Clive Unger-Hamilton on Ludwig Bemelmans, Slightly Foxed Issue 18

Helluva Hotel

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For some years now, ‘Secrets of the Kitchen’ has joined ‘Secrets of the Boudoir’ as a satisfyingly prurient source of surrogate pleasure to readers and viewers with time on their hands – a trend kept alive by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein. But this is lukewarm voyeurism compared with the spicy titbits served up half a century ago by Ludwig Bemelmans in his kitchen memoir to end them all, Hotel Splendide. George Orwell’s treatment of the same subject remains the best known: both are accounts of adventures that took place predominantly between the wars. Bemelmans, however, had learned the knack of turning adversity into advantage that isn’t really on the syllabus at Eton, and Orwell’s harrowing realism hardly makes for entertaining confessions of the Cook and Tell variety. (Many years ago, incidentally, a friend of mine in Paris was standing behind an American customer at Brentano’s bookshop in the Avenue de l’Opéra and heard the lady ask for a copy of Orwell’s classic restaurant guide, Dining Out in Paris and London.)

Only those readers who were captivated as children by his stories about the irrepressible little French girl Madeline will remember the name of Bemelmans, renowned bon viveur, wit, author and illustrator. He was born in Merano, in the Tyrol, that bit of southern Austria that many Italians still think ought to belong to them, and after a spectacularly unsuccessful school career was apprenticed to his hotelier uncle Hans to learn the business. Here he fared no better and after the most serious in a series of scrapes – shooting a head waiter – he was offered a choice between a spell in a correctional institution and emigration to the New World.

Bemelmans landed in New York in 1914 when he was 16, equipped with a working knowledge of French and English, and with some letters of introduction. One of these was to Mr Otto Brauhaus, manager of the Hotel Splendide, in reality the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South, an institution legendary for organizing banquets of such lavish opulence as had not been seen since the days of the Roman Empire. It also boasted America’s most famous chef, the Burgundian Louis Diat, inventor of vichyssoise soup, whose monumental Gourmet’s Basic French Cookbook is, if you can find it, another invaluable vade-mecum to the vanished world of the great hotels.

The Ritz Carlton/Splendide was to be Bemelmans’s home for many years, and his book about it, which first appeared in 1956, has now b

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About the contributor

Clive Unger-Hamilton has been writing and editing books about music for over 30 years. By way of a violon d’Ingres, in 1987 he and his wife opened Hamilton’s Noted Fish and Chips in the rue de Lappe, the first chippie in Paris. He also translates guidebooks for Everyman’s Library.

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