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Who really was Prince Ranji Smile? This mysterious chef dazzled America at the turn of the century with his delicious curry and bombastic personality. He was in newspapers all across America for his cooking AND gossip-fueled personal life. So why don't we know his name anymore?

Food History is a show all about... well, the history of food. Join host Justin Dodd as he brings you the stories of how your favorite meals ended up on your plate. Today, we're talking Ranji Smile, an immigrant chef who changed the world of cooking. Let's dig in.

Check out Sarah Lohman's Book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine below:

Mayukh Sen's piece about Ranjie Smile:


When I say “Celebrity Chef,” who do you think of?

Anthony Bourdain? Rachael Ray?

Maybe Julia Child. If so, you might be surprised to learn that America’s first celebrity chef was, by many accounts, “Prince” Ranji Smile, a Muslim immigrant from the city Karachi, in modern day Pakistan. Smile came to New York City in 1899 and made a name for himself as a talented chef, media darling, and womanizer.

Smile loved his adopted country, and in some ways, it loved him. But he was still denied citizenship because of his race. He eventually left the States and disappeared from the historical record.

Was Smile really the first celebrity chef? And what can his story tell us about American attitudes towards so-called “ethnic” food? Let’s dig in.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History. Today’s episode was written by Food Historian Sarah Lohman, inspired by a chapter in her book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.

Check it out if you eat up interesting gastronomical history. Ranji Smile wasn't the first famous chef. Marie-Antoine Carême was a French chef in the early 19th century, who became internationally famous as a caterer to royalty.

Charles Ranhofer was the head chef at Delmonico’s in New York City in the second half of the 19th century, rising to fame by putting dishes like Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska on the map. But for much of world history, chefs were confined to the kitchen. Smile elevated his profession.

He saw himself not just as a chef but as an educator, spreading the gospel of real Indian cuisine through the U. S. And he paired his culinary talents with a tabloid-ready bombastic personality that kept him in the papers and the public eye.

Ranji Smile was born May 11, 1879. It’s unlikely Smile was his birth name, and he purposely obscured the details of his early life. At different times he claimed to be the son of a wealthy merchant and the fifth son of the Emir of Balochistan.

Karachi was a cosmopolitan port city controlled by the British, and it may have been there that Smile began his career as a chef. It’s not impossible that cooking for the British soldiers and civil servants may have inspired him to immigrate to England. Before Smile was 20 years old, he had made his way to London and was cooking in its finest hotels: first the Savoy, then its grandiose neighbor, the Hotel Cecil.

The Cecil, an enormous, luxury hotel opened in 1896, was the largest in Europe at the time with over 800 rooms. A centrally-located tourist destination, it touted itself as the choice of foreign dignitaries and also as ideal for traveling Americans, saying in advertising that, “American requirements are understood and catered for.” There was a “First class American bar,” as well as “American chairs.” Whatever that means. It seems that Smile got his nickname in the kitchens of these London hotels.

In 1899, retired Lieutenant Colonel turned food writer Nathaniel Newnham-Davis noted that when he poked his head into the “grill room,” “Smiler, the curry cook, appeared instantly. Because I talk a little bad Hindustani, Smiler has taken me under his protection and thinks that I should not go to the Savoy for any other purpose than to eat his curries.” Let’s take a little tangent to discuss the cuisine that Smile was cooking. Curry is an Anglicized word, maybe invented by the British during their occupation of India or adapted from the Portuguese who came before them.

But the most plausible explanation for the word’s English etymology is offered by cookbook author Julie Sahni in her book Classic Indian Cooking. She explains that the term likely came from “kari,” a fragrant leaf used in a spice blend in South Indian cooking. The spice blend made from kari and other spices was called “kari podi.” The word kari got changed to curry, and the rest is history.

Today, kari leaves are often called curry leaves. Sahni goes on to say that “Among the English-speaking Indian middle class, the word ‘curry’ became so popular that in due course a simple everyday dish called salan (spicy, thin gravy) was renamed kari. As a result, chicken in spicy gravy, which for centuries was known as Murghi ka Salan came to be called Chicken Kari (or Curry)...

When British men who had served or traded in India returned to England with their families, they often imported their taste for Indian cuisine. In some cases, they brought their Indian servants and cooks back with them to the UK; in others, they may have hired an Indian cook in Britain. By the end of the 18th century, curries could also be had at local coffee houses.

The Cecil appealed to retired army men and civil workers who had spent their careers in India by serving curry. The trend traveled across another ocean, coming to America in the cookbooks clutched to the bosoms of many a homesick English immigrant wife. The manuscript of New Hampshirite Catherine Moffat Whipple, which dates to around 1776, contains a recipe for an apple curry soup.

