06 Nov The Kitchens That Brought Natural Gas Stoves To The Masses
For as long as natural gas has been used in industry at all, it has been inextricably linked to commercial and industrial kitchens.
One of the very first celebrity chefs in England, the French-born Alexis Soyer, used his considerable influence to ensure that the kitchen of the Reform Club in London was one of the first in the world to use natural gas, and hired early industrial gas engineers for this purpose.
As the use of natural gas expanded from street lamps to the vast majority of homes and places of business, this relationship between the most public faces of cookery and natural gas endured, with two of the most influential celebrity chefs of the 20th century both being directly supported by gas boards spanning two continents.
America’s Most Famous Gas Range
At the Smithsonian Institution’s Kenneth E Behring Centre in Washington DC, amongst the many other priceless historical artefacts is a well-kept and fully-featured but otherwise fairly ordinary kitchen.
This kitchen belonged to celebrity chef Julia Child, a very popular and highly influential chef credited with introducing the United States to French cuisine and demystifying what had previously been considered an almost mythologically luxurious culinary culture.
Her first and most famous show, The French Chef (1963 – 1973) was so popular and influential that retailers would note a surge in demand for the sometimes relatively unknown ingredients she would use.
However, its biggest legacy was the famous Garland range she used, notable for having six gas rings rather than the usual four. It was initially made in the 1950s and had been used in a restaurant before Julia and husband Paul bought it in 1956.
This, in itself, was a noteworthy and characteristic part of her long-running show, and the American Gas Association took notice of how her use of a gas hob was influencing sales of similar stoves and decided to get involved with her comeback.
After The French Chef ended in 1973, Mrs Child took a five-year break from television until WGBH, the public access television network for Boston, Massachusetts commissioned a new series from her in 1978 entitled Julia Child & Company.
She agreed, but on the condition that she would not need to bring her own kitchen to the studio as she had for The French Chef, but instead would have a ready-built kitchen space.
WGBH agreed, in no small part because of a rather unusual pseudo-sponsorship agreement with the AGA, who offered a four-ring industrial gas range, and a large rotisserie oven.
Public-access television shows could not have sponsors as part of their broadcasting agreement, so instead of a typical sponsorship, the show would have a credit thanking the American Gas Association for making the show possible.
According to an AGA publication, whilst she had both an electric and gas range at home, she almost exclusively used her gas countertop because of the level of heat control it provides.
She had been a lifelong supporter of gas hobs, writing about her love of her Garland hob from 1956 until her death in 2004.
However, whilst she was one of the biggest influences on gas stoves in kitchens in the United States, a very similar endorsement had been agreed to across the Atlantic Ocean, with the woman who inspired Julia Child to cook in the first place.
The Gas Council And Fanny Cradock
Debuting on television eight years before Mrs Child, Fanny Cradock is one of the most famous and infamous celebrity chefs in history, both revered and mocked in equal measure, with the always-flamboyant chef revelling in the attention regardless.
Much like Mrs Child, Mrs Cradock promoted French and Italian cuisine, helping to make cooking more approachable through a rather unusual approach, including cooking in ball gowns and other pieces of fancy dress.
The ever-outspoken Mrs Cradock famously always preferred gas ovens, and part of the reason for this was a lengthy agreement with the British Gas Council, that dated back to the start of her career with husband Johnnie as the anonymous food columnist and later theatrical double-act Bon Viveur.
This agreement went further, with Mrs Craddock appearing regularly at trade shows promoting the Gas Council, and even starring in public information films such as Kitchen Magic, promoting the ease of cooking using a gas hob compared to previous burning stoves.
The agreement with the Gas Council lasted as long as her television career, which met an untimely end thanks to a rather infamous episode of the television series The Big Time in 1976, later entitled the Gwen Troake incident, where her behaviour promoted such national fury that the BBC terminated her contract just 14 days later.
Despite this, her legacy, alongside Julia Child’s, would help to enshrine natural gas in many industrial kitchens and shape the culinary tradition of two continents for decades to come.