Boulestin has been open since September 2013, but those of you with long memories and a love of fine food will know that this is not the first restaurant with the Boulestin name. The original restaurant was opened in 1927 by French connoisseur and bon viveur, X. Marcel Boulestin. It was located in Covent Garden, and it remained there until 1994.
M. Boulestin is reputed to be the world’s first TV chef (on the BBC 1937 – 1939) and was a larger than life character with immense food knowledge and a reputation for good taste. And there was something about his approach to food that greatly appealed to restaurateur, Joel Kissin.
Joel had spent many years working with Sir Terence Conran and was responsible for launching world-renowned restaurants such as Bibendum, Quaglino’s and Le Pont de la Tour. He also opened Guastavino’s in New York, before becoming captivated by M. Boulestin and returning to London to find a site in which he could revive Boulestin’s food ethos. The new Boulestin is not intended to be a copy of the original 1927 restaurant, it is more a re-imagining based on Boulestin’s books.
Once the right location was found, in a historic setting close to St James’s Palace, Joel set about making his vision a reality. He scoured M. Boulestin’s original cookery books for inspiration, and recruited a top team to recreate the authentic French classics that, as one food critic summed up, “is the nostalgia of French food that you remember.” But there is more than just these classics – and not just from France. We also have Roast Cod, Smoked Haddock Chowder and Mussels, or our beloved Red Leg Partridge, Cigar Smoked Blackberries and Red Cabbage Purée.
X. Marcel Boulestin , Doctor of the Philosophy of the table,
Culinary Ambassador to the English, intelligent gentleman of France, man of the world, essayist of vigor and charm…
– Donald Moffat, The New Yorker, Oct. 29, 1932
“His intelligence, sense of taste…his ease of style, un-scolding, un-pompous, un-sarcastic, ineffusive, [sic] and to so high a degree, inspiriting and creative.”
– Elizabeth David, Wine and Food 1967
“[Boulestin] was the most imaginative and liberating food writer of his time”
– Matthew Fort, The Guardian, 1999
Xavier Marcel Boulestin, usually credited as X.Marcel, was born in 1878 and raised by his mother and maternal grandmother in Poitiers, France. At the age of 18 he moved to Bordeaux with the intention of studying law, but with a strong interest in theatre and music.
During his youth he contributed articles to Courrier Musical and published his first book, ‘Le Pacte’ in 1899. Boulestin moved to Paris, where he worked as a secretary and collaborator with Henry Gauthier-Villars, (better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy) who was a French fin-de-siecle writer, music critic, mentor and first husband of Colette, a performer and writer best known today for her novel, ‘Gigi’.
Boulestin also performed with Colette in a play by Willy.
Career & Writing
Boulestin moved to London in 1906 and although he proudly remained a French citizen, he was an Anglophile through and through. He would treat his family to British cuisine, attempting to convince them of the merits of mint sauce with mutton, marmalade and afternoon tea. For the next few years, Boulestin lived an opulent lifestyle regularly attending music halls and theatres and immersing himself in, “the follies and ostentatious luxury of the idle rich.”
In 1911, Boulestin opened an interior design store in the Belgravia district of London named ‘Decoration Moderne’. Although the store was stocked with the finest silks, pottery and porcelain, it was too ahead of it’s time, leading Marcel to continue writing, publishing frequent columns, memoirs and a serial novel. At times when his income was insufficient, he would supplement it by giving French lessons, working as a wine advisor and even creating handmade candle-shades. For the duration of The Great War, from 1914 to 1918, he served in the army at the “British Front” after which he returned to England.
In 1923, Boulestin was contracted by the British publishers William Heinemann to write a French cookery book, despite the fact he had never received any formal cookery training. In Boulestin’s memoirs, he confessed that he “had never learned anything”, but that he “had an instinct for cooking.” Commissioned for an advance of just £10, ‘Simple French Cooking for English Homes‘ was released to immediate success amongst both the press and British public, championed for its focus on “excellence, simplicity and cheapness”, rather than the pretentious European dishes that were being served at the time. This success continued and the book was reprinted six times between 1923 and 1930. The sequel, ‘A Second Helping: or, More Dishes for English Homes‘ arrived in 1925, and more followed – almost a dozen cookery books throughout his life, a number of which were translated into German with at least one in French.
Boulestin gave cooking classes, notably teaching Mrs Winston Churchill, Princess von Bismarck-Schonhausen, a lady-in-waiting of the Queen, a member of Mrs Simpson’s household and a secretary to the King of Siam, “so that their Majesties could get used to English food”.
As well as pioneering French cuisine within British homes through writing and his restaurant, Boulestin was reputably the first ever television chef (“I was, I think, the first to give culinary demonstrations by television”), with the 1937 broadcast on the BBC of “A Scratch Meal with Marcel Boulestin” which continued, twice monthly, until the summer of 1939. Shortly afterwards television service was suspended for the duration of the war. He also made gramophone records for HMV: “I wound up saying ‘And the omelette, white, perfect, slides silently onto the dish.’ When the recording was played over to us, there was, at that very moment, a noise like thunder. I had brushed the edge of the microphone with the side of the pan, and we had to start all over again.”
PLEASE CLICK HERE TO LISTEN: AN HMV ZONAPHONE 78 RPM RECORD: X MARCEL BOULESTIN, “HOW TO MAKE AN OMELETTE”, 1937
Since the warm reception of his first book, his recipes were regularly featured in the pages of Vogue, The Daily Express and The Spectator. His newly found fame within the culinary world led to the opening of his restaurant (with his friend, Robin Adair), Restaurant Français in 1925, situated on the corner of Leicester Square and Panton Street. The chef was Bigorre and the restaurant was described as colourful and the menu a delicious mix of traditional French dishes and English favourites.
