Rosa Lewis, Queen of Cooks

Despite her reputation as the “Queen of Cooks”, not many people know about Rosa Lewis.

Despite her reputation as the “Queen of Cooks”, not many people know about Rosa Lewis. This remarkable woman, with a flair for cooking and exceptionally sharp wit, went from scrubbing kitchen floors to entertaining aristocracy, and according to certain reports she even had an affair with Edward VII.

Rosa Lewis (née Ovenden) was born in 1867 in Leyton, a suburb that had only recently been developed to house the increasing numbers of workers moving to London. The fifth of nine children, her father was an undertaker, and as was common among poor families in those days, she started working as a domestic servant at the tender age of 12, a preferable alternative to the workhouse. Accommodation and food was provided in exchange for cleaning and performing menial chores throughout the day, however Rosa quickly demonstrated great talent in the kitchen, managing to rise to the position of cook by the time she was 16. As luck would have it, her employers gave her a good recommendation that caught the attention of the Count of Paris. The Count lived in exile in Surrey (due to a French law that forbade former monarchs from living in France) and a member of his staff wrote to Rosa offering her the role of scullery maid at his home. While this was still a lowly, gruelling job it was certainly a step up.

It was also fortunate that the Count employed a chef who was a devotee of Auguste Escoffier, who had worked at the very fashionable Ritz, Savoy and Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris. Escoffier favoured seasonal dishes, lighter sauces and less courses than the British were accustomed to, but the English palate was starting to change as Mrs Beeton’s classic stodgy cooking was falling out of fashion. Rosa’s technique greatly developed during her time here, and it wasn’t long before she was poached once again, this time by the Duke of Orléans, who requested that she work at his home in Sandhurst. He allowed her to cook at other dinner parties too, and her reputation as a talented English cook who could cater to fine continental tastes soon spread among London’s high society. After working for the Duke, Rosa took a job at White’s, a gentlemen’s club on St. James’s Street, becoming the first female to ever work there. Rosa was a feisty character with a thick cockney accent; she wouldn’t allow anyone to patronise her. Working at an all-male club in the late 19th century wasn’t easy however, and when a colleague made an inappropriate remark she called him “an amorous woodcock in tights”, leading to her dismissal.

Lady Randolph Churchill (mother of Sir Winston) hired Rosa for a dinner party she was throwing, which was attended by the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII. He was so impressed with the meal he thanked Rosa in person after dinner, and this accolade meant she was soon catering to nearly every party where the royal was present, as eager hosts wanted to please the future King. The two struck up a close friendship, and rumours of an affair started to circulate. To quieten the gossip mongers she married a butler called Excelsior Lewis, however the marriage of convenience didn’t last.

In 1904 Rosa purchased the lease of the Cavendish Hotel, along with the leases of the neighbouring buildings which she set about converting into one much larger and more modern hotel. Under Rosa’s ownership the Cavendish became one of the most fashionable addresses in London, hosting aristocrats and other members of the ruling class; in fact a private entrance was installed specifically for Edward VII and his guests, further fuelling rumours of their relationship.

Rosa was a fantastic host, known for her wicked humour and bubbly character, it’s little wonder she was nicknamed “the Duchess of Jermyn Street”. With her career and fortune established, she could afford to dress in the best fashions of the day, complemented by the many gifts of jewellery given to her by Edward VII. But when he died in 1910 Rosa became severely depressed. World War I meant austerity and few were in the mood for partying; she withdrew from her social activities and the Cavendish suffered financially. After the war she turned into something of a Robin Hood character, increasing the price of rooms for her rich guests, while refusing to accept a penny from the poorer veterans of war.
At the age of 60 she left London for New York briefly, to cook in the city’s finest hotels and give interviews where she didn’t hold back – unless it concerned the nature of her relationship with King Edward. She did however give detailed accounts of the favourite foods of her famous guests, which enthralled American audiences to no end.

After her return to London the Cavendish became fashionable again, with a new generation of young aristocrats propping up the bar, among them the future Duke of Windsor. She was nearly killed when a bomb destroyed the front of the building during World War II, but true to form Rosa was more worried about the vintage champagne bottles that had been lost, and business continued as usual until her death in 1952. Her close friend Edith Jeffrey ran the hotel for the next 10 years until she passed away. It was subsequently sold and rebuilt, and though it still stands today it’s no longer the glamorous haunt it was at the start of the 20th century.

Rosa Lewis may not be a household name, but her life was commemorated in a 1970s BBC television series called The Duchess of Duke Street. A blue plaque next to the Jermyn Street entrance of the Cavendish honours the memory of this rags to riches heroine.

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