A new perspective on the rise of the leisure class.
In his latest book, former Travel + Leisure features editor Barr (Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, 2013) dives into the many aspects of the restaurant industry during the belle epoque era that laid the groundwork for today’s fine-dining experience. The author focuses on the unlikely union of two entrepreneurs: Swiss hotelier César Ritz (1850-1918) and French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). The two men shared an insatiable appetite for culinary success, but it wasn’t just the food they were concerned about. By working together to bring the now-renowned Savoy Hotel to its current glory, Ritz and Escoffier introduced epicurean principles to a general public that had no point of reference to understand such lifestyles. “The nouveaux riches had arrived,” writes Barr, “but until now, there had never been anywhere for them to go to announce their arrival. They had rarely been invited to the exclusive dinner parties or private clubs of high society. But now there was the Savoy. The restaurant may have served the most refined, daring, and sometimes shockingly expensive food in the world, but it was not exclusive….The Savoy offered a new and democratic kind of luxury, and cooking was very much at the center of it.” In this process, Ritz and Escoffier created a whole new breed of city dwellers dedicated to “a life of pleasure, a theater of luxury.” The two would later go on to create the Hotel Ritz in Paris. As in his previous book, it’s clear that Barr has done extensive research to master his topic, and the book serves as an expansive resource for those interested in learning more about the turn-of-the-century leisure class. However, the never-ending name-dropping becomes distracting and tiresome. The story would have benefited from more social and cultural analysis and fewer fabulous cameos.
A well-researched, glitzy, and flawed history of conspicuous consumption.