The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining
The Gilded Age: Fame and the Master Chef: Louis Sherry, 1855–1926
Editor's Note: In this edition of NY Foodstory, Editor-in-Chief Ari Ariel interviews historian David S. Shields about his book, The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a compendium of biographies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century food professionals. Also in this edition, historian Claire Stewart chronicles an infamous bachelor party held at Sherry's, the restaurant of one of the culinarians Shields writes about in his book. Here is his profile of restaurateur Louis Sherry, reprinted with permission of the publisher.
No event more clearly marked the disaster for fine dining that Prohibition wrought than the closing of Louis Sherry’s namesake restaurant in Manhattan in 1919. Realizing that the financial footing upon which haute cuisine rested had been undermined—the revenue of the sale of wines and liquors—this greatest of early twentieth-century restaurateurs abandoned the hospitality sector and became a commercial confectioner. He turned to sugar as his mainstay, manufacturing and distributing for retail sale chocolates and high-end ice creams. Sherry’s exit from the restaurant world resembled in certain particulars his entrance into
After serving as busboy at Wendell House, waiter and headwaiter at the Hotel Brunswick, and steward of the Hotel Elberon (a resort at the summer gambling mecca of Long Branch, New Jersey), Sherry became in 1883 a purveyor, offering “fancy cakes of every name and nature, of ice cream of every imaginable flavor, and ices of every possible kind” at a shop at 662 Sixth Avenue. These confections were the sine qua non of society parties and receptions. Yet other things were also needful for catering, particularly banquet staples such as “sweetbread, lobster, salmon, dried oysters, deviled crab, chicken salad,” and terrapin. From the first, Sherry’s ambition was to be a caterer. He had identified a weakness in Delmonico’s domination of the high-end banquet trade in New York: the restaurant empire wished all of the revelry to take place in one of the branches of their chain only. Yet many wealthy clients wished to stage events at their own town mansions and estates. Charley Delmonico was reluctant to send staff out to do private catering—only chef Antonio Sivori did this service. Sherry put himself forward to serve the desires of those who fancied home-based parties and receptions. Sherry’s success in the home hospitality business forced Delmonico’s to develop a party chef division, under the command of chef Prosper Grevillot.
From an early age, Sherry possessed three qualities that made him a preeminent caterer and, later, restaurateur: ambition, a love of the ritual dimensions of dining and celebrating, and an exquisite aesthetic sensibility. During the 1880s, when Sherry first established himself as a rival to Charley and Charles C. Delmonico, most of his clients thought him French. While his father was a French- Canadian who emigrated to Vermont and set up as a carpenter in St. Albans, his mother was a daughter of an old Vermont family; Louis Sherry was a native- born American. He formed his ambition to become a caterer at the age of fourteen. Sometime in the 1890s, he floated a story that his initial experiences in the hotel business were as a busboy in a Montreal Hotel—the story appears to have been a fabrication to explain his fluency of his French. The truth of the matter appears in another interview he gave in 1902 concerning his early days on the wait staff of the Hotel Brunswick in New York. In order to become a successful waiter, he realized, he must learn French. “I made the French waiters give me practice. I got it down pretty well and almost everybody believes that I am a born Frenchman. If I say I am a Vermont Yankee, they are sure that it is a joke.” Sherry should have added that his father spoke Canadian French around the house when he was a boy.
Securing employment at the Hotel Brunswick was a stroke of good fortune—or perhaps a surprisingly astute youthful calculation. It was, in the later 1870s, one of the temples of French cuisine in North America, under the command of chef Francis Kinzler. Sherry “went into the kitchen whenever he could get away from his duties” and learned to cook. He helped the cooks free of charge and, he says, “took my pay out by asking questions. I kept that up for the seven years while I was at the Brunswick.” While securing an on-the-job culinary education, he was also schooled in taste by listening to the conversation of the epicures and bon vivants who flocked to Kinzler’s dining room to experience the cuisine.
From an early age, Sherry possessed three qualities that made him a preeminent caterer and, later, restaurateur: ambition, a love of the ritual dimensions of dining and celebrating, and an exquisite aesthetic sensibility.
