Dine Like a Servant goes to France


Blackboard with French menu

The idea of Dine Like a Servant is to raise funds for restoration of The Regency Town House and to give people a good time. The dishes are historic, adapted where necessary for modern palates, and use original techniques where possible. 

Recipes from the past are delightfully written but often short on detail; like what temperature? or how long? Or what size dish? The kitchen team interrogate these recipes and skilfully bring them back to life.

Regency Town House room set for the French dinner

Below are the readings for each course.


Pate de campagne, brioche, pickled pear or soup Crécy

George, Prince of Wales, created Regent in 1811 after the final descent into madness of his father George III, adored all things French. The lavish interiors of Carlton House (his palace in London on Pall Mall) were decorated in French neoclassical style and filled with French furniture. He had a morbid fascination with the executed family of Louis XVI and collected their portraits in miniature. In later life the Regent became obsessed with the tiny figure of Napoleon, collecting art and artefacts connected with the vanquished Emperor. 

When his brother, the Duke of Cambridge, visited Paris and wrote to the Regent that “It is impossible to live better!” George replied that the “gourmet king” Louis XVIII of France “need not find my table in any way inferior to his own” – and he set about recruiting a French chef to prove it.

The Clerk Comptroller of his household, Jean Baptiste Watier was sent to Paris to search for a chef. In his wildest dreams the Prince Regent can hardly have expected Watier to return with quite the catch he did. Watier had approach leading Parisian chefs with a view to finding someone associated with the celebrity chef Carême. He never expected that Carême himself – the chef who, after the meals he had prepared for the Tsar was talked about as “the best cook in the world” – would agree to come to England. But he did.

Carême later claimed that he made this decision because the Prince Regent promised him £2,000 a year. This is an astonishing figure when one considers that the Prince had caused a small scandal by employing a chef on what was regarded as the vast sum of £200 a year, when he himself was £390,000 in debt.

By the time Carême met the Prince Regent, the prince’s love of all things French had expanded his weight to 20 stone and his waist to 50 inches, so that his belly, when uncorsetted from its “Bastille of Whalebone”, reached his knees. Carême told the prince that the “purity” of his cooking would reduce his weight. It was an idle boast. The Prince Regent once teased Carême that the temptations of his cooking would be the death of him. “Your Highness,” replied Carême, “my concern is to tempt your appetite, yours is to curb it.”

– from Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef, Walker & Co.

Plat principal

Confit de canard or confit root vegetables Strasbourg, pommes de terre Dauphinois or Savoyard, peas and lettuce

What happened with service à la  française was that, once the soup had been taken away, the covers were removed from all the fish and entrée dishes arranged across the table and “every man helps [himself] to the dish before him, and offers some of it to his neighbour… if he wishes for anything else, he must ask across the table, or send around for it – a very troublesome custom.” 

By the 1830s some of the work in service à la  française was delegated to servants, but this proved just as much of a trial to the sensitive gourmet. “Meaning to be very polite, [the servants] dodge about to offer each entrée to ladies in the first instance; confusion arises, and whilst the same dishes are offered two of three times over to some guests, the same unhappy people have no option of others.”

The middle classes may have hastened the changeover from service à la  française to service à la  russe, since regular competitive eating was part of their ethos. 

The nobility in their stately homes had experienced staff to oversee every detail, but the middle-class Victorian lady had only herself and a handful of untrained, sometimes profoundly ignorant helpers. 

It must have been a great strain to be involved in serving a twenty-five dish dinner to eighteen people while trying to meet all the other conversational and supervisory responsibilities of the good hostess. 

Service à la  russe helped. Here the serving dishes were laid out on the sideboard and the servants handed them round in strict rotation. The first servant would come, offering meat, then another with a dish of potatoes, then a third with a platter of vegetables and a fourth with the sauce boat. 

No exercise of judgement was required on the servants’ part. The lady of the house was able to breathe at last and dinners ceased to resemble feeding time at the zoo.

– based on Reay Tannahill, Food in History, Three River Press


Îles flottantes or poached pear Paris

The pudding was an English phenomenon. By the 1740s roast beef and plum pudding had become a national dish. 

At one time puddings were boiled only in the clean guts of newly slaughtered animals, but the innovation of the pudding cloth meant that puddings could be made at any time. 

The varieties proliferated so that foreign visitors were astonished. French travel writer Francis Maximilian Mission wrote: “The bake them in ovens, boil them with the meat, they make them fifty several ways: BLESSED IS HE THAT INVENTED PUDDING, for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people, [and they] are never weary of it.” 

The wonderfully versatile suet pudding could be filled with beefsteaks, giblets, pigeon, duck, raw fruit, currants and great ponds of butter. 

Boiled and baked puddings could be of rice, oatmeal, vermicelli, sag, custard. 

Sweet baked puddings often cooked in puff pastry crust were somewhat more elegant, and could be made with such things as curds, fruit, potatoes, carrots, spinach, custard, bread and butter, dried fruit and almonds. 

– based on A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain, English Heritage in association with British Museum Press.

You can learn how to recreate the tastes of Dine Like a Servant and other recipes from the past for yourself

Historic cookery courses are availablein the old kitchen of the Town House. Groups are small, up to 8 people. Enquire at paul.g.couchman@gmail.com.

DIne Like a Servant in Fance montage