Women in Food: Rosa Lewis 1867-1952

Rosa Lewis is a little-known force of nature. A working-class domestic servant who rose to become one of the most celebrated cooks and go to caterers of Edwardian London, sought out not just by the aristocracy and London's upper classes, but also by Edward VII himself. She made haute cuisine her life’s work with no formal training, and in one of the most competitive and male dominated arenas of the era.

Known as the ‘Queen of Cooks’, Lewis’ remarkable story documents a talented chef and astute businesswoman who worked at the highest level of Edwardian society, while flaunting the Cockney accent and personality of her roots. She was a shooting star, tracing a blinding arc across the Edwardian Era’s love affair with French cuisine that burned out after the First World War, when the food and society on which she built her identity as a chef, altered irrevocably.

The Edwardian Era, despite lasting only ten years, is infamous for the impact it had on British food culture and habits. Food became an indicator of status and wealth. Meals were numerous and plentiful –four opulent meals a day and a fifth before bed were common.

French cuisine was the ultimate status symbol. Edward VII, a notorious gourmand who loved French cuisine, set the tone for how the upper levels of British society ate and socialised.

Thousands of French chefs were employed in English homes, clubs, hotels, royal palaces. Chefs of the upper classes were expected to produce fine dining experiences with luxurious ingredients which would include truffles, oysters, game, patisseries, fine chocolates and champagne. British chefs who wanted to cook at this level needed to train in the French style if they wanted their career to go anywhere. It was into this environment that Rosa Lewis started her working life.

Lewis was born Rosa Ovenden in 1867, the fifth of nine children in Leyton. Her father was a watch maker turned undertaker. At the time of her birth, Leyton was a village, about 8 miles north-east of London. With the opening of the railways to London and improvement in transport, the village became a suburban dormitory for those employed outside the area.

Lewis left school at twelve to become a general domestic servant to support her family. Work began at dawn and hours were long. Lewis showed talent in the kitchen and by 16, she had risen to the position of cook. She was hired as a dishwasher to the household of the Conte de Paris who lived in exile in Sheen House in Richmond.

Lewis must have shown enthusiasm, discipline and a natural talent. She assisted the resident French chef who had worked at the Ritz, Savoy and Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris. The chef was a devotee of Auguste Escoffier, the father of modern French cuisine, who simplified and modernised traditional techniques and professionalised kitchens. Lewis progressed to the stage where the chef would put her in charge of the kitchen when he was away.

Dinner parties in the Edwardian Era were a marathon of eating and a minefield of social etiquette. The menu would be discussed with the lady of the house and delivered by the cook and the team in the kitchen. Dinner was served a la Russe, in courses, which could number anywhere between six and twelve.

Dinner began with soup and continued with fish, an entrée (vol au vents or sweetbreads), sorbet, a roast course which could be pheasant or imported game, then dessert which could be blancmange or fresh hothouse fruits. If this wasn’t enough to navigate, rules for eating were numerous and subject to change. Published in 1879, the book, How to Dine, instructed diners, “Soup will constitute the first course, which must be noiselessly sipped from the side of a spoon. Fish usually follows the soup. It is helped with a silver fork, and eaten with a silver fork, assisted by a piece of bread held in the left hand.” A few years later, the manual,

Manners and Tone for a Good Society, advised a change, “Fish should be eaten with a silver fish knife and fork. Two forks are not used for eating fish, and one fork and a crust of bread is now an unheard of way to eat fish in polite society.”

Lewis claims she had to leave Sheen House because it was impossible for a women to be an equal to a French male chef. The timeline of her early career is patchy, but she would then have gone on to work in at least one more French run kitchen to acquire the cooking techniques, skills and the palette that enabled her to work at a professional level.

She was headhunted by the Duke of Orléans in 1887, to work at his home in Sandhurst. She could cook for private engagements for other society families. Her reputation as the go to cook began to spread amongst London’s upper classes.

