Dedication to culinary excellence can be deadly
Achieving fame as a chef requires dedication—even obsession—and the pursuit of fine cuisine can occasionally be dangerous. Whether sickened by poor ventilation, surprised by a snake, or caught up in political intrigues, the following chefs are known to have died for their cause.
1. RICHARD ROOSE (DIED 1531)
Chef Richard Roose was in charge of preparing the daily gruel for his master John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. But in February 1531, he was accused of adding poison to the porridge. The bishop was spared because he had no appetite that day, but the poisoned gruel killed two and sickened several members of the bishop’s family. The crime was considered so heinous that Parliament passed the 1531 “Acte for Poysoning,” which made it high treason to poison anyone—and declared that the punishment for the crime was being boiled to death.
Roose maintained his innocence, saying he merely added laxatives to the gruel as a prank and had no idea where any poison came from. And the cook may have been framed: Rumor had it that Henry VIII arranged for Fisher’s poisoning because the bishop criticized the king’s decision to divorce his first queen. Innocent or guilty, Roose met his gruesome fate in a large cauldron.
2. FRANCOIS VATEL (DIED 1671)
Francois Vatel was a very conscientious cook, performing his kitchen skills with such dedication that he was employed by the households of Nicolas Fouquet—France’s Superintendent of Finances—and then French Prince Louis II de Bourbon Conde. During his tenure with Fouquet, he is said to have created the dish Creme Chantilly for a banquet.
He was ordered to prepare a lavish feast for King Louis XIV in 1617, but suffered greatly under the strain of such a command performance. When a delivery of fish did not arrive on time, Valet was so stressed out that he stabbed himself. Shortly after his body was discovered, the fish arrived.
3. MARIE ANTOINE CAREME (DIED 1833)
Although he became a master of grand cuisine, Careme’s childhood was one of neglect and poverty. Abandoned by his parents at an early age, he began as a kitchen boy and worked hard, becoming one of the first internationally known celebrity chefs. At the height of his career in the early 1800s, he was famous for creating towering confections of sugar, marzipan, and flour. He’s credited with conceiving recipes for nougats, meringues, and croquantes (a type of crisp cake), as well as vol au vents (hollow puff pastry delights), and he wrote several cookbooks. His dishes delighted Napoleon, Talleyrand, George IV, and Tsar of Russia Alexander I, but they came at a high price. He died before the age of 50—diagnosed with intestinal tuberculosis, but doctors also suspected carbon monoxide poisoning from years of working in kitchens with no ventilation.
4. CHARLES PROCTOR (DIED 1912)
The 10-course dinner that Charles Proctor served on April 14, 1912 is remembered as one of the more notable meals of the 20th century. It was the last meal the chef prepared, and the last first-class dinner on the Titanic. Proctor served his meal—featuring oysters, filet mignon, lamb with mint sauce, and roasted squab—to the ocean liner’s first-class passengers just hours before the ship collided with an iceberg. Proctor and his staff were closing up the kitchen during the crash and went down with the ship. Only one baker survived.
5. LIU JUN (DIED 2012)
As in many other cuisines, fresh ingredients are essential in the best Chinese restaurants, and chef Liu Jun always sought the freshest, most flavorful ingredients. In 2012, he wanted to prepare a special New Year’s Eve meal for colleagues at the restaurant in Canberra, Australia, where he worked, so he went mushroom hunting. Unfortunately, the mushrooms he collected were not the edible variety, but rather deadly death cap mushrooms, and Jun and his kitchen hand died after consuming the mushroom stir fry.
6. PENG FAN (DIED 2014)
Peng Fan was another chef who misjudged his ingredients. He was mistakenly convinced that his primary ingredient—a decapitated spitting cobra—was harmless. Fan came from the Chinese province of Guangdong, where snakes are commonly served up in soup and used in medicine. Peng did what any cook accustomed to snakes would do: He chopped off the cobra’s head. Decapitation usually kills most living things, but apparently does not stop a cobra from lethally biting someone. Twenty minutes later, when Fan tried to throw the serpent’s severed head into the waste bin, it bit him. Peng died before he could get any anti-venom.
BONUS: DANIEL OTT (DIED 1865)
The name of Daniel Ott is now lost to obscurity, but Queen Victoria grieved his loss and his death made the headlines. The 38-year-old chef, who had formerly worked for a German prince, was hired temporarily by Queen Victoria in 1865. He never got to dazzle her with his culinary skills, however, because the night he went out to celebrate his royal promotion with Prince Alfred’s groom, they became entangled in a fight between students with opposing political views. When a bystander remarked that the men worked for the British crown, the fight quickly broke up. But it was too late for Ott, whose injuries proved to be fatal only a few days later. When the Queen heard the news, she made her feelings known in a letter to a Prussian official, noting that she grieved at Ott’s passing and sought justice in finding his killers. She did, however, quickly hire another chef.
This story was originally published on Mental Floss.