Do You Know About the Duchess of Duke Street?

The Duchess of Duke Street is yet another gem from Masterpiece Theatre, in which Louisa Trotter works her way up from being a skivvy to being the Queen of cooks, cook to the King, and owner of the Bentinck Hotel. Based on the true story of Rosa Lewis, one of England's first recognized female chefs, who worked her way up through the culinary ranks in order to own the Cavendish Hotel and to rub shoulders with celebrities and royalty along the way. Her no nonsense take on life and what it throws at you is at the core of this lavishly produced series that is chock full of humor and heart. Created by John Hawkesworth (Upstairs, Downstairs) and starring Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Sense and Sensibility) as Louisa and Christopher Cazenove, above (A Knight’s Tale, TV’s Dynasty) as Charlie, the dashing love of her life. Spread out over two series, there are thirty-one episodes for viewers to relish.

                                                       The series more than loosely follows Rosa's life story. Hired to work in the kitchens of the Comte de Paris, Rosa learned to cook at the elbow of the Comte's French chef, copying his techniques and watching his every move as she rose through the ranks to become head kitchen maid. In 1887 Rosa was poached by the Duc d’Orleans as his cook. He hired her out on nights when her skills weren't needed at his home, allowing Rosa the opportunity to see grander and grander kitchens and to learn from better and more experienced chefs along the way.  In time, Rosa became the first female cook to be employed at White’s Club, where a member made a pass at her. Rosa dubbed him “an amorous old woodcock in tights” and was dismissed shortly thereafter. But never fear, things only looked up for Rosa from then on.

There are several versions describing how the real life Rosa met Edward VII. According to Time Magazine, it was Lady Churchill who introduced them. However, the Cavendish Hotel biography states they first met while she was employed by Philippe, Comte de Paris and that Edward VII complimented her for the excellence of the dinner. Whatever the circumstances, Rosa and Edward formed a friendship that would last for years. Rumours of an affair between the two began to circulate and, in 1893 Rosa married a butler by the name of Excelsior Lewis (nicknamed Chiney, probably on account of his outlandish christian name). It was an arranged marriage, clearly intended to end the rumours and along with it came a stylish house in Easton Terrace. Rosa would later explain: “Me family said that if I didn’t marry Mr Lewis they’d shoot me. I told the parson to be quick and get it over and done with. We were married, I threw the ring at him outside the church door and left him flat.” Though the couple remained married, they only continuted to live together for a year. The Prince of Wales was understandably grateful that Rosa had made such a sacrifice on his behalf and it is widely believed that it was Edward, as King, who purchased the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street for Rosa in 1902.

Whilst their romance might have cooled by that late date, Rosa and the King remained friends and Rosa had a private entrance installed for Edward and his royal guests so that nobody would notice their late-night parties in the grand drawing rooms of her hotel. Another admirer of her culinary skills was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who presented her with his portrait, which Rosa deigned to hang in the downstairs public loo. 

Rosa is played to perfection in The Duchess of Duke Street by actress Gemma Jones, who was first recognised outside the UK in 1974, after playing the Empress Frederick in the BBC television drama series Fall of Eagles. Gemma went on to play Mrs. Dashwood alongside Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in the Academy Award-winning period drama Sense and Sensibility (1995).

To read more about the real Rosa Lewis . . . .

You can watch a bit of The Duchess of Duke Street here

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