A Swiss hotelier, straight from London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel, crossed the English Channel in the 1890s and immediately made history by establishing the perfect little palace hotel. His name was César Ritz. With the assistance of his star chef, Auguste Escoffier, the two men created a hotel that would quickly become de rigueur for visiting royals and the very fashionable — and be known to the world as the Hôtel Ritz.
Although the Ritz has changed over the years, thanks to credit cards, the Internet, DVDs, faxes, and computers, in one important way it has not changed: The hotel still maintains the same deep respect for fine food that both men believed was essential to any great hotel’s success. To preserve this legacy and share it with a new generation, the École de Gastronomie Française Ritz-Escoffier was founded nearly 20 years ago. The same careful attention to preparing food, which has always been evident at the Ritz, is taught to students eager to improve their skills or learn to cook comme à la Ritz. To appeal to a new generation of students, short classes with a light French touch are offered.
Who but the Ritz Paris would have ever dared to use a cooking class as a meeting place for singles? Yet despite this seemingly frivolous excuse for teaching cooking, each class is approached with a single-minded respect for healthy and tasty meals. This very Gallic love for food, which has always been the hallmark of the Ritz, is forever present, regardless of who may be minding the pots and pans. Wearing their chef’s uniforms, 12 singles (6 men and 6 women) seriously dedicated to preparing good food meet and mingle in the heart of the kitchen on Fridays once a month from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Under the guidance of the Ritz Escoffier Cooking School chef-teachers, the class learns about food techniques (and each other) during their three-hour “Ritzy Rendez-vous.” To make it a complete experience, the evening is divided into two parts: the first for preparing the dinner, and the second for laying the table and sampling the food. The price for the dinner-and-wine cooking lesson is about $110 per person. Marcel Proust elevated teatime to new heights in his French masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, by writing: “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, and mortal.” His frequent visits to the Ritz for tea undoubtedly inspired these words. Many prominent Parisians with impeccable backgrounds, eager to escape from their sitting rooms, obviously shared his opinion and broke tradition at the turn of the century and entered a public cafe. Today, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Bar Vendôme, fashionable ladies and gentlemen still gather to enjoy exquisite teas (from Mariage Frères) elegantly presented in fine translucent tea cups, and served with finger sandwiches, dainty scones, chocolate éclairs, cream puffs, and other delicacies, on a three-tier silver stand. To soothe away stress, a harpist serenades with classical fare. Memorable scenes linger — like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sipping tea and Audrey Hepburn nibbling a madeleine on the terrace while Paris’ most charming little birds discreetly remove the crumbs. For $40, you can relive these memories in the same elegant setting. When Ernest Hemingway dreamed of an afterlife in heaven, he pictured it taking place at the Ritz Paris. His legendary respect for the hotel apparently was what motivated him and a group of allied soldiers on August 25, 1944, to symbolically “liberate” the Ritz from its four years of German occupation. After sweeping through the entire hotel armed with machine guns, the soldiers celebrated the hotel’s liberation with a round of dry martinis at the bar.
In memory of the writer, the cozy Hemingway bar remains unchanged since the liberation. It still serves the same dry martinis alongside other popular drinks; an assortment of tapas is also available in honor of the writer’s love for Spain. On Wednesdays, bar regulars and cigar lovers meet for cigar night and a round of special cocktails concocted by the barman to complement each cigar. There’s also a special selection of Havana Club and Cuban rum — once so popular with Hemingway — to be enjoyed. Photographs of famous writers who frequented the bar adorn the walls, and a bronze bust of Hemingway overlooking the bar completes the literary context. Experience it for yourself, 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., Tuesday to Saturday. To visit Paris without visiting the Ritz, even for a walkthrough, is to deny yourself a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is the hotel where kings, presidents, emirs, sultans, and lesser mortals lived (in the Imperial Suite, considered by some as the Versailles of Paris) and where Coco Chanel entertained leaders in the arts (in the Coco Chanel Suite, faithfully restored to re-create the couturière’s 1930s environs). To spend the night in either suite may cost a small fortune, but if money isn’t an issue, the service and the style will be undeniably and classically French.
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