A Celebrity Chef in Crimea? Meet Alexis Soyer

On February 2, 1855, Alexis Soyer, Britain’s most famous chef, left a London theater to join friends at a nearby restaurant. A waiter showed him to the wrong room, and while waiting in vain for his fellow diners, he picked up a copy of the London Times newspaper and read the latest distressing report from the front line of the Crimean War. The Times had sent its reporter William Howard Russell to the war-ravaged peninsula, and taking advantage of the newly invented telegraph, he sent back the first eyewitness reports from a battleground. Russell is widely regarded as the first serious war correspondent. His chronicles described the dreadful conditions facing British soldiers on the battlefield and in hospitals, which shocked the British public and forced the government to change the way it supplied and treated its fighting forces.

Russell wrote about incompetent British military commanders, of soldiers dying in filthy hospitals, and of poor food supply. He described men “enfeebled by sickness” and “hungry and wet and half-famished.”

Deeply moved by what he had read, the tender-hearted chef asked for a pen and paper and wrote a letter to the editor of the Times. Soyer offered to travel to the war zone at his own expense to ensure that the troops received properly prepared and nutritious food, acting, he said, “according to my knowledge and experience in such matters.” Russell’s dispatches about woefully poor medical care in Crimea had already inspired the Times’s readers to start a fund that sent Florence Nightingale and a team of nurses to the area.

The Crimean War that aroused such strong feelings in Soyer and others began in 1853 when Russia attacked Turkish territories in the Balkans. Britain and France went to Turkey’s aid and their forces landed in Crimea, well behind the Russian front line. They met with some immediate success, but within months the war was bogged down and casualties on both sides mounted rapidly. Along with incompetent military commanders, ghastly mistakes like the Charge of the Light Brigade, and appalling medical care, feeding the troops became a major issue. The British Army’s food supply authorities, known as the Commissariat, were notoriously inept and corrupt. British and French army caterers also bid against each other for local produce, pushing prices sky high.

The majority of soldiers who died in Crimea perished not from war wounds but from sickness often caused by grossly substandard food provided by unscrupulous suppliers. Working closely with Nightingale, the celebrity chef from London had a profound influence not just on how food was prepared and served in the Crimean War but on the care and feeding of soldiers in future conflicts too.

Soyer had moved to London from his native France in 1831. Although he was only 21, Soyer had already served as one of the French prime minister’s personal chefs. In England he rose to fame as head chef of the new Reform Club founded by leading Liberals. An energetic innovator, he introduced gas cookers, water-cooled refrigerators, and ovens with adjustable temperatures to the club’s state-of-the-art kitchens. Soyer, a flamboyant but charming self–promoter, was easily recognizable as he strode around London buying food, doing deals, and planning new ventures. Enveloped in a weirdly shaped cloak, he wore a trademark sloping hat and carried a slanted cane. His eccentric attire gave rise to much comment. It was noted that his clothes were cut on the bias (diagonally)—something the chef described as à la zoug-zoug.

Soyer loved being in the limelight and was in his element preparing outrageously elaborate dishes for his aristocratic patrons. His Chapons à la Nelson featured chickens cooked in pastry shaped like the prow of a ship, floating on a sea of mashed potato.

Soyer (in light-colored coat) demonstrates the innovative field kitchen he developed in the Crimean War to British major general Henry Montagu Rokeby and French general Aimable-Jean-Jacques Pélissier. (Wellcome Collection)

He may have catered for the rich, but he also had a strong social conscience. Soyer set up soup kitchens in Ireland during the Great Famine (1845–1852), serving a nutritious beef and vegetable broth called “Soup for the Poor.” Punch, the satirical magazine, was not impressed and labeled his concoction “Poor Soup.” Soyer also wrote cookbooks full of inexpensive but healthy recipes and offered his services free of charge to poorhouses and hospitals, making their kitchens and food production more efficient and economical.

