From S.F.’s Top Chef a Century Ago: a Strawberry Omelette

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.

Strawberry Omelette

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.

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
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2 Responses to From S.F.’s Top Chef a Century Ago: a Strawberry Omelette

  1. mmm this is interesting! I like to think I am fairly adventurous when it comes to my food choices, however I just cannot jump on the random strawberry combo train I am seeing a lot recently!
    Interesting you think the savoury element could be kicked up a bit. Well, I won’t knock it till I have tried it!
    http://thepescetarianpantry.blogspot.co.uk

  2. Mark says:

    Okay, Georgia, you’re skeptical. I can’t say I blame you. Just to be clear, when I said my friend Sherry and I agreed that the strawberry omelette was “good,” I meant that it exceeded our low expectations. It was perfectly edible, and certainly interesting. But I can’t say I would make it again, except perhaps as a conversation piece. That said, I stand by my statement that strawberries are excellent in some savory recipes. The strawberry mustard that I mentioned in the post, for instance, is something I’ve made dozens of times over the years. Everyone I know who likes mustard and has tried it has pronounced it oustanding.

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