01 Aug The First Gas-Powered Commercial Kitchen
There are few restaurants and industrial kitchens that do not call upon the help of commercial gas engineers to either install or maintain natural gas stoves, ovens and other essential appliances.
However, the dining industry and one of its first famous faces also turned out to be an essential reason for the widespread use and acceptance of natural gas, which had heretofore only been used for street lighting.
He was also not an engineer nor a chemist but instead was a chef, and he took the opportunity of a lifetime to make the kitchen he wanted and changed far more than cuisine in the process.
This is the story of Alexis Soyer, the Reform Club kitchen, and how it brought about a natural gas revolution.
The gas stove in the Reform Club was not the first ever made, which is believed to have been developed by the Austrian chemist Zachaus Winzler.
It was further evolved by the Northampton inventor James Sharp, who would later patent his version of the stove in 1826 and be the first to sell a stove powered by natural gas commercially in 1834, constructing a factory for the purpose in 1836.
During this time, a young chef from Meaux-en-Brie was beginning to make his name.
Born on 4th February 1810, Alexis Benoit Soyer was sent to Paris to live with his cook brother Philippe, who managed to get him the apprenticeship that would shape his destiny and inadvertently also that of the natural gas industry.
By 1826 at the age of just 16, Mr Soyer had already become the second chef of a large restaurant, and a year after this he was head chef, becoming a highly popular chef with the Paris aristocracy.
That was until the 1830 July Revolution deposed the House of Bourbon, which Mr Soyer had been cooking for, effectively making him persona non grata in Paris, forcing him to flee to England and create a kitchen of destiny.
Alexis Soyer spent seven years working for various members of the landed gentry, but in 1837 he would be granted an opportunity that would make his career when he became the head chef of the Reform Club held at Pall Mall.
However, a new building designed by architect Charles Barry was being constructed, which gave Mr Soyer the opportunity to take control of the design of the kitchen and design it with his own needs in mind.
The result was a kitchen decades ahead of its time and filled with innovations that would make it a tourist attraction for a time and inspire the development of kitchens up and down the country.
By far its most important contribution, however, was the incorporation of piped natural gas, with Mr Soyer himself arguing that unlike coal and charcoal, which encouraged wasted energy as it was impossible to turn a coal stove off when it wasn’t needed, natural gas would be cheaper in the long run.
Whilst this was undoubtedly true, using natural gas also had the benefit of introducing far more precise temperature controls to his ovens, allowing him to create more delicate, elaborate and exotic dishes than anyone else in London, turning him into arguably the first celebrity chef in Great Britain.
He also used water-cooled refrigerators, thermometers, accurate kitchen clocks and established several standards for keeping meat, fish and produce fresh that would be commonly replicated in the decades since.
He would be the creator of one of the Reform Club’s most famous dishes, the lamb cutlets Reform, and his banquets, helped in no small part by his efficient cooking space, became legendary.
However, despite his love of luxury and exceptionally flamboyant character in the Reform Club, Mr Soyer was a deeply charitable and philanthropic man, leaving the Reform Club in 1847 to open soup kitchens during the Irish Famine, offering soup and meat at half its current costs.
He would later also travel to the Crimea alongside nurse Florence Nightingale, developing field stoves that would be used for over a century by the British Army, as well as establishing the Army Catering Corps to ensure that soldiers did not accidentally poison themselves.
Unfortunately, he contracted Crimea fever and dysentery, and whilst he recovered when he returned to London, he ignored advice from his doctors to rest and would die on 5th August 1858.
Strangely for such a popular chef in his day, he is unlikely to be remembered for his dishes but instead for the radical designs of his kitchens which prioritised hygiene, safety and efficiency, improving the conditions of chefs in the UK for centuries to come.