Francois Vatel (1631 – 1671) was born Fritz Karl Watel in Switzerland, apprenticed as a pastry cook, then went to work for Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s finance minister in 1653. Vatel became a celebrated master chef, often credited (inaccurately) for inventing Chantilly cream, and rose within Fouquet’s household to become his majordomo – the highest-ranking employee in an aristocrat’s household.
In 1661, Vatel supervised the grandiloquent inauguration fete of Fouquet’s chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte – now a famous tourist site southeast of Paris. Vatel did such a great job, and the inauguration was so splendid, that Louis XIV grew jealous of his finance minister’s display of opulence, fired Fouquet and threw him in jail, charged with maladministration of state funds and lese majeste, and kept him locked up until his death in 1680.
Out of a job, Vatel did not remain unemployed for long – apparently, throwing a party so great as to arouse the Sun King’s jealousy and ruin one’s boss was a CV plus in the French aristocracy’s eyes. He was quickly snatched up by Prince Louis II de Bourbon-Conde, also known as the Grand Conde, who made him his master chef and majordomo.
In1671, Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people scheduled for April 25th, in honor of Louis XIV, who was to visit the Grand Conde’s Chateau de-Chantilly that month. The royal banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only 15 days to prepare, grew increasingly stressed by a series of minor mishaps in the preparations for the grand feast.
During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected, and two out of 26 tables had to go without roast. A mortified Vatel wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances from the Grand Conde that the dinner had gone great, and that Louis XIV was pleased, did little to assuage Vatel, who kept obsessing about the tables that had gone without roast. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which lowered Vatel’s spirits even further.
Early the following morning, April 24th, one day before the banquet, he encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept in the preceding fortnight, and he broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake“. Unable to endure what he was sure would be a humiliation when the royal banquet turned into a flop, he took a sword and ran himself through. As it turned out, the fish misunderstanding soon resolved itself, as fish from other suppliers began arriving not long after Vatel had stabbed himself, the wagon loads trundling into the Chateau de-Chantilly even as the master chef and majordomo lay dying of his wound.