Francois Vatel is known as the great French chef He was actually Swiss rather than French, and maître d’hôtel rather than a cook or chef. who killed himself on the morning of the 24th of April 1671 at Chantilly, France over a food delivery that went wrong.
Francois was born Fritz Karl Watel in Switzerland, the son of Charles Frédéric Watel, an ordinary worker (the name Watel is still common in Zurich.) His birthdate is disputed: dates suggested are 1625, 1631 or 1635.
He apprenticed as a pastry cook. When his apprenticeship was finished, he worked for Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), Superintendent of Finances in France, at Fouquet’s château Vaux-le-Vicomte until Louis XIV, jealous of Fouquet’s display of opulence, threw Fouquet in jail in 1661.
Vatel then went to work at the château of Chantilly for Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (1621 – 1686) around 1667. He was “maître d’hôtel” (manager of the chateau), not really the chef — that is a popular misunderstanding. The Prince de Condé held Vatel in great esteem. Vatel was given the right to carry a sword, which was an honour in those days, and had his own quarters.
The fateful banquet
At the start of April 1671, Louis XIV announced that he would honour the Prince de Condé by visiting him from Thursday 23 to Saturday 25 April 1671. It was a dubious honour to have the King visit as a guest. In those days, Louis XIV insisted that all the nobles of France and their hangers-on travel with him, so that he could keep an eye on them (later, he built Versailles to keep them all in one place.)
Vatel and the Prince de Condé had only fifteen days to prepare for the visit. Vatel had barely slept for the past twelve nights. As “maître d’hôtel”, he had to feed six hundred nobles and several thousand additional people for three days.
A series of small mis-arrangements, including fireworks during fog, put Vatel in such a state of stress that when he heard that a fish delivery had possibly gone wrong, he took his own life. And ironically, shortly afterwards, the fish deliveries began pouring in.
Madame de Sévigné was a great letter writer of the period. Much information about what happened is drawn from her account (see further below), even though she was not there to see it — she heard about it second-hand.
Is this fake news? Did Vatel even exist
Some have speculated that Vatel might never even have really existed. The Gazette of France, which covered the Chantilly visit of the King in depth with three pages of reporting, doesn’t mention the suicide at all.
However, there’s little reason to doubt Madame de Sévigné as she knew everybody who was anybody, and everyone else she mentions in her letters was real. One person she mentions, for instance, is Jean Hérault, sieur de Gourville (1625 – 1703.) Jean Hérault had been associated with Nicolas Fouquet (mentioned in third para), who attracted the King’s jealousy. Jean Hérault was fortunate enough to avoid being imprisoned. He became superintendent of the Prince of Condé’s business and houses. Condé let Jean Hérault live in the nearby Château de Saint-Maur, where Madame Sévigné visited Jean Hérault prior to the events surrounding Vatel. She also knew Alphonse, the Comte de Moreuil, who was the First Gentleman servant — as in, of first importance — to Condé. She would certainly have heard of Vatel, if not seen him while there.
The Vatel incident is also mentioned in:
- Memoirs of Mademoiselle de Montpensier;
- Memoirs of Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy (1618 – 1693), and a cousin of Madame de Sévigné;
- Memoirs of Alphonse Moreuil;
- Letters of Prince of Condé.
Madame de Sévigné in Paris to Madame de Grignan (her daughter-in-law) in Grignan, Provence. Friday, 24 April 1671:
“I just returned here. My intention was to tell you that the King arrived yesterday evening at Chantilly. A stag was running in the moonlight, the lanterns were wonderful. The fireworks were a little obscured, but in the end the evening, the dinner, the amusements, everything went marvellously. The weather that we had today made us hope for a worthy continuation of such an agreeable beginning. But here’s what I learned while arriving here, which I can’t get over, and I don’t know what else to do but to talk to you about it: in short, it’s that Vatel, the great Vatel, “maître d’hôtel” of Monsieur Fouquet, and currently that of the Prince, this man capable beyond all others, whose good sense was able to support all the care of a State, this man that I knew… you see at 8 o’clock this morning the fish delivery hadn’t arrived, he wasn’t able to endure the humiliation that he saw coming on himself, and to make a story short, he stabbed himself. You can imagine the horrible disorder that such an accident caused to the festivities. And imagine that the fish delivery arrived, perhaps even while he was in the process of dying. I don’t know anything more at present; I think you will find that this is more than enough. I have no doubt that the confusion was huge; it’s a terrible thing to happen to a party costing 50,000 écus. Monsieur de Menars is going to marry Mademoiselle de La Grange Neuville. I don’t know if I have the heart to speak to you of anything but Vatel.”
[Madame de Sévigné carries on the topic in her next letter two days later, on Sunday, again to her daughter-in-law.]
