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.
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).
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 Some seem a bit outdated (Potages d’anguille de Seine au pêcheur (with eel from the Seine)), others would be perfect in today’s kitchen (Potage de purée de d’oseille et du cerfeuil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.
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!