Sherry’s stint as steward at the Long Branch resort supplied him with a $1,300 nest egg and the backers to enable him to open his shop and catering office in 1883. In 1884 he hired A. Armand, a talented assistant chef from Delmonico’s convinced that the new proprietor Charles C. Delmonico was casting a cold eye at him. To ensure that he had income during the summer, when Manhattan’s social scene shut down, Sherry contracted to run the casino and restaurant at Narragansett Pier in Rhode Island. He would spend every summer developing the scene at Narragansett until the great fire of 1900 destroyed the resort. (Sherry’s chef J. Keller would invent the dish “Clams Casino” at his resort in the 1890s.) The question remains—how did an ambitious, largely self-educated young man from Vermont in a sweet shop on Sixth Street and his culinary sidekick, a disgruntled castoff of Delmonico’s, successfully challenge the most established, celebrated house of haute cuisine in America? Ambition only counts for so much.
Sherry levered himself into importance with fashionability—modishness at a time when Delmonico’s became hide-bound by traditionalism. The death of both Lorenzo and Siro Delmonico in 1881, the financial debacles of Charley Delmonico in 1883 and his death in 1884, forced their heir, Lorenzo’s grandnephew Charles Crist, to adopt the Delmonico name and protect the legacy by embracing Delmonico’s traditionalism. Every ball and reception occurred in one of the Delmonico’s venues, causing a growing crush in the company. In September 1883, Sherry went to Paris to learn the state of cuisine and service there firsthand. What struck him was the ancillary decoration at banquets—the flowers, hand-painted menus, sculptures, exhibition dishes, and linens. He determined that he would only provide the best—and would charge top dollar—and that he would personally attend to every job. At first he did not get major commissions. “Delmonico and Pinard were old and proved, while I was an experiment. I must establish a reputation with the small orders. They were slow in coming but they came. A small breakfast here, a lunch there, and so on. Nothing could be better than what I sent out, nor served better, nor on daintier table service, and, I may add, no bills could be stiffer.”
Sherry’s uncompromising pursuit of tastefulness, beauty, and bonhomie in his catered events earned him word of mouth. His willingness to work in the client’s home proved one of the determinative dimensions of his success. If one wished superb cuisine, Sherry would provide it. If one desired an extravagant gesture, he would provide that as well. A description of the Rhinelander/Kipp engagement dinner of spring 1888 suggests how much he learned about festive décor from his Parisian sojourn:
In the center of the polished table a miniature lake was arranged, above which ferns and lilies nodded and swayed and in which fishes of varied colors darted, the whole surrounded by tropical plants and glowing parterres of flowers. Small electric lights were arranged about the lake and in the center a fountain tossed its spray, while a colored glass ball lighted by electricity rose and fell in the crystal jet. A wealth of tropical foliage and bloom transformed the banqueting hall into a bower of beauty in which tiny colored electric lights flashed and flowed, and each of the twenty courses Manhattan enabled the lighting effects. Sherry’s showed characteristic foresight in making the acquaintance of a pioneer New York electrician.
By summer 1889, Sherry’s client book had grown to such an extent that he ventured an expansion that, according to a contemporary observer, “astonishes every hotel man and café manager in the city. He has rented one of the largest houses on Fifth avenue, standing on the corner of Thirty-seventh street, and is now having it completely rebuilt inside so as to provide it with a large public dining room, a ball room and several private dining rooms.” Sherry could not have undertaken such a costly enterprise if he did not have some substantial champions in the world of New York society, old-line tastemakers who had grown tired of the scene at Delmonico’s. After opening Sherry’s Restaurant in late 1889, the champions made themselves visible. Mrs. William Astor gave a New Year’s Eve ball and supper at Sherry’s, and her daughters staged two further events. By the second week in February, Sherry’s had been installed as the new thing in the bon ton. Mrs. Astor’s “endorsement is of more actual value to Sherry than would be the name of an Astor at the bottom of a note for a quarter of a million.” Sherry’s restaurant gained the favor of the younger set of the moneyed class.
The décor—pastels, mirrors, tropical plants—stood distinct from any place in the city. Sherry’s greatest anxiety was the cuisine. Delmonico’s had the most talented chef in the western hemisphere, Charles Ranhofer. Sherry hired a sequence of talented collaborators: chef Xavier Wertz, at the first Sherry’s at Thirty-Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue; the youthful prodigy chef Pasquale Grand, at the second Sherry’s, the distinguished 1898 Sanford White–designed building on Fifth Avenue at Forty-Fourth facing the last Delmonico’s building; and, finally, the ex-Delmonico’s chef Jean Boileau.
