The French Chef Who Cooked Up A Paris Zoo

“I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton.” —Henry Labouchere, journalist sampling the offerings of the zoo

In A Nutshell

During the Franco-Prussian War, the people of Paris found themselves in a rather bad spot. Totally cut off by an enemy army, the Parisians were forced to eat dogs, cats, and rodents. However, diners at Chef Alexandre Etienne Choron’s restaurant were treated to one of the wildest meals in culinary history: animals from the city zoo.

The Whole Bushel

Food lovers, Francophiles, and fans of Ratatouille all know the French take their food pretty seriously, especially citizens of the City of Light. Even if a war is raging right outside their favorite restaurant, Parisians still demand the best haute cuisine money can buy. Well, at least they did in the 19th century.

Back in 1870, Paris found itself smack-dab in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War. Kaiser Wilhelm’s soldiers had smashed Napoleon III’s forces to little bits, and next they totally surrounded the City of Love. Like an army out of the Middle Ages, the Prussians decided to starve the Parisians into submission, and things got pretty desperate pretty quick. Soon, the French were forced to survive on cats and dogs, and before the siege was over, they’d eaten around 70,000 horses.

As the siege drew on for months, the situation became unbearable, especially for patrons of the Voisin restaurant. Located on Rue Saint-Honore, Voisin was the epitome of Parisian fine dining. The establishment was popular with prominent figures like Emile Zola and the Prince of Wales, and the man in charge of the kitchen was Alexandre Etienne Choron. The chef’s main claim to fame was his self-titled Choron sauce, a kind of hollandaise mixed with tomato puree, but when his restaurant became the epicenter of a German invasion, Choron found his restaurant running low on ingredients.

That’s when the directors at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a zoo in the northern part of Paris, came to a disturbing decision. With the entire city short on supplies, the zoo couldn’t keep feeding all their critters, so the directors offered their animals to anyone with deep wallets and empty bellies. As you might expect, no one wanted to touch the hippo, and people were too afraid to try butchering the big cats. And nobody was interested in eating the monkeys. They were just too human to put on a plate.

However, most of the animals were snatched up immediately, and quite a few creatures ended up in Choron’s kitchen. The French chef planned on serving the ultimate exotic banquet on December 25, and the menu, well, the menu was unique to say the least. Choron’s Christmas meal was six courses of the craziest entrees imaginable.

First, patrons were treated to a stuffed donkey’s head, complete with sardines. The next course consisted of an elephant soup, after which diners were delighted with roasted camel and bear chops in a pepper sauce. Since Choron was a rather ironic sort of guy, his next dish was wolf in deer sauce, followed by a cat carefully encircled by a ring of rats. And for the grand finale, Choron unveiled an antelope with truffle sauce, along with bottles of the finest wine. The affair was a smashing success, and the evening went down in culinary infamy.

After Christmas, Choron still had quite a bit of elephant lying around his kitchen, so he continued serving elephant trunk with brown sauce and elephant meat cooked in red wine until he ran out of pachyderm in January 1871. However, the siege came to an end just a few days later, after the Prussians decided to shell the city. Despite the bombings, the city survived to face two more German invasions, and Choron kept cooking until he passed away in 1924. As for Voisin, the restaurant closed six years later, and all the remaining animals at the Jardin d’Acclimatation let out a great big sigh of relief.

Show Me The Proof

VICE: When They Ate the Zoo, Nobody Wanted to Touch the Hippo
Chronicles of Old Paris, by John Baxter