“It is Sunday the 26th of April; this letter won’t leave until Wednesday; but this is not a letter, it is an account which Moreuil [Ed.: Alphonse de Moreuil, who worked for Condé] has just given me to pass onto you of what happened at Chantilly concerning Vatel. On Friday I wrote to you that he had been stabbed: here’s the full scoop.
The King arrived Thursday evening; there was everything that one could wish: hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a walk, the meal in a spot carpeted with daffodils. People ate; there were a few tables where there was no roast, because there were several more people eating than had been expected. Vatel obsessed over this, saying several times “I have lost honour; here is an affront that I can’t bear”. He said to Gourville, “My head is spinning; I haven’t slept for 12 nights. Help me to keep things going”. Gourville helped how he could, but Vatel couldn’t stop thinking about the missing roast at the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth tables (though not at the King’s table). The Prince went to Vatel’s room and said to him, “Vatel, everything is fine: nothing was as beautiful as that dinner for the King”. Vatel said to him, “My Lord, you are too kind. I know that there was no roast at two tables”. “Not at all,” said the Prince. “Don’t fret about it, everything is fine”.
Night fell, but the fireworks, which had cost 16,000 francs, were a flop because it turned foggy. At 4 a.m., Vatel was everywhere (fretting) while everyone else was asleep. He met a small supplier doing a morning delivery, who had only two loads of fish. Vatel said to him, “Is this all?” The supplier replied, “Yes”. He didn’t know that when Vatel said “all”, he had been referring to the requests he had made from all the ports. Vatel waited a while, but no other deliveries came. He got in a frenzy, thinking he would have no other fish. He found Gourville and said, “I won’t survive this insult; my honour and reputation are at stake”. Gourville made light of it.
Vatel went up to his room, put his sword against the door, and caused it to go through his heart; he had to do this three times, because the first two hadn’t wounded him deeply enough to kill him.
At this point, fish deliveries began arriving from all over. People were looking for Vatel for instructions; they went to his room, forced the door, and found him in pool of his own blood. Some ran to tell the Prince, who was plunged into despair. The Duke cried, because he had come to Burgundy because of Vatel.
The Prince told the King, with great sadness, that people were saying it was because of Vatel’s pride; people were both praising and blaming his courage. The King said he had put off coming to Chantilly for five years because he understood how much stress his visits caused. He said that from now on, the Prince should only worry about feeding two tables of people, and not worry about the rest. He said he wouldn’t allow the Prince to go to such great effort anymore, but that it was too late for poor Vatel.
Gourville undertook to make up for the loss of Vatel, and did it. Everyone ate well, walked, played, hunted, the perfume of daffodils was everywhere, everything was enchanting. Yesterday, which was Saturday, everyone did the same again, and in the evening, the King went to Liancourt, where he ordered a late supper. He is supposed to be staying here today.
And that’s what Moreuil recounted to me. I can’t add anything more; that’s all I know. Mr de Hacqueville who was there for it all will no doubt give you his account, but as my writing is better than his, I’m writing anyway. Sorry for all the details, but because I would want them myself about a similar occurrence, I’m sending them to you.”
Mademoiselle de Montpensier was another prolific diary keeper of the period. She mentions Vatel, though not by name. As she was the cousin of the King, and an extremely wealthy and high-born woman, she wouldn’t have had close enough dealings with stewards other than her own to know their names:
“I wasn’t comfortable in Chantilly, where the king stayed one day. I had a puffy face, and swollen legs and hands, but my doctor says there was no danger or fear of becoming hydropic; that it was only spleen vapour caused by melancholy. That it wasn’t worth suffering over Monsieur de Lauzun. While speaking with me, he seemed to be unsettled to see me, though not daring to say it.
A tragic accident happened while the Court was at Chantilly. One of the Prince’s “maître d’hôtel’s”, who had always been wise, killed himself. They say that he had found something that didn’t go according to what he had dreamed, and that he killed himself out of spite. Everyone slept in Liancourt; I went to bed early.” — Mademoiselle de Montpensier. Mémoires. February – May 1671.
Roger de Rabutin, the Comte de Bussy, was another diarist of the period. He wrote:
“If the unfortunate V had not been persuaded that hope were useless, and that despair was a remedy, he wouldn’t have stabbed himself, horrifying men, and offending God and the prince his master…. instead, taking the future into account, he would have recovered his grace, of which he had despaired so stupidly.
How many people today do you see lose honours and goods, who have been justly chastised by the King for some fault they had? They wouldn’t have gloriously emerged from the affair if they had abandoned themselves to despair, and hadn’t hoped to return to grace through better conduct.
It is therefore true that hope is the only possession of those who have nothing else… I don’t think you’ll feel differently about this than I do; because since the time that you were unlucky, which is, since you have been in the world, if hope hadn’t sustained you, you would have in your despair imitated Judas, or V. The question would have just been what kind of death.” — Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy, writing to Monsieur de C. at Chaseu. 8 May 1671. Letter 212.