London was the capital of French cuisine. Auguste Escoffier moved to London in 1890 and remained there for the rest of his career. By 1913, the Ligue de Gourmands, an international association of distinguished French chefs, London had 60 members, Paris had 43.

Lewis had clear ambitions to work professionally at the highest level. She told American author, Mary Lawton, in her biography of Lewis, The Queen of Cooks, and Some Kings, “I saw that the aristocracy took an interest in it (food) and that you came under the notice of people who really mattered. My family did not know what Lords or Ladies, or Earls or Dukes meant. I knew it by being a cook.” This was preferable to the factory work that many girls of her age did, being “Just one of a number of sausages.”

Lady Randolph Churchill (mother of Sir Winston) hired Lewis for a dinner party she hosted, which was attended by the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII. It is reported that he was so impressed with her food, he made a point of thanking her in person afterwards, sealing her reputation and launching not just her career, but rumours of a love interest.

But it wasn’t a case of being in the right place at the right time. What emerges from her interviews with Mary Lawton was that beyond having ambition, she was clearly a passionate chef, in love with cooking and food. She had a clear respect for ingredients. She went to the markets to choose the ingredients herself and hustle to get the quality she looked for. She had a respect for French cuisine, believing, “‘Good cooking came from France”, but she also believed that it was too fussy. Her initial training with the Escoffier influenced chef at Sheen House invariably influenced her approach to food. She admired Escoffier and was essentially a purist – find the best ingredients, cook them simply and let them speak for themselves, “Messing things up is like putting a silk patch on a leather apron - unnecessary and stupid.”

In 1893, Lewis married butler Excelsior Lewis. She claims she married him at her family’s insistence and that after a no-frills marriage ceremony, she threw the ring at him and left him. However, they lived together for ten years. It is believed that she married him to achieve an air of respectability and gain access to mansions and the aristocracy she clearly loved.

For the next twenty years, Lewis built a career catering to England’s upper classes and aristocracy with a staff ranging between 6 – 12 women working with her. She had a keen understanding of her clients’ needs, offering a decoration service as well as catering food.

She sourced linens, silverware and furniture as well as curtains and rugs from Paris, for anyone living outside London who wanted to entertain there.

Lewis also invested in her staff. She would throw an annual ball, hiring and borrowing gowns, teaching them how to do their makeup and hair, and hiring musicians. She wanted them to experience ‘the other side of life’ so that they could provide the same service.

In 1902 Lewis bought the lease of the Cavendish Hotel, along with the leases of the neighbouring buildings. She converted them into a larger and more modern hotel. Her intention was for her husband to manage it while she ran her catering business, but he ran up debts of £5,000 and at that point, she ended their relationship and ran it herself.

Under Rosa’s ownership, the Cavendish became one of the most fashionable addresses in London with a a private entrance installed specifically for Edward VII and his guests, further fuelling rumours of a relationship. The hotel became her home, her social life and the head office of her catering empire. She held court earning the nickname, “the Duchess of Jermyn Street”.

With the beginning of World War, Lewis’ star began its descent. She was 47. The Cavendish was requisitioned for British troops and refugees. She made sure to look after the British officers and their servants, sending packages to both, but after the war, society had changed. The twenties brought a new economy and a new generation, The Bright Young Things. Lewis had no time for them. She had never acquired respect for new money and was unable to adapt to this new world. Everything that had existed to build and validate her identity as the Queen of Cooks was gone.

So began the decline of the Cavendish and Rosa. She lived on tales and memories of the past. Writers depicted her as a Miss Havisham figure and food writers slated food at the Cavendish. Tragically, she became something of a caricature in her final decades, a woman who could not let go of a past that everyone had moved on from.

Rosa Lewis may not be a household name, but her life was commemorated in the 1970s BBC television series, The Duchess of Duke Street. A blue plaque next to the Jermyn Street entrance of the Cavendish honours her memory.