Ritz was born in 1850 and grew up extremely poor in the canton of Wallis, the last of thirteen children. He moved to Paris and worked as a waiter at the famous Parisian restaurant Voisin from 1869 to 1872 serving luminaries like George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Alexandre Dumas. Notably, he lived and worked through the famous Siege of Paris.
An aside about the Siege of Paris
So, the entry for the Siege of Paris (September 1870—January 1871) on Wikipedia deserves a long read, but here are some of the highlights—Prussian troops surrounded the city, cut off all access to the outside world (including food, and mail—which could only be done with pigeons or balloons) and tried to get the French to surrender. They did not, even after 23 nights of bombing, which led to the revolutionary Delescluze to remark "the Frenchmen of 1870 are the sons of those Gauls for whom battles were holidays."
Nonetheless the people needed to eat, and they famously became creative in their meat consumption, preparing dogs, cats, and rats in typical French fashion. Some examples from actual restaurant menus of the time:
- Brochettes de foie de chien à la maître d'hôtel.
- Emincé de rable de chat. Sauce mayonnaise.
- Epaules et filets de chien braisés. Sauce aux tomates.
- Civet de chat aux champignons.
- Côtelettes de chien aux petits pois.
- Salamis de rats. Sauce Robert.
It wasn't just pets and sewer dwellers that made it to the table, but chef Alexandre Étienne Choron's notorious Christmas menu at Voisin included animals from the Paris zoo like kangaroo, wolf, bear, antelope, and elephant. Ritz himself probably served consomme d'Elephant to guests on 25 December 1870.
From Rags to the Ritz
From waiter, Ritz worked his way up to maître d'hôtel, and eventually hotel manager and owner. He worked all over France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, serving the wealthiest people of the time, and many royals as well.
As he ascended, anecdotes about his ingenuity abounded. While managing a hotel on the Rigi-Kulm, the heating went out just before a lunch for 40 wealthy American guests. To warm the room he had copper palm pots emptied, filled with oil, and set alight. Then he placed warm, blanket-wrapped bricks at the feet of each guest.
In the 1890s, he teamed up with the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier at the London Ritz, introducing French Haute Cuisine to the British. From there, the duo went on to establish hotels across the continent, including the Ritz in Paris.
Ritz championed hygienic practices in hotels and his were the very first to have private ensuite bathrooms in each room. To flatter the complexions, and accent the jewellery of his clients, he used indirect lighting, as well as pale peach and gold tones that still exist in many Ritz dining rooms today.
In later years, Ritz returned to Switzerland and spent the end of his life in Küssnacht on Lake Lucerne, where he died in 1918.