Mons. X.M. Boulestin

XMB.jpg
X.M.B[1]
Mons. X. Marcel Boulestin, 55, (1877-1943) restaurateur, cookery writer and early television chef, born in Poitiers, France, ran his eponymous, fashionable and expensive restaurant in Covent Garden from 1926 with his friend and partner “Robin” Adair, a restaurant frequented by Lady Rhondda and the Time and Tide circle – and many others. They also had a house at La Daoune, Hossegor, Landes, near Biarritz, near where they also ran a school to which, observed “Priscilla” of the Tatler, “all the best people are sending their brats”. Marcel began his working life as a theatre critic in Bordeaux and then Paris, worked with Collette and her husband Willy, opened two upmarket decorator shops in London (in between, serving as an interpreter on the British Front during WW1) before writing cookery books (often with Robin Adair) and then opening his famous restaurants. He was one of the first to give cookery demonstrations on television, from 1937 until 1939. He and Robin were stranded on the wrong wide of the Channel when WW2 broke out and Marcel died in Paris during the war.[2] [3] [4]

Warning: this is a rather longer-than-usual essay: Marcel wrote good stories of his life and there are plenty of pictures. But we are at a dinner so perhaps we can allow the chef some space. And if you are ready for a tasty veal escalope and want to know how to cook it, then watch his cookery lesson or later once you have read this essay!

Villars
Miss Villars,”Priscilla” of the “Tatler”[5]

Marcel house
Marcel and Robin’s Little House in the Landes

SEATED BESIDE

While this isn’t quite the seating plan suggested for Robin, I would perhaps seat Marcel between the industrialist Lysaght and journalist Emilie Peacocke. Emilie might discuss the end of the Lady’s portion, and I suspect Lysaght liked good food even if it wasn’t necessarily on the menu that evening. I wouldn’t seat Marcel with John Fothergill (though perhaps the two big egos might get on well, you never know) nor with Robin – though they might enjoy chatting together during the big occasion.

WHAT’S ON HIS MIND

From his observation that big London dinners placed more emphasis on the speeches and the occasion rather than the food, he probably wasn’t expecting much of a culinary evening but he probably always enjoyed good company, and ensuring others enjoy his. And we can assume his chefs were perfectly capable of looking after Restaurant Boulestin for one evening and were perhaps properly briefed if some important clients were booked that evening.

MARCEL’S STORY SO FAR

Pierre Edouard Xavier Marcel Boulestin, 55, was the son of Anne Irma Julia Bissey (the daughter of a former lycée teacher and Jean Francois Xavier Boulestin, born in Poitiers (Vienne) on 13th April 1877. His parents lived apart but nonetheless for Marcel the background of his happy childhood comprised “two houses, two gardens, the dwelling of my [maternal] grandmother at Poitiers, that of my father in the Périgord”. He was born in the former, and lived there for eighteen years – “a fine square building, typically provincial”. The latter “the paternal house at Périgord, entirely different, was only a holiday house, neglected all winter. But there in the summer I led a marvellous life, the garden and the kitchen my favourite places”.

As he grew up he started to write, “my first article, published in Poitiers Universitaire, the students’ review”. He worked as a drama critic for one of the local papers and then went to Bordeaux to study law- but that was not to be his métier and he began a regular contribution “a letter from Bordeaux” in the Courrier Musical (he also played violin and piano). A little volume he wrote was sent by a friend to the critic of the Echo de Paris, Willy, through whom he was to first meet Colette, Willy’s wife. “A few months later I installed myself in Paris and became Willy’s secretary and collaborator” – and clearly spent considerable time with them both. He even had a few small parts in plays with Colette – who reassured him that “there are no such things as small parts”.

