“I am a great artist.” This declaration issues from the lips of the Communard refugee whose gastronomic tour de force furnishes the title for Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast.” After regaling her humble employers’ guests (a group of Norwegian Protestant ascetics, except for the worldly General Loewenhielm) with a regal pageant of courses that includes terrapin, blinis Demidoff, and an entrée of Dinesen’s own invention, “Cailles en Sarcophage,” Babette explains to the pair of spinster sisters that she has spent her entire savings on the dinner, intending never to return to Paris. With France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, all of the princes, dukes, and great ladies who formed her clientele at Café Anglais have fled Paris, she tells them, and the great chef has lost her audience. “These people,” she says, “belonged to me…. They had been brought up and trained with greater expense than you, my little ladies, could ever imagine or believe, to understand what a great artist I am…. When I did my very best I could make them perfectly happy.” This is the state of General Loewenhielm, who, having once dined at Café Anglais, recognizes that evening the talents of the famous female chef “known all over Paris as the greatest culinary genius of the age.”
As Babette reminds us, great art is a duet. And the interdependency of artist and audience applies as much to the theater of the kitchen as to the concert hall or stage—though this analogy, admittedly, takes a too-literal turn in our present age of televised celebrity chefs, whose personae frequently trump their culinary performances. The true celebrity chef is celebrated not by the signature seeker or voyeuristic viewer, but by the small circle of palates, tutored or not, fortunate enough to partake of that most intimate of artistic apotheoses, a delicious meal.
Such was the case with the real-life genius of Café Anglais. The actual maître de cuisine at that Belle Epoque establishment on the Boulevard des Italiens was Adolphe Dugléré, whom the composer Gioacchino Rossini dubbed “the Mozart of French cooking.” This brilliant practitioner commanded a staggering salary, in exchange for which he cultivated the demanding taste buds of the rich and mighty. An English travel guide of the period warns prospective diners that “obtaining a table is not easy; there are times when those without réclam or title seem to be tacitly excluded. The restaurant upstairs…has long been the haunt of la jeunesse aristocratique.” Those epicures who gained entry received a gustatory communion that eschewed the heavy, theatrical excesses of traditional cuisine in favor of simpler dishes of, say, saumon mayonnaise, pommes Anna, or larks with cherries. The encyclopedic menu boasted more than 30 soups and nearly 50 different beef preparations, while the 200,000-bottle cellar contained vintages of Château Lafite dating to the 18th century. For the connoisseur, an evening chez Dugléré must have been, as General Loewenhielm recalls, “a kind of love affair…of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite.”
The concept of cooking as a form of high art owes more to the Italians than to the French—in particular, to Bartolomeo Sacchi, the humanist known better by his pen name, Platina. This onetime prefect of the Vatican library under Pope Sixtus IV authored, among numerous other books, On Honorable Pleasure and Good Health. This work—the first gastronomic treatise printed and one widely read in the 15th century—posited that “he who is versed in cookery is not far removed from genius, since the meals that are to be concocted are largely a matter of ingenious composition.”
Sacchi rejected the medieval association of bodily pleasure with sin, suggesting that the aesthetic delights of dining nourish the soul, while the scientific benefits of good nutrition strengthen the body. This neo-Epicurean point of view placed the culinary arts on equal footing with music, painting, engineering, and architecture, and the degree to which men of the cloth sought enlightenment along this path may be judged by the feasts in papal Rome at the time. Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, for example—an obsessive gourmand who employed the most famous cook of the day and perhaps the world’s first celebrity chef, Martin of Como—gave fetes legendary for their gluttonous excess. Though it may seem to some that there was more pie than piety in such rituals, guests often admired, rather than consumed, all that was placed before them: Having ceased to distinguish between them, perhaps these righteous fathers of the Church simply neglected their bodily appetites once the spiritual ones were sated.