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Charles Ranhofer:  Delmonico's chef de cuisine

By JOE O'CONNELL, Food Writer
First posted 25 August 2001 at 1525 GMT
Last updated 30 November 2003 at 1720 GMT

NEW YORK, New York — Delmonico's Restaurant in New York grew to become synonymous with haut cuisine under the direction of one of the greatest chefs of all time, Charles Ranhofer.


On December 13, 1827, Giovanni ("John") and Pietro ("Peter") Delmonico opened their first cafe, where they sold coffee, wine and pastries.  The business prospered, and they had the immense good fortune to bring their nephew, Lorenzo, into the business.  Under Lorenzo's constant attention to excellence in every detail, Delmonico's Restaurant became synonymous with the highest standards of food and service.

In 1837, the brothers hired John Lux as the chef de cuisine of Delmonico's Restaurant.  Lux guided Delmonico's Restaurant to culinary excellence.  In 1848, Lorenzo Delmonico hired Alessandro Filippini, who sonn became chef de cuisine at Delmonico's Restaurant.

Charles Ranhofer

In May, 1862, one month after the 14th Street (Union Square) Delmonco's Restaurant opened, Lorenzo Delmonico hired Charles Ranhofer as chef de cuisine of Delmonico's Restaurant. 

Ranhofer was the greatest cook America ever knew, "one who moved among the great chefs of France as peer and equal".  Thomas at 86.

Ranhofer was born in 1836 in St. Denis, France.  His grandfather and father had been notable cooks, and he began his study of cooking in Paris at the age of 12.  By the time he was 20 years old, Ranhofer had completed a solid foundation in cooking and had served as the chef de cuisine of the Prince Henin of Alsace.

In 1856, Ranhofer came to the United States and found only one cook worth of the title, Felix Delice, who was at Delmonico's.  Ranhofer continued to study and grow, in his travels around the United States.  In 1860, he returned to France, where he was in charge of arranging the great balls at the court of Napoleon III.  In 1861, he returned to the United States and assumed the management of the kitchen at the newly opened Maison Doree, at Union Square.

In May, 1862, soon after Lorenzo Delmonico opened his own restaurant at Unions Square, he prevailed on Ranhofer to become his chef de cuisine.

It is noteworthy that, when Ranhofer wrote his treatise after his retirement, he referred to himself simply as:

Honorary President of the "Société Culinaire Philanthropique of New York.

Notice that he did not refer to himself as chef de cuisine but simply as chef.  The title chef may have been in his day a higher title of respect, because there were often several chefs de [something] but only one chef, as Ranhofer himself explained to Lorenzo Delmonico.  Lorenzo later explained his first meeting with Ranhofer:

"He was perfect in dress and manner, and his attitude was such as to make me feel that he was doing me a great favor by coming into my employment," said the great restaurateur. "He gave me plainly to understand that he would be 'chief' indeed.  'You are the proprietor.' he said.  'Furnish the room and the provision, tell me the number of guests and what they want, and I will do the rest.'  That was the way it was.  And it has been a good thing for Charles, and for me, too."

For thirty-four years, with one short interruptions, Ranhofer would dominate Delmonico kitchens.  Never was there a more unbending autocrat in his own domain.  He brooked no interference, and a word from him, or a mere motion of the hand, was not to be disregarded with impunity.

"I am responsible," he would say, "and things must be done as I direct."

The respect in which he was held by fellow cooks was unbounded, and he was never known either to miscalculate the extent of his authority, or to overrate his powers.  The saying in New York for many years was that Charles Ranhofer was the city's first chef, and there was no second.  Thomas at 88.

For almost twenty years -- from May, 1862 until Lorenzo Delmonico's death in September, 1881 -- Lorenzo Delmonico and Charles Ranhofer provided unrivaled excellence to New Yorkers.

There was a sour note, however, with the move from 14th Street to 26th Street:  Charles Ranhofer did not move.  Several months before the 14th Street restaurant closed, Ranhofer retired and returned to France.

In 1879, three years after he left Delmonico's to retire in France, Charles Ranhofer returned to America and Delmonico's as chef de cuisine at the 26th Street (Madison Square) restaurant.

By 1888, the business at the Pine Street restaurant had decreased, and Young Charles Delmonico decided to close it.  The long-time manager of the restaurant was Alessandro Filippini, who had started at Delmonico's Restaurant as a cook and had risen to the chef de cuisine before Ranhofer, and then to the manager of the Pine Street branch.  Filippini retired and started a new career as a writer and consultant.

In 1895, Young Charles Delmonico and Ranhofer introduced New York to the "alligator pear." or avocado, which had been newly imported from South America.  Ranhofer had known of the avocado -- he mentions the avocado in his book, The Epicurean, which he published the previous year -- but until 1895 he had been unable to secure a supply of the buttery fruit.

Early in 1898, Ranhofer had completed the transfer of the Delmonico's Restaurant central kitchen operations to the new, uptown location on 44th Street from the Madison Square location on 26th Street.  Then he retired, and he died a year later.

M. Grevillet succeeded Ranhofer as the chef de cuisine at Delmonico's Restaurant.

From 1862 to 1896, the French chef, Charles Ranhofer, set the standard for a gourmet restaurant, with a 7-page menu, written in French and English, and a wine cellar with 62 imported wines.  

Charles Ranhofer, a French chef, was the chef at Delmonico's from 1862 to 1896.  During this classic period, Delmonico's set the standard for gourmet food.  Ranhofer is responsible for many recipes which continue to be famous, such as Baked Alaska (which he "invented" in 1867 to celebrate the purchase of Alaska from Russia.  See Linda's Culinary Dictionary.  In 1894, Ranhofer published The Epicurean, a treatise on food with more than 1,100 pages and 3,500 recipes.  See Brian Mohan's article.  

American food historians note that it was not until 1903, almost a decade after Ranhofer published his treatise on "French" cuisine, that Auguste Escoffier (perhaps the most famous food author in history, who was the chef at the Ritz Hotel in London in the early 1900s) published his "Le Guide Culinaire".  For more information about Ranhofer, see Russ Parsons article in the Los Angeles Times of February 15, 2000.


Charles Ranhofer deserves much of the credit for the fame of Delmonico's Restaurant.  Ranhofer's creativity and pursuit of excellence had very few peers in the history of haute cuisine.

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