The Chef of Kings

Just a few years before the height of the French revolution, Antonin Carême was born in the poorest area of Paris. He was abandoned by his parents and at the age of 10 he started his career by sweeping floors of a chophouse. It turned out to be the career of a celebrity. He was not only King of Chefs, he was also Chef of Kings: amongst them Napoleon, the Prince Regent (later George IV) and Tsar Alexander I.

365 Menu’s

At the age of 21 the influential politician Talleyrand asked him to become chef at the Château de Valençay. On instruction from Napoleon, Talleyrand would entertain 4 times per week for at least 36 (foreign) guests. Carême was asked to create a menu for every day of the year, without repetition. And since meals were served a la Française (a variety of dishes served simultaneously) this meant Carême had to create many dishes. Fortunately, he kept note of what he served and how he prepared it.

In his inspiring book Cooking For Kings, the live of Antonin Carême, The First Celebrity Chef, author Ian Kelly introduces us to the world of Antonin Carême. In a very easy to read, inviting way he describes the menus and food as created by Carême.  For instance, on page 76 he includes the menu as served on June 8th, 1806 at the Château: two soups, followed by twelve dishes and four desserts, including intriguing dishes such as Young Turkey in Watercress and Flan Milan. All menus and recipes from his days at the Château are included in his book Le Maitre d’Hotel Français (Paris, 1822).

Potage

Soups were important to Carême and since he served at least two soups per menu, the number of soups he created is more than impressive. Some seem a bit outdated (Potages d’anguille de Seine au pêcheur (with eel from the Seine)), others would be perfect in today’s kitchen (Potage de purée de d’oseille et du cerfeuil (with sorrel and chervil)).

At the end of his career Carême was asked by James Mayer and Betty de Rothschild to become their chef. Carême, who basically had already retired because of his very poor health, was tempted by a more than generous budget and accepted. The couple also supported his writing. De Rothschilds, very much nouveau riche, intended to achieve a position in the Parisian high society by hosting gala’s, lunches, dinners and receptions.  Of course, with Carême leading, they were very successful. Amongst their regular guests were Heinrich Heine, Frédéric Chopin, Victor Hugo and Gioacchino Rossini. They also regularly invited the press enhancing the celebrity status of Carême even more. And in his slipstream, they became more important.

Last Years

During his last years (he died aged 48 probably due to inhaling toxic fumes of the coal burning stoves) Carême wrote L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle. Traité élémentaire et pratique. Five volumes, nearly 1700 pages with menus, recipes and drawings. A clear legacy of a Chef who is still remembered for his Charlotte Russe, the Tournedos Rossini, his systemisation of the kitchen and the four mother sauces.

Cooking For Kings, the live of Antonin Carême is a tribute to a devoted, extremely talented chef. The book includes several very interesting recipes, for instance Gelee de Verjus and Petits Croustades de Cailles. Perhaps old school, but nevertheless worth trying!

The King of Chefs

He was born in the Rue du Bac (Paris) in June 1784. Today a fashionable street, well known to many because the prestigious department store Le Bon Marché is located on the corner with the Rue de Sèvres. In his days the area was a swamp with housing for the very poorest of Paris.
He was named after Queen Marie Antoinette, which wasn’t a great idea because she was beheaded only 9 years later during the peak of the French Revolution. He changed his name to Antonin and later he would sign his books and menus with Antonin Carême de Paris.

Abandonded

When he was only ten years old, his father left him at one of the gates of Paris. Fortunately, he was picked up by the owner of one of the many Parisian chophouses. This is where he learned his first cooking skills. Six years later he started with the famous Pâtissier Sylvain Bailly. He became a Master of Pastry, Sugar and Pâtisserie in general. It wasn’t long before his talent was recognised by the influential statesman Talleyrand.

As a young man Antonin Carême would spend his free afternoons at the library, studying and researching ancient recipes and (Greek and Roman) architecture. He became an expert in drawing, a skill he used to design and create pièce montéesextraordinaires, huge table pieces made from sugar, reflecting a roman temple, a Greek building, a fountain etcetera. These extraordinaires could be used to serve food, but more importantly they were elegant masterpieces. In some cases, it took him 6 weeks to create a pièce montée.

Author

He made notes of everything he prepared and published various cookbooks (that sold very well). His aim was to explain how to prepare a dish, not to impress the reader. The cookbooks include his own beautiful drawings and many detailed menus. Amongst his creations are over 100 soups and the delicious Charlotte Russe. He perfected and popularised Mille-Feuille, Vol Au Vent and Croquembouche. He is one of the three main chefs of the Haute or Grande Cuisine (the others are François-Pierre de La Varenne and Auguste Escoffier). He was one of the first to study how to combine wine and food. As part of the systematisation of French cuisine he introduced the four main sauces: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole and Allemande.

Cooking For Kings

In his inspiring book Cooking For Kings, The Life of Antonin Carême, The First Celebrity Chef, author Ian Kelly introduces us to the live of Antonin Carême. In a very easy to read, inviting way he shows us how Carême developed from a poor boy into a culinary, artistic talent. One that not only influenced his own generation but also many to come. His focus on detail, hygiene, the use of fresh ingredients and aesthetic presentation is still very much part of today’s kitchen.

Cooking For Kings, the live of Antonin Carême is a tribute to a devoted, extremely talented chef. The book includes several very interesting recipes, for instance gâteau pithivier and cold salami of partridges. Perhaps old school, but nevertheless worth trying!

PS

We’re still looking for a hard copy of French Cookery: comprising L’Art de la Cuisine Francaise; Le Patissier Royal; Le Cuisinier Parisien (translated by William Hall; published in London, 1836). Anyone? Thankfully the book has been digitised!