Willy
Willy and Boulestin[7]
Collette
Colette

Through Willy and Collette, Marcel began to know London, where he began to observe a paucity of bars that had the life of those in Paris and what he could never understand “the deliberate Saturday night drunkenness”. P12

His biography A Londres Naguère (Ease and Endurance, translated by Robin Adair, 1948) not only recounts his own story well but is a colourful description of Edwardian London, and also of Paris. For example I rather like this observation of London “The custom of public dinners was my greatest surprise. For if the Paris restaurants have private rooms, those of London have banqueting halls.” The first he was taken to was the annual dinner of the Stage Society “it was perfect comedy rather than a good dinner, for the food – very ordinary took second place. One went to these banquets, not to eat, but to be seen and to hear people speak”. If things had improved by 1933 he might have had something to do with it, perhaps. A Londres Naguère (Ease and Endurance) p41

In London he became secretary to the playwright Cosmo Gordon Lennox, became bilingual, moved amongst London’s artistic society and in 1911 opened a small shop – Décoration Moderne – at 15 Elizabeth Street, Belgravia, selling expensive decorating items: silks, velvets, wallpaper from all over Europe. He wouldn’t be impressed that today that’s where you can get some fried chicken after coming off a long distance bus at Victoria Coach Station. When war came he spent four years at the British Front as an interpreter. After the war he moved back to London, almost rented a house in Shepherd’s Market until the owner declined to let it to a foreigner, so moved to a small flat overlooking Dorset Square and set up again, this time on the ground floor of Cosmo Lennox’s new house on Portman Square. In 1910 Marcel was living at Suffield Chambers 79 Davies Street, (near Oxford St) and in 1911 at 84 Marylebone High Street, occupation, writer – and now the haunt of Daunt Books, which is rather more appreciate for Marcel than fried chicken.

Marcel’s writing career never succeed until he was hired, almost by chance, to write a cookery book. He was visiting Theodore Byard, a director of the publishers Heinemann, on the subject of water-colours by Jean-Emile Laboureur, who had been an interpreter at the Front with Marcel. “As I was leaving, and without thinking, I said, “By the way, would a cookery book interest you?” “That is exactly what I need”, was the reply. p67

I gave myself up entirely to my book. I had never learned anything but I had eaten well all my life, and like the majority of my compatriots of the south west I had an instinct for cooking”. He presented his instructions clearly and concisely. “Simple French Cooking for English Homes” was a success. He wrote for the Daily Express, the Manchester Guardian, the Spectator and the Morning Post. p67ff

Then at the beginning of 1923 he was introduced to Robin Adair, who had just arrived from Jamaica. Which brought the next critical ingredient, you might say, for his future life. They decided to set up a small restaurant, to begin with by taking a flat too large for them, with “a spacious dining-room and a good kitchen where I would entertain lavishly. I would attend to the cooking, and Robin to the service”. Service began in January 1924 and also catered at people’s houses – such as a cold luncheon for 50 at an artist’s Chiswick House on the day of the Boat Race.

Robin.jpg
With Robin Adair in France, 1939[9]
After a break in Paris, the first Restaurant Boulestin (albeit then more modestly called Restaurant Française), opened in May, 1925, on the corner of Leicester Square and Panton Street, with Clough Williams-Ellis as the architect and Allan Walton the decorator. “I engaged a first class chef, Bigorre, from the Restaurant Paillard, then at the zenith of its short-lived renaissance”. Bigorre’s “omelette Boulestin” stuffed with mushrooms and cream was an immediate success. At the time (1925) Marcel was resident at 19 Bristol House, Southampton Row, WC1. Today he could find at the street level of his apartment block a handy newsagents, a Rymans, a café, a health food shop and , yes, you’ve guessed it, fried chicken.

At the time his restaurant did not have a licence – a new restaurant had to wait a while. So wine had to be bought from a neighbouring pub and brought in. Marcel took out a wholesale licence in his name and sold wines to the pub, even though this didn’t work for fine wines as they had to be brought in glass by glass. When it came up before the bench for discussion he was questioned by a representative of the Temperance Society and he seems to have won the case when asked “As an expert, M Boulestin, what do you think of a good meal without wine?” To which Marcel answered “I don’t think anything about it. I’ve never tried”. He got his licence and the protesting prohibitionist was told “You’ve asked M. Boulestin a fair question and he has given you a fair answer”. p87

Perhaps my grandfather Rev J.T. Rhys, lifelong Temperance campaigner and prohibitionist, looked to meet M. Boulestin for a little chat at the dinner – I wouldn’t put it past him if he thought it would further the cause which only a day earlier had seen US Prohibition beginning its long unravelling (some places in the US are still dry).