The restaurant became very popular (although it only had a wine licence, obtained with great difficulty, with the support of it’s celebrity patrons), but it did lead to some confusion from less cultured diners. Boulestin describes in his memoirs, ‘A Londres Naguerre’ (‘ Ease and Endurance’ – the English edition, translated by A.H. Adair) the bewilderment that some patrons expressed when they had to wait for their meals, rather than it being ready prepared; he justified that serving a ‘poulets en casserole’ with half-cooked chickens would never be as succulent as a freshly prepared dish.
“My restaurant was the first small one of a distinguished order, à la carte in an exclusively French manner as far as the cooking and service was concerned; evidently the clients, sitting on banquettes, found there agreeable reminders of their journeys to Paris, as well as dishes that they often regretted not being able to find in London; in fact a Parisian atmosphere. It was only later, following my lead, that there sprang up those many distinguished little places like Sovrani’s, Quaglino’s, San Marco, Monseigneur and l’Aperitif Grill, managed by head waiters from one or other hotel, setting up on their own.”
The restaurant moved to Southampton Street in Covent Garden at the end of October, 1927 and was renamed ‘Boulestin’. It attracted high society from far and wide including world famous ballet dancer Massine, ballet impresario Diaghilev, concert pianist Percy Grainger, economist Maynard Keynes, socialites Lady Diana and Mr. Duff Cooper, M.P., performers Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Gertrude Lawrence and Douglas Fairbanks junior. Film stars Merle Oberon, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. Writers Hillaire Belloc and J.M. Barrie, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, aristocrats Lord Queensbury and Lord Wemyss and Royalty such as The Aga Khan, The Princess Royal and Prince George (later The Duke of Kent). An inscribed copy of Boulestin’s 1931 cookery book ‘What Shall We Have To-Day? ‘ notes that it is a “Souvenir of the dinner on the 16 – 3 – 34 at Boulestin, next to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales.”
“For all these customers we prepared a brief assortment of specialities to add to the Omelette Boulestin and the Crepes Verlaine, great classical dishes, as were also Coulibiac de Saumon and Bécasses au Fumet, besides certain local dishes of paticular interest. I served one of the latter, a real Piperade, at a supper that Cochrane gave for Sacha Guitry and his troupe.” Although Boulestin was a great Anglophile, he served only French food. “The English did not come to my restaurant to eat what they could find in their own homes”.
The restaurant featured paintings by Jean-Emile Laboureur, who also did most of the illustrations in Boulestin’s books. There were also paintings by Marie Laurencin. “The final effect was magnificent. The first room contained five panels by Laboureur and two by Marie Laurencin, the whole representing a circus”. “Whatever Laboureur does, his craftsmanship becomes the proof of his character as an artist. I find his work irresistible when he takes us into the shops and pleasure spots of Paris; his vignettes of booksellers, brasseries, and boudoirs are incisive salutes to the beguilements of urban life. Especially ravishing are some glimpses of barmen preparing cocktails; Laboureur’s line is perfect for the glinting glass and metal surfaces of a well-appointed restaurant, with its mirrors, polished wood, and zinc counters”, Jed Perl, The New Republic. Boulestin Restaurant is now filled with paintings and drawings ‘in the school of’ Laboureur, executed by Julian Day.
Life & Influence
Boulestin inspired the confidence of his readers, encouraging creativity in the kitchen and relying on instinct rather than strictly following a set of rules. He described his approach by declaring, “Cookery is not chemistry. It is art, it requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.” By clearly describing basic French techniques, he expanded the repertoire of his readers and widened their culinary ambitions. His work greatly influenced British cookery writer Elizabeth David. She described Boulestin’s writing as “fresh and original”. She wrote of “his intelligence, sense and taste, of his ease and style, unscolding, un-pompeous, un-sarcastic, ineffusive [sic] and to so high a degree, inspiriting and creative.” She regarded him as a great inspiration for her own best-selling books.In July 1939, when the Second World War seemed inevitable, and because he was unable to get a visa in wartime England, Boulestin returned to his home in Capbreton, France. Robin Adair came with him but was eventually interned for four years by the occupying forces. Boulestin was able to visit him in the prison hospital in Paris but neither of them recovered fully from the ordeal. Boulestin died after a brief illness in Paris on the night of September 19th – 20th, 1943. After his death the restaurant continued, under various ownerships, until it closed in 1994 and the site became a fast food outlet. “Howls of protest at the indignity of it have been sounding… in the columns of gentlemen journalists in the Evening Standard, Times and Financial Times.”
X. Marcel Boulestin’s influence continues to be seen and talked about today. He once said, “Food which is worth eating is worth discussing.”
- Simple French Cooking for English Homes (1923)
- A Second Helping: or, More Dishes for English Homes (1925)
- The Conduct of the Kitchen: How to Keep a Good Table for Sixteen Shillings a Week (1925)
- Petits & Grand Plats. Tresor des Amateurs de vraie cuisine (with Suzanne Laboureur, 1928)
- Herbs, Salads, and Seasonings (with Jason Hill, 1930)
- What Shall We Have To-Day? 365 Recipes for All the Days of the Year (1931)
- Potatoes: One Hundred & One Ways of Cooking (with A. H. Adair, 1932)
- Savouries and Hors-d’oeuvre: One Hundred & Twenty-Seven Ways of Preparing (with A. H. Adair, 1932)
- Eggs: One Hundred & Twenty Ways of Cooking (with A. H. Adair, 1932)
- What Shall We Have to Drink? (1933)
- The Evening Standard Book of Menus (1935)
- The Finer Cooking, or, Dishes for Parties (1937)