The Grand Curnonsky, the Prince of Gastronomy: A Man of Letters Who Loved Good Food

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The Grand Curnonsky, the Prince of Gastronomy: A Man of Letters Who Loved Good Food

Waverly Root, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child and Elizabeth David, among many other passionate epicures, owe their enduring legacy as culinary writers and adventurers to Maurice Edmond Sailland. Better known by his sobriquet, Curnonsky, he was the first gastronome to link regional cooking and travel. Decades before Anthony Bourdain’s award-winning television show “A Cook’s Tour” and “No Reservations,” Curnonsky traveled the four corners of France from 1921 to 1930, celebrating la cuisine du terroir, country cooking.

Curnonsky was born into an old Anjou family on October 12, 1872, in Angers, France. His mother died while giving birth to him and his father later abandoned him to be raised by his grandmother. At the age of 18 he moved to Paris to study literature at the Sorbonne, but before long was persuaded by his friends Léon Daudet and Alphone Allais, both journalists, to follow in their footsteps. It was Allais who suggested he choose a pseudonym apt for his day. During the Belle Epoque in Paris, all things Russian were in vogue, so he chose, “Curnonsky”, which comes from the Latin cur (why) + non (not), plus the Russianizing suffix “sky”.

Over the years Curnonsky never lost his passion for all things literary, writing and/or ghost writing over 65 books, short stories, biographies, collections of anecdotes, and countless newspaper columns. His most famous early collaborations were with “Willy”, the first husband of Colette, and the poet Paul-Jean Toulet.

His considerable literary output was matched only by his size; he stood proudly at 6 feet and weighed a hearty 277 pounds. Eventually, he combined his talents as a man of letters with his love of good food into an oeuvre that brought public acclaim and dubbed him the “Prince of Gastronomy”.

Succumbing to the increasing popularity of exotic travel, Curnonsky first ventured to Africa and then the distant horizons of China, where he discovered the diverse palate of regional Chinese cuisine. Seizing upon the idea of local, seasonally grown food, he returned to France and studied cooking under the guidance of Henri-Paul Pellaprat, co-founder of Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris. He hoped to counter the lingering culinary pretensions of the 19th century French chef Antonin Carême’s elaborate style of cooking, known as grande cuisine, by promoting the traditional paysanne, the French country-style cooking of his Anjou childhood. He advocated simple food over complicated, rustic over refined. La cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont. “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.”

In 1921 Curnonsky– with his friend Marcel Rouff, novelist, poet, critic, historian and fellow gourmand– embarked on a tour of France that lasted nine years and inspired a series of publications on regional cooking and the best places to eat in France. These two original gastronomads’ reviews were the source of their famed 28-volume, France Gastronomiquewhich was expressly devoted to promoting good regional cooking, fine wines, and restaurants that became part of the Michelin Guide in 1926. Curnonsky already had a history of writing for the Michelin brothers, scribing their weekly column, “Michelin Mondays”, which featured information about the locations of gas stations, mechanics, doctors, pharmacists and hotels for the motoring Frenchman.

France Gastronomique

In 1927, the magazine Le Bon Goût et la Bonne Table held a referendum to elect the “Prince of Gastronomy” and Curnonsky was the winner. It is a title no one else has been given since and inspired the legend that 80 restaurants in and around Paris held a table nightly in case the Prince showed up. Supposedly, in his later years he was so heavy he was unable to walk and had to be carried to his favorite restaurants by six friends. He was named a Knight of the Légion d’Honneur in 1929. In 1930 he founded the Academy of Gastronomy modeled on the Académie Française, and in 1933 he founded the Academy of the Wines of France with the baron Pierre Le Roy of Boiseaumarié, the creator of the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, which remains the basis of French wine laws.

At the outbreak of WWII, Curnonsky left Paris and moved to Riec-sur-Belon, Brittany, and stayed at Chez Mélanie, the auberge of his friend Mélanie Rouat, a superb cook whom he’d discovered during his nine-year tour of France and whose restaurant he proudly promoted. After the war ended he returned to Paris and resumed his literary activities and in 1947 launched the magazine Cuisine et Vins de France, a monthly review of all things related to food and  wine. In 1950, he co-founded the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a group based on the traditions and practices of the old French royal guild of goose roasters, whose authority gradually expanded to the roasting of all poultry, meat and game and is still going strong today.

Chez Mélanie, Editions Villard Quimper 1904

The influence of Curnonsky’s work is immense. Every chef, writer and lover of good food and wine owes an enormous debt to him. His culinography of France has been the driving force in French tourism.

Maurice Edmond Sailland, aka Curnonsky, fell to his death on July 22, 1956, at the age of 84, when he leaned too far out the window of his apartment. He was dieting at the time and it was thought that he had fainted and fallen to his death.

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Susan Aran
    2020-09-06 06:20:47
    Susan Aran
    Thanks for reading the article and commenting. I'm pleased you enjoyed it.


  • Sue Aran
    2020-09-06 06:19:32
    Sue Aran
    His plaque can be found at 14 place Henri-Bergson.


  • Deedee Remenick
    2020-09-04 04:48:15
    Deedee Remenick
    Such an interesting article. where can his plaque be found? Deedee Remenick


  • AJ Drew Tabone
    2020-09-04 03:24:13
    AJ Drew Tabone
    A.J. Liebling is also one writer during that era worth mentioning. Thanks for the great article on Curnonsky, a true bon vivant.


  • Sue Aran
    2020-09-04 02:31:41
    Sue Aran
    Bonjour Karen, I suspect the note was written by Pierre Bearn because he was Curnonsky's secretary at the time and went everywhere with him. How wonderful that you have the menu! Kind regards,, Sue


  • Sue Aran
    2020-09-04 02:16:50
    Sue Aran
    Bonjour Jerry, thanks for taking the time to comment. I didn't want to contribute to the rumors, so no speculation from me. Kind regards, Sue


  • Sue Aran
    2020-09-04 02:15:07
    Sue Aran
    Thanks Bobby. I'm glad you liked the article. I hope you'll be able to travel to the Gers soon. I've just finished updating the website for 2021 and will send it out soon.


  • Bobby Frank
    2020-09-03 11:35:34
    Bobby Frank
    Sue, enjoyed your article on Curnonsky. Nice to see him get his due. Hope when these times are changed, to see you in the Gers.


  • Jerry Sternstein
    2020-09-03 06:03:45
    Jerry Sternstein
    According to Julia Child who met Curnonsky when she first came to France, he was in serious financial shape and for lack of funds shared a bed with his housekeeper, she sleeping in the evening, he in the daylight hours before his going about in the evening. His financial troubles and health problems, one being his weight and a seriously damaged knee he injured slipping on the floor of a mansion he was visiting, left his depressed. Accordingly, his fall from a window wasn't an accident but a suicide. At least, this is what those who knew him well believed.


  • Karen Watterson
    2018-03-08 13:51:53
    Karen Watterson
    I have an antique menu that I purchased in Paris many years ago, from Maison Prunier. There's handwriting on it, about the meal and it also says "21 Janvier 1930, avec Curnonsky et Dorin de Rouen" Underneath that, is written the name Pierre Bearn, but it's unclear whether it was written by him or he was also a guest. Could you tell me anything about this? Merci!