The only things that troubled the peaceful existence of the restaurant was the General Strike in 1926, especially hitting transport. With public transport being often driven by amateurs Marcel recalls: “the appearance of my restaurant was rather picturesque, for in the intervals of the train and bus services they were operating, these highly social young men came as usual to lunch or dine, in their overalls or dressed as chauffeurs. The contrast was striking between the quality of their voices, so distinctive in England, their manners, and their dusty, greasy appearance”.

“Finally the stubbornness of the Londoners, who did not intend to be worsted, dominated the situation, and the strike ended without the need for official strike-breakers, leaving, at least for the general public, only an amusing memory”. Hmm – that’s one way of putting it. p88

At the time the well-known restaurant Sherry’s Restaurant in Covent Garden was struggling financially and after some discussion of combining forces, Marcel (hampered by the lack of a licence in Leicester Square) took over their space when they closed. Restaurant Française closed in August 1926, Marcel and Robin popped over to the Landes in SW France for a break, and the new Restaurant Boulestin was opened in October 1926 on the corner of Southampton Street and Henrietta Street, in Covent Garden, in a basement.[10] No expense seems to have been spared: Raoul Dufy designed silk velvet curtains, panelled walls and ceiling by Marie Laurençin and by Marcel’s wartime interpreter colleague Jean-Emile Laboureur, all set up to attract the artists, the literati and the nearby opera-goers. I remember I did dine there once, before it closed in 1994 (hence the name Boulestin was familiar, somehow, when I first read the list of guests at our dinner).

Marcel lists in his memoirs the regular clients who came, including “Lady Rhondda with her contributors to Time and Tide”, as evidenced by Winifred Holtby in “Letters to a Friend[11]“On Thursday I went to a most delightful lunch given at Boulestin’s, a French underground restaurant near Covent Garden, by Lady Rhondda, to meet contributors to Time and Tide. There were Rose Macaulay, Sylvia Townsend Warner,…..Lillian Bayliss [sic] of the Old Vic, Vera, Margaret West, E.M. Delafield and me”. That would have been on December 9th 1926. And on 27th January 1927 she writes of “going to Boulestin’s to drink coffee with Shaw and G.K. Chesterton….”.

Boulestin’s Restaurant[12]

The restaurant began with room for about eighty places, but they added more in the middle of the room. In the kitchen were seven chefs, one woman who made only coffee and salads – but “after a few months she disappeared after a mysterious domestic in which figured a knife – no doubt a kitchen one – threats and a jealous Italian. She was replaced by a man whose origin and language were equally incomprehensible, a Cypriot, it was said”.

And if it came to any trouble in the kitchen I’m sure he could look after himself like any modern TV celebrity chef:

Marcel

Marcel also recounted the racial prejudice of the time when musicians such as Paul Robeson were fêted in London but not welcome in first class hotels or restaurants. However “certain people had the courage of their convictions: Miss Nancy Cunard became definitely their apostle, and a woman like Lady Rhondda, who admired Paul Robeson as a singer and as an actor, was not afraid to entertain him publicly, with Winifred Holtby and few other writers”. pp108/9

Howard Spring.jpg
Boulestin (2nd from right) with Howard Spring (Welsh writer), Richard Church (poet) and Duhamel (French author)[14]
The restaurant began to feature in short stories and novels, he wrote gastronomical essays in newspapers and magazines, and 1928 he held cookery courses, first on his own, then under the auspices of Fortnum and Mason’s store in Piccadilly. But the restaurant continued to lose money, despite having the reputation of being the most expensive in London. To keep it going Robin Adair drew no salary, and the four directors agreed to forgo their fees if Marcel himself reduced his salary by a similar amount. Ultimately it was his cookery books which kept him and Robin afloat.

In 1930 Marcel had two addresses: 34 Flat A Portsdown Road, W9 (home also of Robin) and also The Butts 4 London Road, Harrow.

