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Memories from the Carlton Hotel

Escoffier and tomato ketchup: memories from the Carlton Hotel

by Izzy Burton 25 January 2016

Haute cuisine ruled in London's fine dining scene at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the Ritz and Escoffier partnership continuing to have considerable influence over the hospitality industry. With her father and grandfather both working at the prestigious Carlton Hotel during that period, Yvonne Wakefield, 83, shares some of her favourite memories.

The early twentieth century was an exciting time for the glitterati of London, as the taste for French haute cuisine and opulent hotels spread across Europe into the capital. The formidable partnership of César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier dominated the hospitality industry, first at the Savoy in 1889 and later the Carlton Hotel (1899) and The Ritz (1906), introducing an exclusive clientele to modern trappings and cuisine classique.

The lives of these two influential figures and those they entertained have been well documented – it is part of culinary legend, for example, that Escoffier created the peach Melba at the Savoy in honour of soprano Nellie Melba – but it is less common to get a glimpse at life behind the scenes. For this we can rely not on history books, but the memories of those who worked there for insight into daily life working at some of the world’s most famous hotels.

Yvonne Wakefield’s father, Will Eaglen, worked at the Carlton Hotel along with his father between the First and Second World Wars. The latter was a pot washer while Will was a waiter, working at the prestigious Carlton Hotel for many years before moving to legendary jazz club Frascati’s on Oxford Street. Yvonne, 83, told us what it was like growing up in a household with such close ties to one of London’s most exclusive hotels.

Will Eaglen, waiter at the Carlton Hotel

'My father, who had trained as a waiter at the Westminster Technical College, and had learned French for part of his training, had a motto, ‘Toujours la Politesse’ meaning ‘Always Politeness’, which my brother and I were taught to observe from an early age. He said the waiters had to learn French because the chef [Escoffier, until his retirement in 1920] wouldn’t allow anything but French spoken in the kitchens, and the menus were all in French. If the customer didn’t know French, the waiter would have to explain what the item was, and sometimes how it was cooked.

One of the staff also bred pedigree Chow dogs for shows and he gave Dad a ginger-coloured Chow, as that one’s legs weren’t straight enough for the judges. His name was Tokyo, and the family spoke to the dog in French, so I learned French from about three years old!

When the crockery used at the main London hotels was dwindling through breakages, the remaining pieces would be sold off to the staff for ridiculously low prices. This meant I spent my childhood eating my meals from pretty pink-flowered plates emblazoned with the words ‘Carlton Hotel’. Grandad later moved on to L’Ecu de France in Jermyn Street [the restaurant favoured by the infamous Chapman Pincher], so then we had their plates!

Dad moved on later to Frascati’s, the jazz club and restaurant at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, and was there until 1939. It was not considered good enough at Frascati’s to put an opened bottle of tomato ketchup on a table for a customer, so the staff could have any opened bottles. It was not unusual for us to open the kitchen cupboard and see as many as six bottles of tomato ketchup!

Both establishments attracted the best of international high society at the time; royalty, film stars and other very wealthy people, the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), George Formby and double act Elsie and Doris Waters. For some of them my Father, Mr. Toujours la Politesse, had his own names; one, Lord Lascelles, Dad always referred to at home as ‘Ole Lace’oles’...

At Dad’s places of work the latest dance crazes were demonstrated, so he was good at them all. At home he would always have music playing, and if a Tango was on as I entered the room aged anything between about six and twenty-one, he would grab me and go straight into a real Argentinian Tango, throwing me, where required, over his arm. This would send me into hysterical laughter; after all, I had no idea that he would do this before I went in there! Mum, who didn’t have much music on when he wasn’t there, would soon put a stop to that!'

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Escoffier and tomato ketchup: memories from the Carlton Hotel


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