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Monday, January 14, 2013

On Alexis Soyer, Romanticist Chef

A fascinating essay on a Romanticist Celebrity Chef...

Soyer was known for his exuberance, and eccentric style. A wit, prankster, raconteur, fine singer—and not just of revolutionary ballads—his first ambition was to be a comic actor, and for much of his life he frequented theaters and theatrical performers. A dapper Frenchman among drabber Victorians, he dressed as a Romantic dandy, in a style no longer the height of fashion at the height of his career in the 1840s and 50s—and did so even in the kitchen, eschewing the conventional chef's uniform. Beyond their rich embroidery, lavish silks, and extravagant colors, Soyer's clothes were characterized by their insistent cut on a bias, "à la zoug-zoug" in his own coinage, an idiosyncratic rendering of "zig-zag," the English phrase itself taking on the gallic flair of its inventor. Indeed, this predilection for diagonal lines was not limited to clothing designed and worn "studiously awry" (Sala 1894, II, 241), but rather part of a broader pattern. As biographer Helen Morris notes,
Soyer's desire to be noticed, to be admired, above all to be extraordinary, grew ever more dominant. He tried not only to cook differently from everyone else, but to dress and talk and walk differently too. . . . [H]e would not wear a single garment with either horizontal or perpendicular lines. His hats were specially built so that when clapped on at any angle they slanted in a coquettish way—in his own phrase, à la zoug-zoug. His coats had to be cut on the cross . . . . His visiting card . . . was not a rectangle but a parallelogram; so was his cigar-case, and even the handle of his cane slanted obliquely.

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