Monday, March 10, 2014

Tragic Death of Francois Vatel


Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conde
The story of Francois Vatel is, said to be, a display of French honor for their culinary careers. Efficiency and perfection is the standard for hard work. It began as a grand feast to impress the nobles and King Louis XIV himself in 1672 in a town of Chantilly. Francois Vatel served as the maître d’hôtel for the auspicious visit. However, with some minor problems and misunderstanding that unfolded during the festivities, the event turned out to be final for Vatel.

Before the Chantilly event, Vatel was renowned for his previous management of an event in Vaux-le-Vicomte. In 1661, he served under Nicholas Fouquet, the Finance Minister of Louis XIV. Fouquet wanted to impress the King of France, Louis XIV, in order to gain more favor from him. So for 2 days, the Sun King stayed in Vaux-le-Vicomte. Much to Fouquet’s delight, the King envied the party very much. However, the party also received disgust because of its exaggerated display of wealth and extravagance. To make matters worse, although the King envied the party, he was also among those who were ashamed of the opulence displayed. Louis XIV ordered the arrest of his Finance Minister. Vatel, fearing the same fate, disappeared and only reappeared in 1672 and served under Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, in 1672.

Prince de Conde wanted also to impress the King. So he planned three days of feast in his Chateau of Chantilly. For this event, he placed in charge in the planning of the event to his attendant, Jean-Herault de Gourville, and his maître d’hôtel, Francois Vatel. Much of the following event during the feast, and what happened to Vatel, came from de Gourville and mostly much of it from Madam de Sevigne, whose letters became famous for their elaborateness and turned icon in French literary world. 

The problem, however, is that Madam de Sevigne was not present on the event. She wrote the narration of events based on gossips and hear-says of those who attended it. Nevertheless, many still used the account of Madam de Sevigne because it was the only source of the tragic incident.

According to the account, the event began in the night of April 23, 1672, Thursday. The event, like Vatel’s previous, was grandiose and pleasant. The whole chateau became a paradise fit for royalty. There were expensive Chinese porcelains with flowers in the garden, dazzling fountains made of marble and gold, wonderful music courtesy of the best musicians of France, and for a grand entertainment, an expensive fireworks display in the night. Vatel, on the other hand, was very much stressed during the happenings. He had not slept for twelve nights before the event as many said. He meticulous to every detail. However, sometimes the unexpected happens. His pressure even made worst by the overwhelming number of guests that arrived. The unexpected number of guest led to two tables not having an intricate centerpiece during dinner. Yet Vatel’s boss, Prince de Conde, still congratulated him for the success of the event even with the minor setbacks. But even with the congratulation of his boss, Vatel was heard saying, “I have lost my honor and I will not tolerate this outrage.” His pride was damaged.

The next day, April 24, Vatel’s strain became worst. It was Friday and in pious Catholic France, this meant that it was a day with no meat allowed. Every dish that will be served should be made of seafood. For the preparation of breakfast, in 4:00 of the early morning, Vatel waited for a delivery of seafood from many seaside ports of France. One delivery cart arrived with two small loads of seafood. The crate of seafood was not enough to feed the guest. Vatel in his dismay asked if there were more loads coming. The deliverer, assuming the seafood only coming from his port, answered no. His answer shocked Vatel to his core.

According to Gourville, after the delivery, Vatel said that he will not survive this folly and that his honor was at stake. Vatel waited for few hours, probably contemplating on the situation, then retreated to his room. By 8am, while Vatel was in his room, wagons of seafood arrived. One attendant then went to Vatel’s room to inform him of the new arrival. To the shock and awe of the attendant, after opening the door of the room, Francois Vatel drowns within the pool of his own blood. With several stabbed wombs pierced his body. It turned out that Vatel placed his sword on the door of his room and plunged himself towards it repeatedly, attempting to end his life and prevent anymore disgrace in his name. It was until the third attempt that finally his own sword stabbed his heart, immediately causing his death.

The death surprised and disturbed many, including the King. Louis XIV, saddened by Vatel’s death, ordered that from that day on during the event, only two tables were going to be used. Moreover, any feast of the King would only be the burden of the King. The story of Francois Vatel, however tragic, was said to display the dedication, seriousness, and perfection that the French showed to their culinary career. 

See also:
Dark Gift from Spain to France - Louis XIV and Chocolate
Dinning with King Louis XIV
Louis XIV and Coffee

Bibliography:           
Abramson, J. Food Culture in France. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 2012. 

Davis, J. Defining Culinary Authority: The Transformation of Cooking in France, 1650-1830. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 

DeJean, J. The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. New York: Free Press, 2005.
 

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