(Ernst) Adolf Powolny (1839-1915)

Chef and Restaurateur

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Celebrity chefs seem to be everywhere nowadays in the media, telling us how and what to cook. More than a century ago, when English cuisine was still sneered at for knowing only one sauce (gravy!), Leeds could boast its own continental celebrity chef who brought fine dining to the town to match the famous London chefs. His restaurant became renowned for its elegance and sophistication and he was the go-to man for top level catering at banquets, balls, and celebrations across the North – anything from buffets in the crypt at Fountains Abbey to luncheon for the Chinese Ambassador 1500 feet down a coal mine at Normanton!

Born in Zittau in Saxony, Adolf Powolny had trained in the vast royal kitchens of the King in Dresden as an ‘artistic confectioner’. He was only 18 when he came to Leeds in 1857, perhaps looking for better prospects or specially recruited. He joined Godfrey Wood’s long-established catering firm in Commercial Street and was part of the team when Wood’s won the prestigious contract for the great formal banquet which followed Queen Victoria’s opening of the Town Hall in 1858 – what a thrill for this young new arrival.

In 1862, only 23, he was encouraged to set up his own business at 3 Bond Street, advertising to the ‘nobility and gentry’ his stock of German, French and English delicacies (caviare, pate de fois gras), and his new dining rooms, where weary businessmen could drop in for oysters and wine. With little capital he had to turn his hand to every task, but he began to build an enviable reputation. A speciality was outside catering for all manner of social and professional occasions, hiring in armies of waiters as required: the annual Bachelors’ Ball, Medical Association Annual Meetings, society weddings, Grand Masonic Balls – he joined the Freemasons in 1868 and remained a life-long member. Everyone loved his sumptuous, recherché, artistic food, and he became the caterer of choice for all elite events.

Especially royal visits: in 1872 he was chosen to provide the luncheon when Prince Arthur came to open Roundhay Park and supper for the ball that evening. And in 1885 he was caterer for the visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King and Queen) to open the new Yorkshire College buildings and the Coliseum – he baked a special cherry tart for Alexandra, her favourite! A great royalist (with shared German connections), he commissioned a gold finger bowl with the royal coat of arms exclusively for visiting royalty.

Quality and style were his trademark. By the early 1890s he had extended his restaurant and fitted it out lavishly with oriental pillars and tall mirrors, deep crimson hangings, small round dining tables, each with a shaded lamp, thick carpets on the double staircase leading to dining rooms upstairs with costly but tasteful furnishings, and a snug smoking-room. In his kitchens at Christmas more than 50 chefs and their assistants toiled, preparing all sorts of meats, including stuffed and garnished boars’ heads (‘made to grin most ferociously’!), silvery salmon, huge cakes richly decorated with icing and marzipan, chocolate specialities. What a vision of excess! Not to modern taste was one of the specialities: turtle soup, beloved of gourmets and invalids, prepared every day from live turtles he had imported from the West Indies – a wildlife disaster in the making.

His personal life was kept private. He had married his wife, Annie, a young assistant in his shop, in 1873, but sadly their first child died and Annie herself died of consumption in 1880, aged only 27. A wealthy man by the 1890s, he moved upmarket with his daughter to live in a fine house at 2 Hillary Place (part of the University campus now). Small and dapper, with white side-whiskers, he was known for his quiet courtesy, modesty, and consideration for his customers and his loyal staff: ‘a perfect artist in his line’. But it must have been a pressurised life overseeing his busy, hectic empire, and in 1897 he sold the business as a going concern and retired to Harrogate, where after a long illness he died in 1915. He was buried at Woodhouse near his wife.

Powolny’s carried on for another 60 years, with separate Assembly Rooms at one point and a very successful branch in Hull. Adapting to changing times, the Bond Street restaurant, affectionately known as ‘Polly’s’, was a favourite with societies like the Publicity Club and the Luncheon Club, and with local journalists. From the 1920s onwards the tea ‘dansants’ were an attraction (1s 6d, including tea) twice a week, and dinner dancing every evening: escapist pleasure even in the dark times of WW2. But it all ended in 1960, and after a century the evocative Powolny name disappeared from the Leeds scene.

Eveleigh Bradford
December 2019