Apples were often used in western curries to replace unavailable exotic fruits like mangoes. The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph in 1824, gives us the first printed American curry recipes. Randolph says “Curry powder is used as a fine flavoured seasoning for fish, fowl, steaks, chops, veal cutlets, hashes, minces, alamodes, turtle soup, and in all rich dishes, gravies, sauce &c &c.” She gives recipes for a catfish curry, as well as veal fillets, baked leg of mutton, ragout of veal breast, calf’s feet fricassee—all kicked up a notch with curry powder.

Randolph’s recipe for homemade “Curry Powder” includes turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, mace and cayenne pepper. Because Americans had developed a taste for curry and the perceived exoticism of the Indian subcontinent, restaurateur Louis Sherry poached Smile from the kitchen of The Cecil to come work in New York City in 1899. Lieut.-Col.

Newnham-Davis noted in an update to his book, “Smiler has now, I am told, gone to America to make his fortune.” Sherry’s Restaurant was so fancy it was considered the rival to Delmonico’s. Both were on trend with the Four Hundred, the Gilded Age name for the most important and wealthy men and women in New York society. Sherry’s became well known for extravagant themed dinners, like a multi-course meal served on horseback in the private dining room.

Incredible. Sherry had an interest in and knack for bringing the “exotic” to New York City. He wanted to introduce authentic Indian food to an American audience.

When Smile arrived in New York City, he was described as short, but very handsome. Sounds like someone I know *wink*. He wore a closely shaved beard, had a dazzling, white smile, and was always immaculately dressed.

Always cool and confident, he spoke English with a soft, lilting accent. “A Chef From India, Women Go Wild Over Him” screamed the headline of the New York Letter in 1899. The article is a brilliant (if dated) piece of food writing describing the experience of enjoying one of Smile’s curries at Sherry’s. It made the rounds in American newspapers all across the country, AP style, and was republished as far away as Iowa.

You “ … look over the [Indian] menu with a sort of dread and trembling of what’s to come …” the journalist wrote. “Soon ‘Joe’ [the name Smile used when he first arrived] arrives immaculately arrayed in a heavy white linen India costume … with a broad smile which shows all his gleaming teeth, and with the little seductive manner that pleases the public so much, he lays before you a silver dish. As he removes the cover, you feel that life is not all a weary dream and you become less skeptical on [Indian] dishes in general.” Wow. I’m feeling a little hot, is it hot in here?

When dining at Sherry’s, you could order from the Indian menu á la carte, or order a multi-course dinner Smile had a knack for marrying his food to a compelling narrative. As he once said, “… the American public must be entertained as well as fed.” And while some of the purported details of his own life, replete with royal parentage and high-stakes ransoms, might seem unlikely, contemporary media were, at least at first, happy to report his outlandish claims as fact. But it’d be a mistake to think Smile was all style, no substance.

He made all his own curry powders and pastes from scratch. He told reporters he would someday like to publish a cookbook and tour the country teaching Americans how to make a proper curry. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that this cookbook came to be.

Based on existing documents, in fact, it seems likely that Smile was illiterate, only able to sign his own name. And although he could have worked with a partner to produce his book, the project did not come to fruition. If it had, it's far less likely his name would have been forgotten for so many years.

Smile stayed at Sherry’s for two years, then briefly opened his own restaurant called The Omar Khayyam, possibly New York City’s first Indian restaurant, on Fifth Avenue between 33rd and 34th streets in Manhattan, only a couple blocks from where I’m sitting right now. Smile also chose to petition for American citizenship in 1903. It was not a requirement in the early 20th century—there were very few immigration laws and no papers required to work.

Citizenship was a choice for those who wanted to fully embrace their adopted country. But it was a choice that was only available to some. When Smile petitioned for citizenship, America’s immigration policy was still guided by laws put into place in 1790, where only a “free white person” was eligible for citizenship.

In 1870, the law was amended to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” But if you were “Hindu,” as immigrants from India were referred to regardless of their actual religion, a state judge would decide if he thought you were white or black and eligible for citizenship. Smile’s citizenship petition was rejected, likely because of the color of his skin. In 1904, Smile left New York and went on tour.

He spent his summers cooking in touristy Atlantic City. The Washington Post reported Smile was soon to be joined by his young bride, “Princess Ranji Smile,” formerly Miss Rose Schlueter of Philadelphia. The two were never actually married.

In 1910, he applied for a marriage license to a different woman, Anna Marie Davidson, but seemed to have never gone through with it. In 1912, he was engaged to aspiring Broadway ingenue Violet Ethel Rochlitz. Rochlitz was called “undeniably pretty” in the press, and a ravishing image of her appeared while she toured with Smile in Boston.

She clearly had a flair for the dramatic, peering out from under an enormous hat with sleepy, sultry eyes. She credited her husband’s cooking for making her more beautiful and seems to have converted to Islam. Clearly, Smile was having a grand old time, enjoying national celebrity status while touring with beautiful women.

