Ritzy Business

H. Bedford Lemere/English Heritage/Arcaid/Corbis/Getty Images
The dining room of the Savoy Hotel, London, circa 1898

César Ritz (1850–1918) gave his name to some of the world’s most luxurious hotels—in Paris, Madrid, and London—as well as to the ninety-one hotels in the Ritz-Carlton chain and, posthumously, to a cracker. His surname even became an adjective, “ritzy.” The success of his original hotel enterprises owed much to his partner, Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), history’s most celebrated cook and still the secular patron saint of most professional chefs.

They were both crooks. (So was Ritz’s deputy, Louis Echenard.) On March 7, 1898, their employers, the Savoy Hotel in London, where Ritz was the general manager, sacked them for larceny, embezzlement, and fraud. The Savoy managed to recoup £19,137, “a significant amount,” writes the food historian Luke Barr in his new book about the rascally pair. But he does not convert the figure to today’s money to show us how significant: £19,137 in 1898 is equivalent to £2,412,123 (about $3.2 million) in 2018. For comparison, Barr says, “the hotel’s total profits” that year were £20,276, equal to £2,555,688 (about $3.4 million) today.

They’d been thieving since Escoffier joined the hotel on April 6, 1890; even so, it’s no mean feat of pilfering to have, in only eight years, stuffed their pockets with nearly the entire profits of a good year. While Ritz, who went on to open the Carlton and then the hotels that bear his name, paid back an enormous sum to the Savoy, Escoffier, who had no head for money, only managed to return £500 of the £8,000 he owed.

Ritz had risen impressively above his background. He was the last of thirteen children from a poor peasant family in Niederwald, Switzerland; Barr says he was ashamed of his “large, peasant-size hands and feet.” At twelve he had the good fortune to go a Jesuit college as a boarder. When he reached fifteen and needed to prepare for a career, he apprenticed for the summer as a wine waiter at a hotel; but the proprietor told him, according to the unreliable memoir by Ritz’s wife, Marie, “You’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It takes a special knack, a special flair, and…you haven’t got it.” Ritz went back to the Jesuit college, where he worked as a sacristan, then made his optimistic way to Paris in time for the 1867 Universal Exhibition.

Escoffier, also from humble origins, was the son of the village blacksmith in Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice. At thirteen, he was apprenticed to his uncle, who had opened a restaurant in Nice that catered to the well-off winter visitors; as he showed promise as a cook, Escoffier found a job in Paris in 1865, when he was nineteen. Called up for military service shortly afterward, he spent almost seven years in the army, going to Metz…

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