There is a sadistic sort of relish that comes from enjoying a scathing restaurant review. Pete Well’s merciless takedown of the Manhattan restaurant Per Se in the New York Times recently did not disappoint:
The kitchen could improve the bacon-wrapped cylinder of quail simply by not placing it on top of a dismal green pulp of cooked romaine lettuce, crunchy and mushy at once. Draining off the gluey, oily liquid would have helped a mushroom potpie from turning into a swampy mess. I don’t know what could have saved limp, dispiriting yam dumplings, but it definitely wasn’t a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.
There’s a delicious satisfaction in watching an establishment that charges $3,000 to feed four people get such blistering treatment. Reading it, I was reminded of an article my friend Christopher Liszt once wrote for the journal Eighteenth Century Culinary Studies. His piece, which I can’t seem to locate, tells the story of a French servant and cook by the name of Phillipe Rocancourt…
A DINNER GONE AWRY
Minor mistakes escalate into an unfortunate incident.
Rocancourt was born to a poor family but he soon proved himself as a skilled manservant and cook. During his career, he worked in the employ of various nobles, including serving for several years as personal cook to the Governor-General of Saint Dominique (now Haiti). After a decade in the West Indies, Rocancourt returned to Paris, where he worked for the Marquis de Gouttières, who owned a large estate adjacent to the Bois de Boulogne. The Marquis, (who, incidentally was a passing acquaintance of the Marquis de Sade) was infamous for his displays of wealth.
Styling himself as a “devourer of the senses,” the Marquis held legendary dinner parties that rivaled the elaborate banquets at Versailles. A typical meal might include ballotine of pheasant, pâté de campagne, live oysters, lobster aspic, beef madrilène with spangles of gold leaf, chestnut and truffle soup, wild ducks, hare stew, smoked eel, roast joint of beef, morel soufflé, and a board of fifty potent-smelling cheeses.
Sometimes the Marquis held bizarrely themed meals. At one party, for instance, all the food was the color orange. In another instance the dishes were served chilled and formed into the shape of human hearts. There was always musical entertainment, often dancers from the East, and sometimes trained beasts, including bears, foxes, monkeys, and once, at a vast luncheon en plein air, an elephant balancing on a ball. The Marquis’ most famous meal (probably apocryphal) was one in which a dozen male and female courtesans were hired to fellate and pleasure the guests under the table while they dined.
Rocancourt served as both waitstaff and assistant to the Marquis’ chef. He existed between two worlds: though he worked and lived at the château, he would often travel to the center of Paris to bring money and leftover food to his brother’s family. It was a time of deprivation for the city’s poor–bread was expensive, there was no work, and dysentery and cholera were rampant. On one particularly haunting visit, Rocancourt went to see his ailing niece who was not yet six years old. He watched as she died in her mother’s arms.
Returning to the estate, he must have been in a state of anger and grief, but he nonetheless dutifully served the peacock pies, turtle soup, and madeleines shaped like mermaids with the same calm and slightly officious attitude still required of French waiters to this day.
One guest, a certain Comte de Pleugriffet, was a large and impatient man whose pock-marked face could not be completely disguised by a heavy patina of white powder. From his thick red lips he called out to Rocancourt, incensed to have found several bones in his fillet of turbot. Roncancourt quietly replaced the dish, but moments later the Comte bellowed like a walrus, infuriated to find another bone. “Perhaps if I were Christ our Lord,” Rocancourt replied, “I might miraculously produce a multitude of boneless fishes. But alas, sir, I am not able…”
The Comte, made livid by Rocancourt’s impertinence, threw down his napkin and spat upon the servant’s shoes. The quivering noble implored the Marquis to fire his manservant at once, but the Marquis merely walked Rocancourt back to the kitchen and urged him to resume his duties.
Later that evening, as Rocancourt brought out a terrine of sweet calves’ brains dappled with orchid petals, he inadvertently brushed against the Comte. The nobleman leaped to his feet and called him “the son of a whore.”
We do not know the precise motives behind what happened next. In his article, Liszt describes what the witnesses saw that evening:
The servant calmly left the salon for the kitchen. When he returned, he held a large covered platter, which he brought to the Comte. Removing the lid revealed a large carving knife inside. With a swift motion the servant grabbed the knife in one hand and the count in the other and proceeded to slit the nobleman’s throat as though he were slaughtering a pig. The assembled party let out screams of horror as the wide-eyed count slumped to the carpet and died without a word. The scene was as vivid as a nightmare: against the lovely pastels of the women’s frocks and the gilded beige and pale blue furniture (which it should be noted the Marquis had selected with exquisite taste) a pond of black-dark blood crept slowly across the finely woven Persian rug.
Rocancourt fled the scene but was quickly apprehended by gendarmes. Defiant to the last, he was imprisoned in chains at the Bastille to await trial. Several months later, as he was being transferred to the fortress in Vincennes, a crowd was gathering along the route–it was July 14, 1789–and within hours the Bastille had fallen and the French Revolution was underway. Rocancourt’s carriage was attacked by the mob and the prisoner freed.
His whereabouts were unknown for several years. But his legend grew. The servant who killed an arrogant dinner guest remained something of a folk hero to some of the sans-culottes, and for a while there was a song in circulation about the “man who could endure the insults no longer…”
According to Liszt, what we know next is that Rocancourt volunteered as a grenadier in Napoleon’s army and was killed at the battle of Eylau in 1807 while fighting soldiers of the Tsar. The battle was noted for its ferocity and uncertain outcome, so much so that Marshal Ney, at its conclusion, exclaimed: Quel massacre! Et sans résultat! (What a massacre, and to no end!).
Remarkably, Rocancourt’s skull was preserved and eventually returned to Paris at the request of a noted phrenologist, Marcel de Mougrieforte. The naturalist precisely mapped and measured the notorious servant’s skull and in his report to the National Academy of Medicine, the doctor arrived at his conclusion: nothing could have prevented the murder, for Phillipe Rocancourt was a natural-born criminal whose brain structure showed an inevitable propensity for violence; it was only a matter of time before a man like this committed an act of unprovoked, random mayhem…
Images courtesy British Library, New York Public Library. Top illustration: a detail from Le Déjeuner d’huîtres by Jean François de Troy (1735) courtesty Wikimedia Commons. Bottom image: a still from Luis Buñuel’s film Exterminating Angel (1962).