By the time of the dinner therefore he was well established, running one of the places to dine in London, promoting good French cooking this side of the Channel, and keeping financially afloat through his writing and teaching. Some of his writing was for Time and Tide – for example in the January 14th edition of 1933 the paper ran a short travelogue from a trip to France under the heading of “Postcards”.[15]

Cookery lesson.jpg

WHAT MARCEL DID NEXT

On the Saturday immediately after the dinner, all the diners could have enjoyed Marcel’s article in the Daily Telegraph (owned by Sir James Gomer on the top table) on the vexed problem of tipping at restaurants. Marcel is firmly in favour of adopting the 10% rule practiced in France, Italy and elsewhere under all circumstances, making everything simpler, and en route blasting those who over-tip as people who mess up the system and display contempt for the value money when flashing the cash (not his words).[17] He would probably be pleased to see that a tip on the bill is now standard practice, though the same issues he mentions such as do the waiters get paid enough still are there.

In 1934 he published a gastronomic account of a French tour, Having Crossed the Channel and in 1936 his first autobiography Myself, my Two Countries. Overall, 1923 and 1937, Marcel published a dozen recipe books. Some he wrote alone (The Conduct of the Kitchen, A Second Helping, and What Shall We Have Today?); one, in 1930, with Jason Hill (Herbs, Salads and Seasonings); and three others with Robin (120 Ways of Cooking Eggs, 127 Ways of Preparing Savouries and Hors d’œuvres, and 101 Ways of Cooking Potatoes).

What shall we have today
What shall we have today? Heinemann 1931

Perhaps Marcel’s final pioneering activity was becoming “one of the first to give culinary demonstrations by television”. He started in 1937, continuing with a twice monthly appearance on the BBC until the summer of 1939.

Alexandra Palace.jpg
Televising at Alexandra Palace[18]
So, after all that, now watch his simple cookery lesson for you on film, in Party Dish by X. Marcel Boulestin. broadcast less than three years after our dinner, in 1936. [19]

In 1939 Boulestin returned to his home in Capbreton, France having been unable to get a wartime visa in Britain. Robin Adair joined him but was then himself interned during the war for four years. Boulestin visited Robin in his prison hospital in Paris.

Marcel German Occupation.jpg
Marcel after two years of the German Occupation[20]
Boulestin died after a brief illness at 6 am at home, 10 Boulevard Emile Augier, 16th arrondissement, Paris on September 20th 1943, probate of £450 to Alec Henry Adair.His memoir closes in 1939 thus “Came September, the era of sheer madness, Armageddon”.

His restaurant in Covent Garden finally closed in 1994, though one has been revived in his memory in St James’s Street.

Boulestin 21st Century Restaurant[21]

Boulestin 21st Century Design[22]

 

BACK TO TABLE 12


[1] Modern image in the modern Boulestin based on the drawing by Leonetto Cappiello 1899 Source Facebook Boulestin London

[2]BBC Photo Library accessed 4.1.2018

[3] Maria Bustillos The Chef for Every Age. Before Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, or even Alice Waters, there was X. Marcel Boulestin, 6th July 2016, Eater.com website accessed 26.2.2018

[4] Marcel Boulestin Wikipedia

[5] Plate 8 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[6] Plate 17 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[7] Plate 1 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[8] Plate 3 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[9] Plate 20 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[10] Not in 1927 as erroneously reported in Wikipedia or the ODNB and thereafter reported in all reviews of the restaurant – unless he deemed 1927 to be the formal opening having had distinguished guinea pigs for a beta-run.

[11] Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend, p435.

[12] Source Facebook Boulestin London

[13] Plate 24 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[14] Plate 24 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[15] Time and Tide 14.1.1933

[16] Plate 22 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[17] X.M. Boulestin, The Troubles of Tipping, Daily Telegraph, 25.3.1933

[18] Plate 23 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[19]  bfi.org.uk  https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-party-dish-by-x-marcel-boulestin-1936-online

[20] Plate 21 X. Marcel Boulestin, trans Robin Adair, Ease and Endurance, Mone & Van Thal Ltd, London, 1948

[21] Source Facebook Boulestin London accessed 18.3.2019

[22] Source Facebook Boulestin London accessed 18.3.2019

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