Saturday, February 23, 2008

"Where Ritz goes, we follow"

What defines a luxury hotel? I've stayed in my share of hotels through the years. Some good, some not so good. Some downright awful! Once, I stayed at what I define as a luxury hotel. The Waldorf Astoria. At one of those milestones in my life, that most of us climb over, I tackled my list of "somedays." Well, that's what I call it. I suppose some call it a To Do List. Anyway, on my someday list, I had written, Spend a Weekend At The Waldorf. Now, I didn't have stay at a luxury hotel. I had stay at the Waldorf. So my definition of a luxury hotel is one that measure up to how I spent my weekend at the Waldorf Hotel. If it were only that simple.

Cesar Ritz

Today is the anniversary of the birth, of perhaps, one of the greatest hoteliers in the world. César Ritz. César Ritz, son of a poor herdsman, was born in Niederwald, Switzerland on February 23, 1850. In 1898, César Ritz introduced new definitions to luxury by opening a hotel that bears his name, the Ritz. Exquisite hotels like the Ritz became palaces of people.

One of 13 children, at a young age, César Ritz got a job as a hotelkeeper apprentice. He stayed at that job a few months until he was fired for not having an "aptitude for flair." Ritz tried his flair at two other hotels and both times he was fired. In Paris, Cesar Ritz developed his strategy while working his way up at another fine restaurant in Paris. So impressed was the owner that he offered Ritz a partnership. At 19, he thanked his employer, but, refused his offer. He left the restaurant to go to work as a waiter at the finest restaurant in Paris, the Voisin. At the international hangout for royalty and gourmets, Ritz was introduced to the fine art of serving people. He learned how to carve a roast and press duck, how to decant wine, and how to serve food in ways that pleased both the eye and the palate. César Ritz honed his skills quickly and began to study tastes, desires, and influences of everybody he served. Customers such as Sarah Bernhardt and Alexandre Dumas the younger, were so impressed with his elegant service that they requested him by name. He knew their desires so well, that "their wish was his command." It is said the Prince of Wales, who was a friend of his, once told him "You know better than I what I want, you order food to my pleasure." César's instinct for the personal touch drew the attention of influential customers. There's a story about the invasion of the Germans in 1871. Paris had such a food shortage that butchers had no choice but to slaughter many animals as food. At the restaurant Ritz served them in high style, trompe sauce chasseur it became all the rage and Ritz an overnight sensation in Parisian culinary circles.

Alexander Etienne Choron was a French chef from Caen who created the sauce choron, which is Béarnaise sauce with tomato puree. Choron was the chef de cuisine at the famous Voisin restaurant in Paris. During the Siege of 1871 he served many animals as food, including elephant, camel, cat, wolf, and St. Bernard. source
A short time later, Ritz left Paris and worked for three years in resort restaurants and fashionable hotels in Nice, San Remo, Rome, Baden-Baden, and Vienna. Good luck now came his way. Ritz was the restaurant manager at Rigi-Kulm, an Alpine hotel renowned for its location and cuisine, when he was informed one cold winter day that the heating plant had broken down and, at almost the same moment, that a group of 40 wealthy Americans were to arrive soon for lunch. Ritz ordered lunch to be served in the drawing room instead of the dining room--it looked warmer because of the large red curtains that framed the room. He directed the waiters to pour alcohol into large copper pots and then set them afire, and bricks were placed in the ovens. The room was warm when the Americans arrived, and each of them was given a brick wrapped in flannel to warm their feet. By the end of the meal, which started with a peppery hot consommé and ended with flaming crêpes suzette, the guests were gushing with praise for the young manager.

While Cesar Ritz was developing his persuasive skills, a brilliant French chef by the name of Auguste Escoffier was also climbing the ladder to infamous fame. Cesar Ritz met chef Auguste Escoffier when he was managing the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo. Ritz later managed the Savoy Hotel in London, with Escoffier as his chef. In fact, it was at the London Savoy, where The great chef Auguste Escoffier created many of his famous dishes. For example, in 1893 he invented the Pêche Melba in honor of the Australian singer Nellie Melba.