When Soyer wrote his letter to the Times offering to travel to the Crimea, the British government could not believe its good fortune. A celebrity chef, a household name, was volunteering to sort out two of its most pressing failures: filthy kitchens in military hospitals and ill-prepared food in the field.

Alexis Soyer was famous not only for his cooking but for his inventions. Two of his most popular designs were a vegetable steamer and a clock that rang when food was ready. Lord Panmure, Britain’s secretary of state for war, quickly summoned Soyer to a meeting. It was agreed that he would come up with a new invention: a field stove to replace the outdated tin kettles soldiers used to cook meals. Soon to be known as Soyer’s Magic Stove, it would revolutionize the way food was prepared for British soldiers. The stove resembled a rubbish bin perched on a burner. On top of this contraption there was room for a large cauldron, which could hold enough to feed at least 50 people—eight times the volume of the tin kettles. The new stove also required far less wood than the open fires needed to heat kettles. Soyer calculated his invention could save an army of 40,000 men 90 tons of fuel a day. Soyer was asked not only to take his stove to the battlefields but also to improve the soldiers’ diets. Lord Panmure flippantly urged him to “go to Crimea and cheer up those brave fellows in the camp. See what you can do. Your joyful countenance will do them good, Soyer: try to teach them to make the best of their rations.”

A month after writing his letter to the Times, Soyer was on his way to Constantinople. When he stopped at Marseille, he came face to face for the first time with the grim reality of the war. He described seeing “700 or 800” men who had just landed from Constantinople and Crimea. “Their appearance, I regret to say, was more than indescribable….Those who were wounded looked joyful compared with those who were victims of epidemic—typhus fever, diarrhoea, dysentery, cholera or frostbite.”

Another horrifying sight greeted Soyer in March 1855 when he arrived in Scutari, a suburb of Constantinople. Florence Nightingale took him on a tour of the Barracks Hospital, one of six centers that treated wounded soldiers. Nightingale was far more than “the lady with a lamp.” She transformed military hospitals by cleaning up treatment areas and introducing her own trained medical staff. But during their tour Soyer noticed that the hospital kitchen was filthy. Rats ran rampant. Cooking was done by untrained soldiers who served in rotation and could hardly wait to get back to their normal duties. Soyer wrote:

“The hellishly hot and smoky conditions in the kitchens—exacerbated by the indiscriminate burning of whole trees, leaves and all, to keep the copper furnaces fired up and the water boiling fiercely—meant the job was despised.” He watched in disbelief as orderlies tied joints of meat to wooden paddles and threw them into boiling water. They identified their meat by attaching an object to it—everything from “a string of buttons, a red rag, a pair of surgical scissors or even, in one case, some ancient underwear.” When Soyer told one cook that “it was a very dirty thing to put such things in the soup,” the sweating cook answered: “How can it be dirty, sir? Sure they have been boiling this last month.”

Soyer leapt into action. The kitchen was scoured clean, and metal skewers replaced the wooden paddles. Cooking fuel was used more efficiently to reduce the heat and smoke. Soyer’s clearly written recipes appeared on kitchen walls and cooks learned how to prepare simple dishes. He provided his own recipes for nutritious food for patients, such as mutton and barley soup and calves’-foot jelly, which they washed down with “Soyer’s cheap Crimean lemonaid.” He taught the cooks and orderlies not to waste food. Cooking water that had previously been thrown out was now used to make soup. Fat from the water became a substitute for butter.

“His cookery here,” an officer in the Light Brigade reported, “is perfection.” 

Soyer urged the army to end the practice of using soldiers to do short-term stints in the kitchens. It took the advice and began hiring civilian cooks. He went on to clean up other British military hospitals but still managed to find time to come up with a new invention, the Scutari Teapot. Until his arrival, cooks made tea by dumping tea leaves wrapped tightly in a cloth bag into kettles that had been used for making soup. The result was more like a watery broth than tea. By putting the leaves into a coffee filter fitted in a kettle of his own design, Soyer said he found “to my astonishment it made about one-fourth more tea, perfectly clear and without the least sediment.”

