From the Archives
Chef Sculpted Career at Royal York
BY ANDREW VOWLES
|This bear sculpted from suet is among the items in a new culinary collection in the U of G Library's archives. Photo by Rebecca Kendall|
Cookbook — check. Culinary awards — check. Letters and photos — check. But a two-foot-high bear sculpted from sheep fat? Contrasted with the other ingredients in his recent donation to the U of G Library archives, that piece created by award-winning Canadian chef Nick Schweizer must rank as one of a kind.
Or almost. The items from the longtime chef at Toronto's Royal York Hotel — all now part of the archives' extensive culinary collection — actually include three sculptures made of suet.
The bear, standing erect with one fish in its forepaws and another clamped beneath a hind paw, is the most eye-catching example. But there's also a smaller suet shepherd and a suet self-portrait bust of this renowned chef and “kitchen artist,” to borrow the label on a plaque attached to the bear.
U of G's culinary collection, which contains about 5,000 volumes, is the most complete grouping of Canadian cookbooks in the world.
“The cookbook collection is all cookbooks,” says Lorne Bruce, head of archival and special collections. “We've been trying to think about ways to expand it.”
Besides tracing the career of this Austrian-trained chef, the new collection maps Canada's growing culinary arts presence beginning in the 1960s, says Bruce. It contains awards, albums of letters, photos and news clippings, and even a cookbook — Henri-Paul Pellaprat's 1966 classic, Modern French Culinary Art.
Schweizer spent 34 years at the Royal York, apart from a year at the Harbour Castle Westin Hotel in the late 1970s. He retired in 1989 as longtime chef garde-manger. As “keeper of the food,” he prepared and presented cold plates, including salads, soups, hors d'oeuvres and desserts.
His position demanded flair not only in presenting foods but also in designing decorative elements for the table. Schweizer sculpted his pièces de resistance not from ice but from suet — a legacy of his European training, where he learned to carve with animal fats. (Suet can be moulded at room temperature and can be kept without going rancid.)
Besides the three pieces now at Guelph, he created busts of Sir Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Albert Schweitzer. He also fashioned numerous animals, including a variety of wildlife for a Canada booth at a 1979 travel trade fair in Munich hosted by the Canadian tourism office.
In 1966, Schweizer helped serve a Canada Night dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., for more than 500 guests.
In 1973, he prepared meals for Queen Elizabeth II during a royal visit. He saved one lunch at Toronto's Eaton Estate with a last-minute substitution for the chicken dish on the menu. Quoted in a newspaper story, he said: “It was about 10 a.m., so I told a Mountie who was guarding the house, and he had a helicopter fly in the rice in time for lunch.” The Queen gave the chef a gold-engraved wallet.
Numerous photos and clippings in the collection detail Schweizer's involvement in the international Culinary Olympics. In 1984, the Toronto team swept gold medals in all categories. “Cookin' Canucks Best in World,” read one newspaper headline.
He became a member of Toronto's Escoffier Society, named for French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, who worked at London's Savoy Hotel in the 1890s. Once Schweizer even appeared as a mystery guest on the TV game show To Tell the Truth.
When he retired, his colleagues held a reception at — where else? — the Royal York. Not bad for a chef whose early résumé included the ordinary title of “cook” at two Austrian camps for displaced persons.
Schweizer worked at the camps from 1945 until 1954, when he came to Canada with his wife, Linda, and their daughter, Nellie. He spent a year at the Old Mill Restaurant in Toronto before joining the Royal York.