In view of Cesar Ritz's connection with the great master Escoffier, since it was thanks to him that Escoffier became famous, I wish to pay my tribute to this great Swiss master. Cesar Ritz opened the Savoy, Claridges and the Carlton in 1899 and gave his name to the Ritz Hotel in Paris, opened in 1898, the Ritz Hotel, London, opened in 1905, and the Ritz Carlton opened in New York in 1907. He was perhaps the greatest hotelier in the world and set the highest standards in the industry. He always patronized good chefs and encouraged them in their careers...He was a friend of kings and queens and of the highest people in the world, and his name is now synonymous with luxury and comfort in its highest sense...Hotels all over the world were open under his name after his death. (Jean Conil For Epicures Only 1952)

The story of Cesar Ritz's life goes far beyond the scope of this blog. Through determination, modernization, ingenious strategy, resourcefulness, attention to detail, and a little bit of luck, the name Ritz became synonymous with luxury. "Puttin’ on the Ritz" was always in the best interest of the guest. It is said, he was constantly aware of the considerations and preferences especially of his female guests. The halls were situated with the perfect lighting to enhance the glow on the women's faces to heighten their beauty.

In 1892 Ritz journeyed to London to manage the Hotel Savoy, an elegant hotel in the midst of a financial crisis. Ritz brought along his lifelong associate, Auguste Escoffier, a chef whom he had met during one of his jobs in Europe. With Ritz devoting his attention to a myriad of details, sometimes roving from room to room remaking beds to assure his guests the most comfortable night's sleep in London, at other times arranging lavish entertainment for important customers, and with Escoffier whipping up gourmet dishes in the kitchen, the Savoy soon became the toast of London's high society. When Alfred Beit, a diamond mogul from South Africa, asked Ritz to arrange a party for him, Ritz flooded the Savoy's main dining room and transformed it into a miniature Venice, with dinner served to guests as they lounged in gondolas serenaded by native gondoliers. At another party, with Cecil Rhodes, James Gordon Bennett, Lord Randolph Churchill, and Gilbert and Sullivan attending, Ritz arranged for Caruso to sing for their evening pleasure. After three years, the Savoy's stock rebounded. source

As luck would have it, Ritz and the directors of the Savoy had an argument and Cesar Ritz left the Savoy. By this time, Ritz had many influential friends including The Prince of Wales. (who was later to become King Edward VII) When the Prince announced in a telegram "Where Ritz goes, we follow," Ritz was encouraged to follow his someday list and open a hotel of his own. His would be the epitome of elegance. On June 1, 1898, Cesar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier opened the Hotel Ritz in Paris on the historic Place Vendôme, constructed by Hardouin-Mansart, the architect of Versailles.

On June 1, 1898, following a winter and spring of furious rebuilding inside the old mansion, Ritz invited his loyal (and royal) clientele, including the aforementioned Prince of Wales, to help him celebrate the opening of his dream-come-true--the absolute finest hotel in the world. No one has ever doubted Ritz's success at creating the world's best hotel. Ernest Hemingway, a client of the Ritz bar (eventually named the Hemingway Bar) between the world wars once said: "When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Paris Ritz." source

Together, Cesar Ritz and the "king of chefs and the chef of kings" executed intricate comforts, provided "ritzy" entertainment and cuisine worthy of their aristocratic patrons right down to the last detail. They developed and refined hotel service and Ritz established the traditional apparel for hotel personnel: a black tie for the maître d'hôtel, a white tie for the waiter, and brass buttons for the bellhop's uniform. In 1899, once again, Escoffier and Ritz opened another hotel. This time it was The Carlton in London. It was at the Carlton in London where Escoffier first introduced the practice of the à la carte menu.

It was Cesar Ritz who originated the phrase, "The customer is always right." His intense efforts to please his patrons and his meticulous attention to the last detail led to a breakdown in 1911. Seven years later on October 24, 1918, Cesar Ritz, King of Hoteliers died leaving Escoffier to run the Carlton until 1919.


  1. Fascinating! I have read a bit about Escoffier, but knew nothing about Mr. Ritz at all, nor of their long partnership. These days, most of us probably think of the name as a "brand" without realizing there were true innovators behind the name.

  2. Yes, T.W. Mr. Ritz certainly experienced a culinary adventure in his lifetime and we, get to enjoy the accomplishments.

  3. We really tend to overlook the humble beginnings of great things, such as the Ritz chain of luxury hotels. Makes one hopeful that great things do come from small beginnings.

  4. Hi,
    One thing I've learned from doing this blog, is "great things do come from small beginnings" and sometimes, small people also. (kids) For instance, the brown paper bag had it's humble beginnings escalated in the hands of a 12 year old girl by the name of Mattie Knight.
    Thanks for dropping by,

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