Chef Francois Joseph Nothelfer, Celebrity Chef of the St. Nicholas Hotel.
Today there are hundreds of celebrity chefs, each with their own line of equipment and cooking shows. Long before QVC and cooking shows, big cities had celebrity chefs who made their restaurants famous. New York had Delmonico’s, which is still in business since being founded by Swiss immigrants in 1824. Classic American dishes like Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska came out of Delmonico’s. New Orleans had Antoine’s, founded in 1840, and gave us the popular American dish Oyster’s Rockefeller. Behind those restaurants were celebrity chefs.
Cincinnati had the St. Nicholas Hotel, which gave our city a reputation for high end cooking. Responsible for that foodie rep was our own celebrity chef, an Alsatian named Francois Joseph Nothelfer.
The St. Nicholas hotel was founded in 1865 by Balthasar Roth. The hotel boasted ‘the best cuisine between the east coast and San Francisco.’ Think of Roth as our first Jeff Ruby. Mr. Roth and his wife Thelia, were natives of Gottingen, Germany. Before starting the St. Nicholas, the Roths lived in New Orleans, where they landed. Then upon arriving in Cincinnati, Balthazar was partner in the Bank Exhange / St. Charles Restaurant on Third Street near Sycamore, with George Selves (1814-1862), an English immigrant and restaurant mogul.
An Ad of George Selves’ Bank Exchange Hotel, famous for its turtle soup.
Their son Edward Roth, was born in 1846 in Cincinnati. He would take over the hotel from his father in 1879 as its sole proprietor. Edward would hire the chef who made St. Nicholas’s cuisine famous and put Cincinnati on the culinary map. In 1885, the young Chef Francois Joseph Nothelfer, was extended the offer of Executive Chef.
An early ad for the St. Nicholas, showing the blue point oysters they served daily.
Chef Nothelfer had only been in the U.S. for two years, coming from a quick stint at the Hotel Brunswick in New York City, where he is said to have introduced sweet potato soufflé to the United States. This dish became a favorite of robber baron millionaire Jay Gould.
Nothelfer was Alsatian but worked at several Paris restaurants including, Durand’s in Place Madeline, and the Patisserie Frascati, a bakery and ice cream shop famous for inventing the Religeuse pastry. The Religeuse is made of a small eclair dough (pat a choux) stacked on a larger on, iced to resemble a nun. But, having this famous pastry experience, Nothelfer, neither brought it or other French pastry to Cincinnati. Maybe he realized our city was already dominated with good and popular German bakers all throughout the Ohio River basin.
Where Chef Nothelfer specialized was meats. He was famous for serving a variety of wild game at St. Nicholas that drew in the wealthy men of the city, many of whom were game hunters themselves. A list of fowl served included: pheasant, grouse, quail, snipe, woodcock, Holland plover, Mallards, canvasback duck, red-headed duck, and butterball duck. But, Ohio game laws in the late 1910’s prevented the serving of these game birds in hotels and restaurants.
In 1917 Chef Notfleter predicted “horse meat will come into popular use in this country. In larger European cities splendidly equipped equine shops are conducted and the eating of horse flesh is by no means confined to the poor class of people.” Indeed Europe today doesn’t have the taboo we have in this country for eating horsemeat. You can find ‘Pferdroulladen’ (horse meat roll ups) in almost any local market in Germany or Central Europe.
He described horse meat flavor as between beef and venison. “Although a little sweet, it is very good and just as healthy as any other meat.” He himself ate horse meat five months during the siege of Paris in the 1870s. He had a recipe for horse meat soup and horse goulash, described by the Cincinnati Enquirer, as ‘the-way-Mother-used-to-make.” That was if you had an Alsatian mother.
Chef Nothelfer took a high level view, typical of master chefs. He looked at ways to increase productivity and quality of what he served, going back to the supply chain. He created a cut of beef called the St. Nicholas loin, that was adopted by the hotel industry. It was a cut out of only the loin end and hip bone, leaving the tenderloin entire and sirloin strip without any butt, and a minimum of bone, compared to the standard pin bone loin cut.
At a time when gas ranges were being brought into modern hotel cooking, his philosophy was that steaks could not be properly cooked by any fuel other than charcoal. He believed in wood for the bake ovens and only used a gas range to cook fish, as he said gas doesn’t affect the taste of fish as it does meats.
He produced some of the booziest sauces for his properly prepared meats. One called “Ham Glaze Latonia” includes sherry, brandy, sweet pickle juice, brown sugar and allspice. Another sauce, me might call ‘even drunker sauce’ is his “Colonel Bruce Mutton Sauce,” which included current jelly, ketchup, mutton gravy, claret, wine, brandy, and brown sugar.
His ingenuity extended even to equipment design. He designed and built a combination oven and hot plate for banquets – an early predecessor to the deli merchandiser of today’s retail groceries.
As a local celebrity Chef Nothelfer’s opinion was sought out by other cooks and housewives. In 1916, he published an extensive list of kitchen equipment for new brides and housewives, that would be sufficient to feed a family of six. We might consider him one of the first chef brand spokespersons. If he were around today, there would certainly be a Notfelter line available at Sur la Table.
Like our current Cincy celebrity chef Jean-Robert, Notfelter is said to have graduated more notable chefs from the St. Nicholas kitchen than any other chef in the country. In 1904, his chef Victor Hirtzler opened the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and later wrote the famous St. Francis Cookbook. After almost 40 years leading Cincinnati’s high end cuisine, at the St. Nicholas, and it’s successor the Sinton hotel, Chef Notfelter was recruited away to Cleveland.
So what legacy did our first celebrity chef leave us in Cincinnati? The game he served is no longer popular, nor is the fussy French style banquet-cuisine. His prediction about horsemeat being the new hamburger never came true. His boozy sauces aren’t bottled on Kroger’s shelves. But what he did leave us is the notion that a Chef is more than just a cook – he is consultant, designer, definer of social guidelines, dietician, entertainer, and more. He paved the way for hundreds of other chefs to innovate in our foodie city, for which I am thankful.