by Michael Garval
“Who is this Vatel, where does he come from?” asks one courtier, in the 2000 Miramax biopic Vatel.
“Nowhere—slums of Paris,” scoffs royal favorite Lauzun, his reply untrue yet revealing.
So who was Vatel, where did he come from, and what might such mistelling of his story mean? Employed by the Prince de Condé, François Vatel was a maître d’hôtel, a kind of seventeenth-century food and beverage manager. In 1671, when a late seafood delivery threatened to spoil a banquet he was organizing in honor of the King, he impaled himself upon his sword. While largely forgotten for over a hundred years, Vatel would reemerge in the wake of the French Revolution, recast as an archetype of culinary excellence.
From the Revolution onward, with the advent of a vibrant, increasingly broad-based gastronomic sector, the culinary profession struggled to escape its long history of servitude and social marginalization. Could the chef, once a lowly domestic worker, be reimagined as a public personage, embodying creative power and prestige, commanding respect and wielding authority? Nineteenth-century French popular culture, from theater, to the burgeoning periodical press, to visual media like engravings or postcards, ventured its own, oft contradictory answers. While not a cook, Vatel was seen as the martyred patron saint of modern culinarians, a key precursor of chefs’ newfound prominence, his ceremonial sword a badge of superior social status, his suicide proof of uncompromising devotion to his art.
Biographical misinformation propelled Vatel’s resurrection, and has flowed into current-day riffs on his story, like Roland Joffé’s film. To be sure, Vatel did hail from humble circumstances, though in rural Picardy, not Paris—where instead, born on the eve of the Revolution, Marie-Antoine Carême rose from the slums to become the first celebrity chef. But how to explain chefs’ sudden transformation, from servant to star? France looked to Vatel, reinventing him as a precedent for culinary stardom, and standard bearer for a thriving gastronomic culture.
Spun in the long nineteenth century, from the Revolution to the Great War, Vatel’s legend revolves around origins, both individual and collective. Diverse versions all ask much the same question as the film: where do great chefs come from?
Scribe and Mazères’s 1825 comedy Vatel, or the Grandson of a Great Man, depicts Vatel’s grandson and great-grandson aspiring to the putative culinary distinction of their “illustrious ancestor […] who died on the field of honor.” Through humor, the play underscores ideals—heroism, sacrifice, glory—at the heart of emergent Vatel lore. Vatel looms as these characters’ forebear and, by extension, as contemporary chefs’ spiritual ancestor.
The chromolithographic trade card Vatel’s First Arms (c. 1880-1900) highlights Vatel’s supposed professional background, portraying him as a marmiton, or young culinary apprentice.
In a premonitory vision, juxtaposed with a grown chef, he polishes his ‘first arms,’ kitchen implements anticipating the sharp instrument of his suicide.
Through Vatel, this image indulges in the period’s broader marmiton mythology, that downplayed exploitation and dismal career prospects, to instead celebrate apprenticeship as a springboard to culinary success.
Another trade card, Mme de Sévigné. The death of Vatel (1880-1900), depicts his suicide, as memorialist Sévigné, pen and paper poised, tells the tale.
In a private bedchamber, sword piercing his heart, Vatel falls back toward the portrait of a lady, with unhappy love and suicide mixing fancifully, as in the film. Unlike the previous image, this proffers a stylish fellow, without culinary trappings. His superior standing as a maître d’hôtel represented a paradigm for great chefs from Carême to Escoffier: by likewise dressing as gentlemen, they obscured the stigma of working class roots and kitchen labor, to instead fashion distinguished public personas. In this emblematic card chefs shroud their origins, and Vatel’s story spreads forth, from Sévigné’s initial rendition. Indeed, as his head snaps back, features disappear, this paradoxically faceless likeness rendering a figure whose memory, revered yet ill-documented, invited wild interpretation and frenetic substitution: myriad Vatels, flowing from Sévigne’s account, to stand in for their ostensible prototype.
Aspiration and emulation
Not everyone can achieve greatness. But all can admire heroes, and try to follow their shining example. Aspiration and emulation underpin modern celebrity culture.
By the late nineteenth century, a “Vatel” came to mean simply a chef, but could also denigrate vile hash-slingers, like third-rate seducers dubbed “Don Juan” or “Casanova.” So too, dubious Vatels abounded in visual culture. While top French chefs like Auguste Escoffier were white, male, adult, serious, and seemingly omnicompetent, sweet little girls, clownish dolts, or far-flung indigenous cooks could all be ironic Vatel avatars.
To wit, this caricature of a Moroccan Vatel presides over a portable stove in a cramped kitchen, cooking mechanically.
Beyond obvious racism and colonialist condescension, this c. 1910 postcard marks the gulf between humble aspirants and a paragon of French culinary excellence, contrasting the Moroccan chef’s ignoble existence with Vatel’s glorious destiny.
Back in the metropole, the kitchen supply store Au Grand Vatel offered professional equipment and garb for practitioners striving to rival the company’s grandiose namesake. Along similar lines, the verso of Vatel’s First Arms advertises department store À la Ville de Saint-Denis, featuring household goods, notably cookware. This marketing anticipates a new symbiosis between homemaker-consumers and lionized celebrity chefs, which would flourish over the century ahead.
In the 1950s, for instance, pioneering French TV chef Raymond Oliver promoted food products, cookware, and appliances to an audience keen to emulate his culinary savoir-faire.
Several decades later, three star chef and media darling Bernard Loiseau further facilitated consumers buying into his brand, with a line of frozen entrees. Ever in the spotlight, peddling his wares, Loiseau strayed from his path. In 2003, amid rumors he might lose a Michelin star, Loiseau killed himself with his hunting rifle. And this bold modern Vatel served in turn as the model for another—indeed, an entirely fictional, big screen culinary martyr. Deceased celebrity chef Auguste Gusteau haunts Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), harping on the key link between eager imitators and inimitable idols, exhorting us to believe that “Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.”
Michael Garval, Professor of French and Director of the interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at North Carolina State University, also serves as Associate Editor of the journal Contemporary French Civilization. His research interests include celebrity, visual culture, and gastronomy. The author of ‘A Dream of Stone’: Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture, and of Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture, he is currently working on another book project, Imagining the Celebrity Chef in Modern France.