Sherry’s greatest contribution to the history of American restaurant cuisine was his revolution in marketing the image of the good life. He projected an exuberant yet elegant youthfulness in his restaurants, repeatedly suggesting that the best qualities of Continental cooking and style were found at Sherry’s, combined with the technological innovation, showmanship, and love of the new typical of America. His rivalry with Charles C. Delmonico gave high society a cultural drama that drew national interest. He made himself a brand—an arbiter of taste—and an advocate of new modes of eating and socializing. Though trained in cuisine, the only widely published recipe linked to his name is a treatment of strawberries.
STRAWBERRIES À LA LOUIS SHERRY
Louis Sherry, the caterer, believes that sugar and cream destroy the natural flavor of the strawberry. Instead of cream Mr. Sherry use lemon juice. For each quart of strawberries he used the juice of one lemon and five or six tablespoons of powdered sugar. The strawberries, the sugar and the lemon juice are stirred up together a few minutes before being served. “It is much better to serve the berries at as near as possible the temperature at which they are packed.
One of Sherry’s ambitions was to assimilate to his dining rooms and ballrooms the theatrical permissions of Broadway. Music was an accompaniment of dining at various times. Sometimes this stirred up controversy, as in the infamous Little Egypt performance at a bachelors’ dinner held by H. B. Seeley on December 19, 1896, that led to a police raid. Sherry turned this rather infamous episode into a grand occasion for publicity, suggesting the edginess of entertainment at Sherry’s. The key to success for Sherry was that he managed to escape censure, to burnish his reputation for cultural innovation, and to avoid the impression that he was engaged in the sort of nouveau riche lobster-palace sensationalism that attached to new rivals like Rector’s.
After Sherry left off his summertime involvement at the Narragansett Pier at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was periodically rumored to be involved in any number of major hospitality projects—hotels in London and San Francisco, a restaurant in Paris. An ugly divorce proceeding in 1908 heated these rumors. Sherry’s great reward in his work lay in his personal engagement in the event. Having nominal control of simultaneous events (the Lorenzo Delmonico model) had little to no attraction for Sherry. When Prohibition came in 1919 and the merriness and revelry of the social world evaporated overnight, Sherry shuttered his Broadway palace. It became a bank. He secured backing from the owners of the Waldorf Astoria to develop a line of confections for retail. Louis Sherry Ice Creams and Louis Sherry Chocolates with its distinctive lavender box became the Häagen-Dazs of the 1920s through the ’50s.
National advertising commenced in November 1919. For someone who delighted so wholeheartedly in the caterer’s craft, retirement for Sherry was difficult. Periodically in the early 1920s, he continued to cater events in New York. He died in his apartment in the New Amsterdam Hotel, leaving his fortune as an endowment for the Presbyterian Hospital.
SOURCES: “A Dinner at the Gramercy,” New York Tribune (October 24, 1883): 5; “Island Resort,” New York Herald 195 (July 13, 1884): 17; Richard Edwards, “Louis Sherry,” in New York’s Great Industries (Chicago: Historical Publishing Company, 1884), 171; “Lucullan Feasts,” Denver Rocky Mountain News (July 6, 1888): 2; “Midsummer in New York,” Boston Herald (July 21, 1889): 24; “Astor Ladies Countenance Sherry Against Delmonico,” Boston Herald (February 9, 1890): 24; “Your Winter Breakfast,” Boston Herald (October 30, 1892): 31; “Sherry’s Spring Delicacies,” Kansas City Star 17, no. 237 (May 13, 1897): 4; “New York Daily Letter—the Rise of Louis Sherry,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (August 11, 1902): 4; Associated Press, “Sherry’s, Epicure’s Mecca, Will Close,” Daily Illinois State Register (May 6, 1919): 1; “Louis Sherry, Noted Café Man, Born Here 71 Years Ago,” St. Albans Daily Messenger (June 11, 1926): 2.
Reprinted with permission from The Culinarians, by David S. Shields. © 2017 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
David S. Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. For his work restoring landrace grains and heirloom vegetables in the South he has been awarded the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Keeper of the Flame award and Slow Food USA’s Snail Blazer of Biodiversity award. His most recent books include Southern Provisions (2015) and The Culinarians (2017). The latter was a 2018 finalist for the James Beard book award in scholarship.
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The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining