot of abbreviation, leading H. L. Mencken to say, rather wryly, “His terse, epigrammatic style touches the heart.” Readers trying to make sense of the above sample page might like to know that . . .
art. = artichokes
can. = canapé
dec. = decorated
foi-g. = foie gras
gar. = garnished
po. = poached
pu. = puree
sa. = sauce
sal. = salpicon (a filling of chopped meat, fish, or vegetables)

There are some curiosities in Gancel’s Encyclopedia. Only a handful of Asian menu items are described. He pretty much dismisses Asian cuisine with the sentence, “Culinary art is very poor in China and Japan.” Yet there is room in the book for esoteric dishes such as Sauterelles Rôties, which I must remember never to order. At least I now know how to eat Roast Locusts (“When cold, take off head, wings and tail, eat same as shrimps.”) and how to store them (“Salted locusts can be conserved in a jar, covered with mutton grease.”)

The Encyclopedia also reveals that Gancel was an advocate for kitchen workers. He was quite unhappy with conditions found in most hotel and restaurant kitchens. Noting the stark contrast between magnificent dining rooms and the squalid subterranean areas where meals are prepared, he wrote, “When you see the cooks come out of the basement kitchens, pale and very often rheumatic, it is no wonder that they are so, considering that they have been shut up in such an atmosphere, forced to inhale the gas from the range and the fumes generating in the cooking utensils. . . . Give to these men sanitary, hygienic, well lighted, and ventilated kitchens. Such would be an act of humanity as well as a public necessity.”

I agree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


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Making a restaurant exciting, on the cheap

This post was inspired by an Eater.com story called Ten Ways to Make Your NYC Restaurant Less Boring. I decided to match their suggestions with examples from the past. I am presuming that author Greg Morabito had tongue in cheek when he thought up his ten tips, so I am doing the same. My suggestions have been tailored for present economic conditions.

10. Hire a Forager – This is a great idea and bound to add interest. But go beyond greens. In 1884 an enterprising Chicago restaurant forager stalked snow birds (juncos) along the city’s cable car lines. Delicious on toast. Look around. Think pigeons!

9. Serve Whole Animals – Yes, and display them prominently. Dead animals – whole bears and bison — strung up around the entrance, and raw meat generally, have always been irresistible to restaurant goers. Live animals too. Keep in mind the 1941 restaurateur who took delivery of a giant sea turtle and stored in it the restaurant window for several days before putting it on the menu. Another idea: on those really hot days set up a few premier tables in the meat locker.

8. Hire a Chef from Portland – Or, whatever place is trendy at the moment. So happens in 1922 the management of the Mandarin Inn in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, went all the way to California to import a chef who could “give the students the best possible in Chinese dishes.” And, by the way, they don’t have to be from Portland literally. Many of the French chefs of the 19th century were from Germany and China.

7. Don’t Play the Same Music Everyone Else Plays – A children’s choir would be notable and might draw in parents and grandparents. As another entertainment idea, don’t rule out fortune-tellers. They are always a hit during economic downturns and will work for tips.

6. Give Your Guests Garlic Bread Instead of Regular Bread – Ok, but don’t overdo it. Just keep in mind some people are leery of garlic – and strange music, which they tend to associate, if Irvin S. Cobb is still to be believed. He ate in restaurants often, all the while longing for corn bread. He complained in 1913, “I have been howled at by a troupe of Sicilian brigands armed with their national weapons – the garlic and the guitar. I have been tortured by mechanical pianos and automatic melodeons.”

5. Start a Chef’s Counter – Make cooking your floor show. Consider hiring a man in a tuxedo to mix salads under a spotlight. Flames and knives are popular. I think public butchering is going too far but don’t be afraid to bring some of the behind-the-scenes jobs out front, such as dishwashing. This hasn’t ever been done that I know of.

4. Invest in a Serious Mixology Program – A good bartender can come high, so don’t underestimate the appeal of great cocktail names, especially during election season. Try updating some used at Brigham’s Oyster House and Restaurant in Boston in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, such as Fiscal Agent, I.O.U., and those that commemorated politicians and political events, like Free Soiler, Clay Smash, and Webster Eye-Opener. Mr. Brigham retired very, very rich.

3. Invest in a Serious Coffee Program – I like the idea of a coffee sommelier, and you can definitely charge more for your coffee drinks this way. If you’re going to do this you absolutely must not use instant coffee. Ever. Not even if you have one of those instant coffee machines with the beans showing on top.

2. Serve More Vegetables – Given the high price of farmers’ markets, it makes sense in these tough times to look for ways to reduce costs. The advice given in the June 1968 edition of Cooking for Profit still makes sense. No one can tell you’re using canned vegetables if you encase them in gelatin. And please, describe your creation as “en gelée.”

1. Offer a Great Deal Every Night of the Week – A few deals used in previous downturns that are ripe for recycling: offer free second helpings, especially of gelatin; no charge for (gelatin) desserts; sell meal tickets to frequent diners; decorate with antiques – that are for sale; hold poker tournaments during the afternoon cocktail hour; invite celebrities to eat for free if they agree to wear their best clothes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under miscellaneous

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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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.


© Jan Whitaker, 2009


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