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Paying Homage to a Legendary Chef of the Past : Victor Hirtzler of Hotel St. Francis Established San Francisco's Dining Style

August 25, 1988|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when California cuisine did not mean goat cheese, grilled anything, baby produce and the rest of today's trendy ideas.

In the past, some remarkable cooking took place in this state, dishes virtually forgotten in the contemporary rush toward smart new foods.

Now homage is being paid afresh to a chef of the past, a man whose taste and innovations established dining style in San Francisco in the first quarter of this century. He is the late Victor Hirtzler, legendary chef of the Hotel St. Francis and creator of such classics as Celery Victor and Peach Melba.

Worked at the Waldorf

Born in Strasbourg in northeastern France, Hirtzler cooked there and in Paris, served as taster for Czar Nicholas II and as chef de cuisine to King Don Carlos of Portugal. Migrating to the United States, he found work at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. There he was discovered by James Woods, who had been named manager of the luxurious hotel that was being constructed on Union Square in San Francisco. The St. Francis opened March 24, 1904, and Hirtzler remained as chef until 1926. He died in Strasbourg in 1931.

Bon vivant and companion to celebrities and society, the flamboyant Hirtzler was dedicated to his craft. In 1910, he produced a cookbook, "L'Art Culinaire, Hotel St. Francis Book of Recipes and Model Menus," with wealthy San Francisco socialites as sponsors of the first privately published edition. The recipes from this book formed the basis of a much larger work, the "Hotel St. Francis Cook Book," which was published in 1919.

Long out of print and hard to find, the book has now been republished, introducing Hirtzler's cuisine to a new generation. Behind its rediscovery is Windgate Press of Sausalito. Windgate is a small firm that specializes in quality hardcover books on regional history and collections of historical photographs.

The new edition of Hirtzler's work, priced at $25, is wrapped in a dust jacket that reproduces Victorian style wallpaper. It contains all of the material from the 1910 and 1919 editions in type that has been enlarged and modernized.

"We thought we would never publish a cookbook, since they are out of our field," said Linda Witwer Bonnett, who founded Windgate five years ago. "However, after we ran across a copy of the 1919 edition of Victor's book and read it, we decided that here was an important and fascinating piece of culinary history that should not be allowed to slip into obscurity." Hirtzler himself has never slipped into obscurity. The St. Francis, now the Westin St. Francis, keeps his memory alive through its 32nd floor restaurant, Victor's. Celery Victor is on the menu this summer. And the book is on sale there. "We have had many requests for it, but it hasn't been available," said Donald L. Blum, a spokesman for the hotel.

The cookbook includes menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner for each day of the year--a total of more than 1,000 meals. The accompanying recipes are written in a chef's abbreviated style, which assumes the reader knows basic techniques and can fill in the gaps. "You are allowed to use your intelligence," commented Bonnett. Many of the recipes are quite simple and easy to follow. Others are more demanding, such as terrapin soup that starts with scalding two terrapins and removing their shells.

Required for Dinner

The terrapins were required for dinner on Aug. 3. On Aug. 25 in Hirtzler's era, one would have breakfasted on grapes, Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes, rolls and coffee. The menu for lunch included tomatoes surprise (tomatoes stuffed with celery in mayonnaise); eggs de Lesseps (shirred eggs with brains), rump steak Dickinson (broiled and topped with sliced beef marrow, green and red peppers); French fried potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes in cream, Camembert cheese with crackers, assorted fruit and coffee in demitasse. Dinner was a substantial affair of mortadella and salted almonds (one assumes these were appetizers), broiled fillet of sole, maitre d'hotel; leg of veal au jus; puree of turnips Caroline, carrots Vichy, peas in butter, chateau potatoes, field and beet salad, strawberry ice cream and coffee.

The Aug. 25 recipe for scrambled eggs follows along with the original versions of Celery Victor, which was part of a dinner menu for July 30, and Peach Melba, which Hirtzler created in honor of soprano Nellie Melba and suggested for dessert on March 25.

SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH TOMATOES

Peel four tomatoes, cut in two, and squeeze out the water. Then cut in small squares, and put in a saute pan with one ounce (2 tablespoons) of butter, season with salt and pepper, and simmer until done. Then add eight beaten eggs, one-half cup of cream, one ounce of butter, a little more salt and pepper; and then scramble with the tomatoes.

CELERY VICTOR

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