Soyer wrote regular letters to London publications trumpeting his achievements. Queen Victoria got her own firsthand report in a letter from Lady Stratford, wife of the British ambassador in Constantinople: “M. Soyer has done much good in the kitchens. He is a most ridiculous man but quite perfect in his way.”

Two months after his arrival in Scutari, the energetic Soyer was off again. Light Brigade lieutenant general Edward Seager wrote in a letter home: “Soyer goes to the Crimea this week and I hear Miss Nightingale accompanies him for a short visit. He is going to teach the men how to cook their rations so as to make a palatable meal. His cookery here is perfection. He is much liked for his affable and gentlemanly manners.”

Soyer had hoped to take 400 of his stoves with him to Crimea, but they had not yet arrived from England, so the chef set off on May 2, 1855, with just 10. Wearing a flamboyant red and white turban and a hooded cloak on board a large troopship, the Robert Lowe, he enjoyed the company of Nightingale, whom he described as “amiable and gentle.” They arrived in Balaclava in the southwest tip of Crimea, now securely established as the supply base for the allied siege of Sebastopol. As the duo traveled from hospital to hospital, they despaired of the uncomfortable and dirty conditions they found. Many of the kitchens were made of mud and had no roofs, so Soyer designed suitable wooden structures. He also created two new nutritious foods for soldiers in the field. The first was a vegetable cake containing dried carrots, leeks, turnips, parsnips, cabbage, celery, and onions made tasty with seasonings. Then there was a bread biscuit made from flour and peasemeal. “It will keep for months,” he said, “and then soak well in tea, coffee or soup.”

Soyer’s newfangled stoves finally made it to Balaclava in August 1855. Hundreds of British and French soldiers and doctors were invited to attend a grand opening of the first field kitchen, with Soyer putting his invention through its paces. The stoves were carefully arranged around white-clothed tables laden with wines and champagne. There was even a band. The menu included (in Soyer’s words) “plain boiled salt beef; ditto, with dumplings; plain boiled salt pork; ditto, with peas-pudding; stewed salt pork and beef, with rice; French pot-au-feu; stewed fresh beef, with potatoes; mutton ditto, with haricot beans; ox-cheek and ox-feet soups; Scotch mutton-broth; common curry, made with fresh and salt beef.” One soldier wrote home that Soyer “certainly made very nice ragouts and soups, but I fear it will be a very long time before we can do it for ourselves.”

Soyer sailed to Crimea in 1855 with Florence Nightingale. They were shocked by the uncomfortable, filthy conditions they found as they traveled from hospital to hospital. (Library of Congress)

Soyer did not get the chance to see his stoves being used on the front lines because shortly after his grand opening, the allies captured Sebastopol. Around 23,000 people on both sides were killed and wounded in the final assault on September 8, 1855. Soyer volunteered to help in the kitchens of the general hospital where he said he saw so many amputations that “several buckets” were filled with limbs.

A week after the fall of Sebastopol Soyer was struck down by Crimean fever, a bacterial infection caused by bad meat or unpasteurized milk. It was often fatal. Nightingale had come down with the disease two months earlier and barely survived. Soyer spent weeks in bed with severe fever, heart palpitations, headaches, and insomnia. He was at last able to get up looking, he said, “so altered that scarcely anybody could recognise me,” and followed his doctor’s advice to return to Constantinople to convalesce. There he was laid low by dysentery but still decided to make one more trip to Balaclava. Fifty of his stoves had arrived in Constantinople, and even though the war was over, he wanted to make sure they reached soldiers who needed them. When he ignored medical advice not to travel, his exasperated doctor warned, “Don’t forget to take your gravestone with you.”

