If you wander down London’s Jermyn Street, you will see a Westminster Council commemorative plaque at the entrance to the Cavendish Hotel, the inscription reads; ‘Rosa Lewis – Chef de Cuisine and hotelier who ruled the Cavendish Hotel.’ It was something about the word ‘ruled’ that grabbed my attention. This lady sounded like my kind of woman and needed to be researched! What I found was a fabulous story about a rags to riches heroine who became Britain’s first female celebrity chef!
Rosa Lewis was born in 1867 in a poor town in Essex. Determined to keep their daughter out of the workhouse, her parents managed to secure her a job in domestic service. It was there that she displayed a real flair for cooking, so much so that at the age of 16 she was asked to join the staff at Sheen House, Mortlake, the home of the exiled Comte de Paris.
Rosa’s technique greatly developed during her time at Sheen House and her future as “Queen of Cooks” was secured. It wasn’t long before she was cooking for dinner parties in all the great houses of London’s high society – from the Duke of Orléans to Lady Randolph Churchill.
In the royal French houses, Rosa had learnt a style of cooking which was now preferred to the somewhat stodgy cuisine of Isabella Beeton. French chefs were increasingly in demand by the late 1880s, and the grandest of hotels such as Claridges and the Ritz were now employing students of the great French gastronomic expert, Escoffier who believed that feeding the eye was just as important as feeding the belly.
Whilst cooking for Lady Randolph Churchill she met Edward Prince of Wales. Bowled over by her cooking he was quoted as saying, “She gives me nothing sloppy and nothing coloured up to dribble on my shirt front.” Pleasing the Prince meant that her financial future was secure and she became the most in-demand chef in London, hiring herself out at three guineas a head (the equivalent of £285 in today’s money!)
In 1902, Rosa Lewis became the proprietor of the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street where she became famous for her fabulous hosting skills and wicked sense of humour. She was frequently visited by Edward Prince of Wales, which naturally had some tongues wagging – particularly as she had a private entrance built for him and his royal guests!
After the First World War Rosa took impoverished military officers into the hotel but they were never allowed to pay. She embarked on Robin Hood style tactics whereby the rich paid for the poor and she continued her crusade until her death at the grand old age of 85.
Although The Cavendish was demolished and rebuilt after her death, it retained its original name and still welcomes guests to this day. The BBC’s 1970s drama “The Duchess of Duke Street” was based on Rosa’s life and I used to tune on a Saturday evening with my mother (herself an hotelier)to watch it!