July 19, 2024


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The Suicide of Chef Francois Vatel

The Suicide of Chef Francois Vatel

Francois Vatel (1631 – 1671) – one of the most celebrated culinary masters in chef coats in history – was Maitre d’hotel at Chateau de Chantilly for the extravagant banquet hosted by Conde Louis in honor of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, on April 24, 1671. The King had arrived the previous evening and there was a promenade in the moonlight and a sumptuous meal served in a garden of jonquils. Unfortunately, there were more guests than had been anticipated and there was not enough roast for everyone. Vatel, the perfectionist, was much afflicted, and was heard to remark that he had lost his honor; this was a disgrace he could not bear. He told his friend Prince Gourville that his head was spinning and he was unable to sleep, to please help him. The Prince told him not to worry, the King’s supper was excellent but Vatel rejoined, “Sir, your goodness is more than I deserve; I know that two tables had no roast!” The Prince tried to soothe the mercurial chef, but to no avail.

That night a fog covered the Chateau so the highly anticipated, sixteen-thousand franc fireworks show failed to materialize. At four in the morning, unable to sleep, Vatel descended to the kitchen and ran into the fishmonger in uniform work shirts who told him that he had brought two loads of fish for the supper that night. That was not nearly enough fish. Other fishmongers were to bring their wares but none of them appeared. Vatel waited and waited, but the other fishmongers didn’t come. Afraid that he wouldn’t have enough fish for the supper, Vatel sought out Gourville and told him that “Sir, I can not survive this disgrace to my honor and reputation.” Gourville merely laughed. Vatel left him and returned to his room where he drew his sword and stabbed himself through the heart (on the third try – the first two stabs weren’t fatal), and he fell to the floor dead.

Then the fishmongers showed up in white aprons, all of them, with an abundance of fish. They looked for Vatel, and sent servants to his room. The servants banged on Vatel’s door and eventually had to break it down. They found him lying on the floor, drowned in a pool of his own blood. The servants ran to the Prince, who was stricken. The Duke, who had come in from Burgundy only to sample Vatel’s cuisine, cried and cried. The Prince explained to the King that Vatel had done it because of his pride, and most of the court praised Vatel and blamed the suicide on his courage. The King felt remorse and explained that he hadn’t come to Chantilly in five years precisely because he knew how much of a strain his visits caused there. He explained to the Prince that he should have had only two tables, and not paid attention to any of the others. Prince Gourville tried to make up for Vatel’s loss, and it worked: they had an excellent meal surrounded by the scent of jonquils, then they took walks and hunted. The King went satisfied to Liancourt the next day.