Biography of Famous Chefs Vatel

About the famous French chef Vatel, his history and biography, information about his service with the Sun King Louis XIV.

VATEL (1622?-1671)

We may live without friends; we may live without books;

But civilized men cannot live without cooks.

That was the way British poet Owen Meredith put it, but he neglected to mention that some civilized cooks could very well do without their employers. The famous French cook Vatel and his master, the notorious Prince de Conde, offer an excellent example.

Less is known of Vatel than any other great cook; not even one recipe he concocted has been passed down to posterity. Some say he was Swiss-born, baptized "Fritz Karle" Watel, but in any event, he did serve the Prince de Conde, perhaps as principal chef in that great household. Monsieur le prince, however, was a most eccentric gentleman and when Louis XIV accepted an invitation to visit his estate at Chantilly, the prince was ready to ruin himself financially in order to impress the Roi Soleil. Everything the Sun King wanted in the way of wine, women, and food was to be provided, and Louis had prodigious appetites for all.

Vatel was instructed to spare neither expense nor effort to feed the gluttonous King, and the chef drove himself to the point of nervous exhaustion in doing so. All the delicacies that could be had were fed Louis. The chef served him light refreshments in the field "in a spot carpeted with jonquils." But then--a tragedy! Vatel, who hadn't had a night's sleep for 12 days, failed to serve roasts to a few tables in the King's party during one sumptuous feast.

No doubt Monsieur le prince was furious and his chef tried all the harder to please him, though on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Finally, the breaking point came when Vatel ordered fresh fish for the King from the nearest seaport towns. Arising at 4 A.M. to check the quality of the fish that would be arriving, he found that only 2 hampers had been delivered, far too little to feed the King's party. "Is that all there is?" he asked the fishmonger, and the man replied that no more would be coming, meaning only that no more fish would be sent from his town. Unfortunately, Vatel misunderstood him. "I cannot survive this disgrace," he told his assistant, and he retired to his room, fixed his sword upon the door, and ran himself upon it, never more to be harried by his vexsome employer.

Ironically, 10 more loads of fish arrived from other seaports just 15 minutes after Vatel's death, and though there was talk of the chef's dedication at table the next day, the merry feasting continued unabated. As for the Prince de Conde, he grew even more eccentric with each passing year. Toward the end of his life, he announced that he, himself, was dead, and since dead men did not eat, neither would he. His doctors tricked him, telling him that dead men do eat, but from then until his actual demise Monsieur Je prince would only dine at the table in the presence of corpses that the doctors supplied.

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