Visitors to San Francisco in the early 1900s might have asked locals to name the mayor or governor, or how to get to Chinatown. “But they never ask who is the chef at Hotel St. Francis. They know,” to hear the introduction to the hotel’s cookbook tell it. Victor Hirtzler was a household name, one of the most famous men in town, and one of the best chef’s on earth. There are “many eminent exponents of culinary art” in San Francisco, “but Chef Victor is the ruler of them all,” the book proclaimed.
Born in Strasbourg, France, around 1875, Hirtzler earned his stripes as a chef at some of Europe’s preeminent restaurants, and cooked for kings and czars before coming to the United States. After a stint at two of the best restaurants in New York, he moved to San Francisco in 1904 to become master chef at the lavish, new Hotel St. Francis on Union Square. Undeterred by the earthquake and firestorm that devastated the city and gutted the hotel just two years later, Hirtzler remained in San Francisco for 22 years.
A dashing figure with his trademark red fez, jaunty goatee and waxed moustache, Hirtzler drew a steady stream of the rich and famous to the Hotel St. Francis dining room, and turned heads wherever he went. His best recipes were published in 1910 in L’Arte Culinaire: Hotel St. Francis Book of Recipes and Model Menus, 26 of which I have included in Vintage California Cuisine. I previously wrote about his prune soufflé, which the book said “everyone likes.” The cookbook offers no comment on the unusual dish I decided to test today: strawberry omelette.
I was especially interested in it because I recently wrote about unconventional uses of strawberries for my Seasonal Chef web site. For years, I have regularly made delicious strawberry mustard, and I was curious about other savory uses of the fruit. According to the California Strawberry Commission, many trendy chefs these days “are using strawberries in innovative ways that extend beyond dessert” – as a pizza ingredient, for instance, or in salsas, chutneys and gazpachos. Hirtzler, it seems, was a century ahead of the curve with this recipe.
Hull a basket of berries and put them in a double boiler with a half cup of granulated sugar. Do not add any water, as the juice of the berries and the steam will form plenty of liquid. Do not stir, as the berries should be entire. To make the omelette, beat the eggs light as usual, adding a little salt but no pepper. When about done, heap the berries on the eggs, and roll up and pile nicely on the platter. Pour the juice about the omelette.
Source: L’Arte Culinaire: Hotel St. Francis
Book of Recipes and Model Menus (1910)
I had never tried cooking strawberries in a double boiler. After about an hour of cooking, the result was, as promised in the recipe. The berries were softened to the consistency of jam yet were fully intact. And though I used no water at all, they had exuded an abundance of beautiful, pure strawberry syrup.
I split the omelette between myself and my intrepid taste tester and housemate, Sherry. We were prepared for the possibility that this would be a waste of good strawberries and eggs. But what do you know! “It’s better than I was expecting,” said Sherry after a few bites. After a few more bites, she said, with a hint of amazement, “It’s good!” We both happily finished our servings. It would be better, in my opinion, if the savory component was kicked up a notch with, for instance, some onions, and if just a pinch of sugar were used. But Hirtzler had the basic idea right: strawberries are more versatile than you might think, if you’ve only had them in pies, jams and the like.