François Vatel, 1631-1671: Something Fishy

America comes late to the Age of the Celebrity Chef (no Escoffiers for us) , and of course we have to commercialize the hell out of it (are we honestly to believe that Celebrity Chef Brand pots and pans are qualitatively better than others?) because at the end of the day,  we do tend to measure accomplishment in hard revenue.

Well, television celeb chefs do, at any rate. And however dedicated and passionate as they may be,  I can’t think of any of them  who takes the job as seriously as Vatel did.

Born Fritz Karl Watel,  he was son of a day farm laborer and was apprentice to a note patissier.   By 22, he was was running the show at Vaux-le-Vicomte for Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister for the then  15 year old Louis XIV.

His next position was with Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Condé (aka the Grand Condé, for whom he serves as basically food impresario for the household.

Politics enter the story, as it must.  The Grand Condé was effectively the second most senior aristocrat after the king, holding vast territories in Burgundy, Berry and Lorraine.  His relatives held even more.  Tensions with the regent’s crew grew,  a complex civil war ensued, and it was only after some time that both king and Conde were reconciled.

To mark the occasion, he threw a party for the king and over two thousand of the king’s closest friends. Three days, Thursday to Saturday, of eating and festivities.

Vatel was given fifteen days to make it work.

The poor fellow  scarcely slept the entire time.  Day one began with a hunt and ended with a fireworks display and dinner.   Vatel was in informed that the guest list has grown by an extra seventy five heads.  The meat supply was two tables short, and he feels the shame of it, and says so repeatedly to those around him.  The Condé himself consoled the fellow, telling him that it was not his fault and that the roast really was quite excellent.

However bad that might have been, the real problem came the next day.   The evening menu called for fish.   Fish, of course, make for a very mercurial sort of market –  You get what you get and you don’t get upset.    That particular Friday, the getting wasn’t all that good.   River fish would not do, it must be saltwater fish.  Chantilly is about eighty miles form the coast.  Despite a crack crew of buyers out looking for something suitable and in sufficient quantity, by 4:00 AM there are no more than two baskets.

Hours pass.

Vatel was becoming more and more agitated.  He is constantly checking for news.  More hours pass. Still nothing.  Worse, no understudy for the delinquent course was on hand.

He was exhausted and in despair.  A co-worker was mocking him for his failure.   The shame of it was too much to bear.   The dinner hour was upon them.

Vatel retired to his room,  wedged his sword in the door, and flung himself onto the point.

The fish carts showed up moments later.


(Madame Sevigne gives the short version of the  story;  Gerard Depardieu does a nice turn in the longer movie version Vatel and the fateful party.  Lovers of costume drama, take note.

Vatel is also the namesake and inspiration for the Vatel, International Business School for Hotel and Tourism Management.   As to the aftermath, the Conde and the king both mourned the loss of this culinary paragon and out of respect,  or lost appetite, the fish went uneaten.)







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