Ranhofer, Charles

Titles by this author
The epicurean : a complete treatise of analytical and practical studies on the culinary art, including table and wine service, how to prepare and c...

Charles Ranhofer, the chef at Delmonico's restaurant in New York City for nearly thirty-four years, was born in St. Denis, France. His father was the proprietor of a restaurant, and his grandfather was a noted cook as well. At age twelve, Ranhofer was sent to Paris to learn the art of pastry-making, and after completing his apprenticeship he became head baker at a Parisian restaurant at age fifteen. A year later, he began cooking for the house of Prince Henin of Alsace, where he learned how to prepare feasts and banquets on a grand scale, and was eventually made chef de cuisine. He came to America in 1856, at age twenty, and was engaged as a chef by the Russian Consul. He cooked in Washington D.C. and New Orleans, where he learned Creole cuisine. He briefly returned to France, in 1860, where he spent a winter at the Tuileries Palace, arranging balls at the Court of Napoleon III. He returned to New York City in 1861 to manage the kitchen of Delmonico's rival, the Maison Doree, but in 1862 was hired by Delmonico's, located at the time on Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, and considered the finest restaurant in America. Lorenzo Delmonico, then the proprietor of the restaurant, recalled this first meeting years later:

He was perfect in dress and manner, and his attitude was such as to make me feel that he was doing me a great favor by coming into my employment. He gave me plainly to understand that he would be 'chief' indeed. "You are the proprietor," he said. "Furnish the room and the provision, tell me the number of guests and what they want, and I will do the rest." That was the way it was. And it has been a good thing for Charles, and for me, too.

(As recounted in Lately Thomas' book, Delmonico's, A Century of Splendor.)

Except for a three year period between 1876 and 1879, when Ranhofer returned to France and owned the Hotel American near Paris, Ranhofer remained with Delmonico's the rest of his life. A gifted manager as well as a chef, Ranhofer excelled at catering sumptuous dinners for large groups, often with just a few hours notice, all the while attending to the press of regular patrons. Delmonico's hosted some of the highest occasions that occurred in nineteenth century New York, and Ranhofer personally planned them all, including banquets for President Andrew Johnson, President U.S. Grant, Charles Dickens, and many foreign dignitaries. (President Lincoln would visit town quietly during the war for unpublicized meetings and stayed at rooms above the restaurant gratis at Lorenzo Delmonico's insistence.) Delmonico's catered to the opulance and excess of the Gilded Age, represented by a new class of American wealth associated with the "robber" barons, who all came to Delmonico's to publicly display their immense spending power. Yet Ranhofer made Delmonico's famous not only for its pomp and elegance, but also for its recipes. Ranhofer invented Baked Alaska in 1867, in honor of Secretary of State Seward's purchase of Alaska. He was the first to serve Lobster a la Newberg - a recipe brought to the restaurant by a friend of Charles Delmonico, a sea captain named Wenberg who made it for Delmonico in 1876. Though initially offered on the menu as Lobster a la Wenberg, the two men had a falling out, and from then on, chef Ranhofer recreated the popular dish under the name Lobster a la Newberg.

In 1894, as the culmination of a remarkable career, Ranhofer published The Epicurean, "one of the most complete treatises of the kind ever published," wrote the New York Times at the time of Ranhofer's death. A wonderful trove of culinary instruction, the work also stands as a historical treasure, recording the kaleidoscope of choice dishes, elaborate presentations, and celebrated occasions over which Ranhofer and Delmonico's presided. In the Preface, Ranhofer thanks his friend and colleague, Urbain Dubois, author and ex-chief at the Court of Germany, for assistance with the cookbook. He also includes a hand-written endorsement by Charles Delmonico, dated February 24, 1893, in which Delmonico writes, "A perusal will I think give one an appetite." The publication of the book resulted in a flood of attention by newspapers to the workings of New York restaurants and the techniques of the chefs who ran them. Ranhofer, when interviewed on the subject, listed the most important points of running a kitchen of forty-five chefs. Not only must the dinner be well cooked, "it must be equally well displayed." He prepared all the soups himself, considering them the mark of a restaurant's reputation. The waiters as well as the chefs needed to know how to time the courses. And he pointed out that it was not necessarily the most expensive dishes that were the best.

Ranhofer was a member of several charitable and professional groups, including Cercle Francais de l'Harmonie, Societe Culinaire Philanthropique, French Benevolent Society, the French Orphan Asylum, the Chefs' Gastronomic Club of Chicago, and the Epicurean Club of Boston. He married and had three sons and two daughters. He died in 1899 of Bright's Disease (a kidney ailment), and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York.

The famous Delmonico's lasted until May 21, 1923, when it closed its doors for good. Prohibition was often cited as one reason for its demise, since wine could no longer be served with dinner, and was not used for cooking either. The restaurant was famously raided twice by federal dry agents in the early 1920's, and was cited for selling hard liquor. Other reasons for its closure were the rising costs of doing business, the hurried style of the younger generations, and a lessening in the public eye of the value of high culinary standards. Fortunately, the manual for these standards remains, preserved in the pages of The Epicurean, thanks to the careful work of Charles Ranhofer.


  • "Charles Ranhofer Dead," New York Times, October 11, 1899.
  • "Greatest of Cook Books," New York Times, May 18, 1894.
  • Ranhofer, Charles, The Epicurean. New York: Charles Ranhofer, Publisher, 1894.
  • Thomas, Lately, Delmonico's, A Century of Splendor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967.

Written by Anne-Marie Rachman