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Tetrazzini: The diva who inspired top chefs

As a legend of the opera, Luisa Tetrazzini stayed at the finest hotels and enjoyed the culinary creations of the top chefs of the day.

To opera aficionados, Luisa Tetrazzini is a legend. At the peak of her illustrious career in the early twentieth century she stayed at the finest hotels and enjoyed the culinary creations of the top chefs of the day.

Tetrazzini gains worldwide acclaim

Born into a musical family in Florence Italy in 1871, she developed her singing skills at an early age and made her operatic debut at age 19.  She went on to perform with the likes of Enrico Caruso at opera houses across the world. Her extraordinary coloratura soprano vocals captivated audiences and critics alike. Her performance as Violetta in La Traviata was stellar and earned her twenty curtain calls at the Covent Garden in London.             

“I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that Mme Tetrazzini has the voice of the century and stands out from even the great Italian singers we know…”

E. A. Baugham, the Daily News

When this international operatic superstar finally came to the United States she found no shortage of offers. She made her American debut in San Francisco at Tivoli as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1905. Engagements ensued in Chicago, Boston and New York. When she found herself in legal difficulties and blocked from performing under terms of a contract in New York, she declared,

“I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free.” 

Luisa Tetrazzin
Luisa Tetrazzini
Luisa Tetrazzini 1911. Photo: Public Domain

And, so it was, on Christmas Eve 1910, Tetrazzini serenaded an estimated three-hundred thousand San Franciscans on Market Street under clear skies. The performance was legendary, and her fame inspired one of the city’s top chefs to create a dish in her honour.

A dish fit for a prima donna

Chef Ernest Arbogast is often considered to be the first to introduce a dish in the opera star’s honour. The celebrated chef impressed distinguished patrons in the Garden Court at San Francisco’s prestigious Palace Hotel where the famed prima donna was a long-term resident. His Tetrazzini dish consisted of sliced poultry combined with pasta, mushrooms, cheese and a cream sauce.

The Garden Court in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, California. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

However, this dish’s origins are up for debate. Some sources claim that Turkey Tetrazzini first appeared at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City.

Knickerbocker Hotel, Times Square, NYC (1909). Photo: Public Domain

Newspaper articles in the 1920s mention the famous soprano giving her Spaghetti Tetrazzini recipe to chef Louis Paquet of New York City’s McAlpin Hotel, where Turkey and Chicken Tetrazzini were on the menu.

Chef Auguste Escoffier, the great French master chef, was renowned for creating and naming dishes for his illustrious patrons.

He stole a little bit of the cachet and the glamor of his celebrity guests by naming a dish after them.

Luke Barr

Regardless of which venue first put this dish on their menu, it appears that Mme Tetrazzini knew good food and inspired the best chefs of her day.

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