His stints at summer resorts and promotional events let him make an income while avoiding the grueling pace of a hotel kitchen. But New York was one of the few states that did not have anti-miscegenation laws, criminalizing interracial marriage. And based on Federal laws at the time, Rochlitz could have lost her own status as a citizen because she married a non-citizen.

In 1916, Violet died of heart failure. For Smile, it was the start of more difficult times to come. While Smile lived the life of a celebrity on the East Coast, more and more Indians from Punjab were attempting to enter the U.

S. via Angel Island on the West Coast. Their arrival sparked a national debate about immigration from India. Between 1899 and 1914, nearly 7,000 Indians immigrated to California.

They came to the West Coast to work in lumber yards and railroads; many of them were agricultural workers, migrating as the crops ripened. These laborers aspired to own their own lands and farms. They were often married but had come without their families.

H. A. Millis, who was a superintendent of immigration commission investigations, said “… the Hindus are regarded as the least desirable, or, better, the most undesirable, of all the eastern Asiatic races which have come to share our soil...” California politicians wanted to keep Punjabi men out, but there was no national law that said you could stop them from entering.

Immigration officials began to exploit the laws that were available, calling for the deportation of immigrants afflicted with contagious diseases and those who might become a “public charge.” A public charge was a person thought likely not to be able to find work and would need financial aid from the government. From 1911 to 1915, 54.6 % of Indian immigrants were barred from entering the United States and subsequently deported. This was the highest rate of any immigrant group.

In 1917, what’s sometimes called the Asiatic Barred Zone Act officially barred immigration from virtually all of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Although the U. S. denied Indian men like Smile a chance to become citizens, or even the chance to immigrate at all, Americans were still obsessed with the romance of the “exotic Orient,” however hazily-defined.

At the dawn of World War I, one of the big music hits was “Down in Bom-Bombay.” “Where the girls are nice,” the record sang, “They eat curried rice, Full of red hot spice in India far away, Down in Bom Bombay.” Smile wasn’t a citizen, but as a resident he still had to fill out a draft card. Smile’s listed him as living in New York City with a woman named May Smile. They weren’t married at the time but would be by 1918.

In 1920, Smile lived at a new address in Harlem and with a new woman: Rebecca Smile. The census says Rebecca came from Pennsylvania and she is listed as “black.” Smile was also listed as “black.” As a racial minority in the U. S., Smile often juggled multiple identities—his draft card had labeled him, in the language of the day, as “Oriental.” In 1922, Smile was featured in The New York Hotel Review, a prominent trade magazine, in an article entitled “The Chef—The King of the Kitchen.” His full-length photo is central in the page: handsome at 40 some years old, in crisp kitchen whites and a turban. “Prince Ranji Smile, Chef at Breslin Hotel,” the caption notes.

To either side of him are images of prominent French chefs working in New York. “America has given no attention to the development of a school of cookery of its own,” declares the author, Mary Pickett, “But has imported its cooks from all parts of the world and when the American culinary school is finally developed it will have embodied in it the good points of the culinary art of all the world.” Pickett understood, if only in a limited way, that immigration would become the secret ingredient of American cuisine. When cooks emigrated to this country and brought their recipes and traditions with them, those dishes would often evolve and adapt into something new: the diverse, complex, extraordinary cuisine of the United States. After Prohibition was ratified in 1919, though, the restaurant industry faced a difficult time.

Even today, restaurant profits are generally heavily reliant on the sale of alcohol. The loss of income massacred the fine dining industry in New York in the 1920s; in fact, Smile’s old employer, Sherry’s, closed in 1919—shortly after prohibition was ratified. It was a tough time for chefs like Smile to find a job and make a living.

This hardship may have affected his decision, as he reached his 50th birthday, to leave America. In 1929, Smile boarded a steamship bound for England. He was alone—no wife or children by his side, despite his many well-publicized relationships.

When he arrived in Southampton, he gave his destination address as the Hotel Cecil, his old employer. He may have been returning to a job there—many chefs and bartenders worked abroad during prohibition. But he could have just been passing through on his way back to Karachi.

Either way, that’s the last we know of Smile; there are no further records to indicate how he may have lived the rest of his life and how he may have died. Perhaps he left the States because he was angry—deflated by the laws that marginalized him and other immigrants from India. Perhaps he just wanted to retire in the country where he was born.

After Smile left, his legacy was largely forgotten. In recent years, his story is finally being brought to light by South-Asian-American scholars like Vivek Bald and Mayukh Sen, whose work we’ve linked to down below. He was also covered in Sarah’s book, as I mentioned up top—we put a link to Eight Flavors down in the description, too.

Smile’s story is just one of many as she traces some of the ingredients that came to define American cuisine. If you have an idea for a dish, person, or cuisine that we should cover in a future episode, drop it in the comments down below. Thanks for watching.

We’ll see you next time.