Once back in Balaclava, Soyer arranged for stoves to be delivered to each of the 40 regiments still in the camp. Rising at 6 each morning and often working 12-hour days, he visited every regiment and explained how to use the stoves. Soyer also handed out simple recipes in the hope that the soldiers would master them before being sent home. Unsurprisingly, he somehow found time to socialize. Not content with accepting numerous invitations, he held dinner parties of his own complete withdishes like his special Tally-ho Pie, from which a live fox leapt when the pastry was cut. A dessert called La bombe glacée à la Sebastopol was a big hit, as was Crimean Cup à la Marmara, a heady mixture of champagne, rum, lemon, and sugar. With the war over, Soyer said the camp resembled a “monster banqueting hall.”

Soyer left the Crimea for Constantinople on July 10, 1856. A shameless self-promoter, he gathered testimonials from influential people. He asked Florence Nightingale for a “candid opinion of the humble services I have been able to render to the Hospitals.” She had been critical of him in the past, calling him a “humbug,” but this time she sent a glowing report saying he had “restored order where all was unavoidable confusion” and “took soldiers’ and patients’ diets and converted them into wholesome and agreeable food.” As for his stoves, she wrote they “answer every purpose of economy and efficiency.”

Soyer arrived back in London in May 1857 after several months traveling in Europe. He had not fully recovered from his Crimean fever, and doctors told him to rest. Ignoring their advice, he “ran on in a mad career of gaiety.” One day when riding to join friends for lunch, his horse bolted. Soyer’s foot got caught in the stirrup, and he was dragged down the road before the horse was stopped. Nothing was broken and in spite of feeling understandably shocked, he went on to the lunch in a hansom cab.

Three children eat cheese sandwiches at an emergency food center in Liverpool, England, during the Blitz. Behind them a man prepares hot food with a Soyer stove. (Imperial War Museums)

Despite the accident and his fast-failing health, he invented a new sauce (with Turkish herbs) and wrote another cookbook with the ungainly title of A Culinary Campaign, being Historical Reminiscences of the late War with the Plain Art of cookery for Military and Civil Institutions, the Army, Navy, Public, etc. He gave a lecture at the United Service Institute on military and naval cookery. Ever the showman, he ended his talk by producing delicious soup and omelets on one of his Soyer stoves. Nightingale asked him to design a model military kitchen and to teach army and hospital cooks new recipes. He started work on a new stove that he said could cook “a dinner either for one man or a battalion.” By the summer of 1858, just 48 years old, Soyer was paying the penalty for his frantically full life. He was spitting blood and losing weight. He was drinking copiously, and his behavior became bizarre. He shouted at servants, and according to one witness, “he would dive into stew-pans and kettles.” This extraordinary behavior was consistent with Crimean fever. The end was not long in coming. Driven as ever, he was designing a mobile cooking carriage for the army when he fell into a coma and died.

London’s Morning Chronicle observed: “He saved as many lives through his kitchens as Florence Nightingale did through her wards.” The great Nightingale herself was moved to comment: “Soyer’s death is a great disaster….He has no successor.”

In spite of his short life, Soyer’s legacy is immense. The Crimean War led to the Soyer stove becoming part of the English language along with the cardigan and the raglan sleeve. Soyer’s stoves were used for over a century by armed forces in Britain, Canada, and Australia. They provided hot meals and tea in British cities bombed during the Second World War. They even went to the Falklands War in 1982. Soyer’s insistence on properly trained army chefs led to the creation of the British Army’s Army Catering Corps, while his soup kitchens became a model for charities such as the Salvation Army and Oxfam. His cookbooks, with their emphasis on nutritious, tasty, and economical food, would inspire a host of future British culinary stars, including Isabella Beeton, the author of the best-selling Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861. His signature Lamb Cutlets Reform are still being served at the Reform Club just as they have been since 1846.

Peter Snow, an author and broadcaster, has written several history books, including When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington (Thomas Dunne Books, 2014). He lives in London. Ann MacMillan worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for many years after marrying Peter Snow and moving to London. They are the authors of War Stories: From the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Battle of the Bulge and Beyond (Pegasus Books, 2018), from which this article is excerpted.

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