Literature & Lore
In 1981, the hotel management school in Paris, Institut Vatel, was named after Francois Vatel.
In 2000, Roland Joffé produced a film called “Vatel”, in which Vatel was played by Gérard Depardieu.
The celebrated chef Auguste Escoffier is reputed to have said some two hundred years later that he would just have served chicken instead of fish:
“Auguste (Escoffier) claimed that at a culinary exhibition in Tours someone came up to him and asked: ‘What would you have done, monsieur, if you had been in Vatel’s predicament?’ ‘I would certainly not have killed myself over some fish,’ Auguste had replied. ‘Quite simply, I would have fabricated some fillets of sole using the breasts of young chickens. I’ll bet you what you like, the finest gourmet would have been taken in.'” — James, Kenneth. Escoffier: The King of Chefs. New York: International Publishing Group. 2006. Page 249.
Alexandre Dumas depicted Vatel in one of his novels in 1847. Duma’s portrayal was a work of fiction, but it showed the place Vatel had come to occupy in the national mythology.
Fouquet alighted at the corner of the Rue de Long-pont, and, on foot, directed his course towards the Place de Greve, accompanied by Gourville. At the turning of the Place they saw a man dressed in black and violet, of dignified mien, who was preparing to get into a hired carriage, and told the coachman to stop at Vincennes. He had before him a large hamper filled with bottles, which he had just purchased at the cabaret with the sign of “L’Image-de-Notre-Dame.”
“Eh, but! that is Vatel! my maître d’hôtel!” said Fouquet to Gourville.
“Yes, monseigneur,” replied the latter.
“What can he have been doing at the sign of L’Image-de-Notre-Dame?”
“Buying wine, no doubt.”
“What! buy wine for me, at a cabaret?” said Fouquet. “My cellar, then, must be in a miserable condition!” and he advanced towards the maître d’hôtel who was arranging his bottles in the carriage with the most minute care.
“Hola! Vatel,” said he, in the voice of a master.
“Take care, monseigneur!” said Gourville, “you will be recognized.”
“Very well! Of what consequence? – Vatel!
The man dressed in black and violet turned round. He had a good and mild countenance, without expression – a mathematician minus the pride. A certain fire sparkled in the eyes of this personage, a rather sly smile played round his lips; but the observer might soon have remarked that this fire and this smile applied to nothing, enlightened nothing. Vatel laughed like an absent man, and amused himself like a child. At the sound of his master’s voice he turned round, exclaiming: “Oh! monseigneur!”
“Yes, it is I. What the devil are you doing here, Vatel? Wine! You are buying wine at a cabaret in the Place de Greve!”
“But, monseigneur,” said Vatel, quietly, after having darted a hostile glance at Gourville, “why am I interfered with here? Is my cellar kept in bad order?”
“No, certes, Vatel, no, but – – ”
“But what?” replied Vatel. Gourville touched Fouquet’s elbow.
“Don’t be angry, Vatel, I thought my cellar – your cellar – sufficiently well stocked for us to be able to dispense with recourse to the cellar of L’Image de-Notre-Dame.”
“Eh, monsieur,” said Vatel, shrinking from monseigneur to monsieur with a degree of disdain: “your cellar is so well stocked that when certain of your guests dine with you they have nothing to drink.”
Fouquet, in great surprise, looked at Gourville. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that your butler had not wine for all tastes, monsieur; and that M. de la Fontaine, M. Pellisson, and M. Conrart, do not drink when they come to the house – these gentlemen do not like strong wine. What is to be done, then?”
“Well, and therefore?”
“Well, then, I have found here a vin de Joigny, which they like. I know they come once a week to drink at the Image-de-Notre-Dame. That is the reason I am making this provision.”
Fouquet had no more to say; he was convinced. Vatel, on his part, had much more to say, without doubt, and it was plain he was getting warm. “It is just as if you would reproach me, monseigneur, for going to the Rue Planche Milbray, to fetch, myself, the cider M. Loret drinks when he comes to dine at your house.”
“Loret drinks cider at my house!” cried Fouquet, laughing.
“Certainly he does, monsieur, and that is the reason why he dines there with pleasure.”
“Vatel,” cried Fouquet, pressing the hand of his maître d’hôtel, “you are a man! I thank you, Vatel, for having understood that at my house M. de la Fontaine, M. Conrart, and M. Loret, are as great as dukes and peers, as great as princes, greater than myself. Vatel, you are a good servant, and I double your salary.”
Vatel did not even thank his master, he merely shrugged his shoulders a little, murmuring this superb sentiment: “To be thanked for having done one’s duty is humiliating.” — Alexandre Dumas. Le Vicomte de Bragellone, Volume 1. Chapter 56 – M. de la Fontaine’s Wine. 1847.
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