Abandoned as a child, this Frenchman became the world's first celebrity chef

Long before Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse, Antonin Carême gained international fame, by cooking for kings and writing cookbooks that brought haute cuisine into 19th-century homes.

By Martina Tommasi
Published 17 Sept 2021, 10:10 BST
Culinary couture
Carême was known for placing self-portraits in his cookbooks. In 1822, he used one (right) to display his original designs for chefs' uniforms: a clean white coat and hat, or toque blanche, which can be worn loose or made to stand tall with a piece of cardboard. Today’s chef’s uniform remains virtually the same.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

From restaurant empires to countless cookbooks to cooking shows, celebrity chefs are everywhere in the modern world. Many credit television with their invention; while TV may have boosted the visibility of celebrity chefs, it did not invent them: 19th-century France did.

In the decades following the French Revolution, Antonin Carême built the world’s first culinary empire—with shops, catering for royalty, and best-selling cookbooks. He published his first one in 1815, a combination of the encyclopaedic and practical that exemplified his organised approach to cooking. It was the first comprehensive guide to the preparation of many classics of the French repertoire. Like modern-day professional chefs, he combined the roles of artist, scholar, and scientist, all generously garnished with self-promotion.

Carême is best remembered today, however, for his brilliant pastries in the form of buildings and exotic landscapes made of spun sugar and almond paste, creations called pièces montées or extraordinaires.

They served as the grandiose centerpieces that were still a requirement on the tables of the postrevolutionary French aristocracy.

Despite such lavish productions, Carême acted as a bridge between the elaborate grand cuisine favored by royalty and the more modern, simpler approach that he formulated for the growing middle class in his cookbooks. Until Carême, no one had used the phrase “You can try this at home.”

Poverty and pastry 

Born Marie-Antoine in 1784, Carême was one of 25 children in a poor Parisian family. His childhood was overshadowed by the French Revolution. At age 10, he was abandoned by his father who told him: “This will be an age of many fortunes; all that is required to make one is intelligence—and you have that.”

(The French Revolution not only toppled a monarchy, it launched the metric system.)

Armed with these words, the young Carême found work in a tavern kitchen in exchange for room and board. That year, 1794, Paris was embroiled in the post-revolutionary period of mass arrests and executions known as the Reign of Terror. Such experiences partly explain why Carême later changed his name from Marie Antoine to Antonin, ridding himself of any associations with Queen Marie-Antoinette, who had been guillotined in 1793.

In 1798 Carême left the tavern to become an assistant to Sylvain Bailly, a leading pâtissier. There he mastered pastry techniquesdeveloping his specialty of creating fabulous structures out of confectionery. At night, he taught himself to read and write to feed his insatiable curiosity about not just food but also architecture. Bailly encouraged his visits to the Prints and Engravings Room at the Bibliothèque Nationale, where Carême sketched castles, pyramids, and fountains, structures that inspired the design of his extraordinaires

The vol-au-vent, light enough to “fly on the wind,” is one of Carême’s most enduring creations.
Photograph by Campillo Rafael/Alamy

The real stars of French cooking at the time were the confectioners and pâtissiers. Carême was winning admirers among Bailly’s wealthy clients; in 1803, at age 19, he struck out on his own to open his own patisserie on the rue de la Paix. There he invented pastries and sweets that are still popular, especially the vol-au-vent, a puff pastry light enough to “fly on the wind.” Above all, he capitalised on the demand for his extraordinaires, receiving commissions to create pieces that took several days to make.

A richer diet 

Among his clients was Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, one of the most famous politicians—and gourmands—of the era. Napoleon funded Talleyrand’s purchase of the Château de Valençay outside Paris in 1803 as a place to hold diplomatic gatherings, and Talleyrand later hired Carême, then 21 years old. 

The job launched the young chef on the international stage. The pâtissier had to prepare not only his extraordinaires but entire banquets. Early on, Carême agreed to present a different menu for every day of the year using only local products. It was the start of a decade-long-plus association with Talleyrand.

(This deathbed portrait of Napoleon marked the end of his tumultuous era.)

At age 19, Carême opened his first patisserie in Paris on the rue de la Paix. Despite his youth, the shop became a civic landmark with a front window that showcased his ornate confectionery. In parallel with his work for Talleyrand, Carême ran the shop until 1815. Later, as patisseries multiplied in Paris, he attributed their popularity to his influence. “The pastry cooks of the suburbs, having my book in their hands, have not feared to move into the heart of the capital,” he said. Today many pastries Carême is credited with inventing are still sold in bakeries, like the Napoleon cake (or mille-feuille).
Photograph by AKB/Album

While working in the kitchens at Valençay, Carême also took on freelance work as a confectioner in other aristocratic houses, learning from the chefs of the pre-revolutionary period. Carême also began his systematic study of French cuisine, organising old and new methods into a coherent whole. Most famously, Napoleon commissioned a wedding cake from Carême for his marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810.

Unlike many colleagues who opened restaurants, Carême stuck with wealthy patrons. Later in his life, he became the world’s most expensive chef (the banker James Mayer de Rothschild would pay him the equivalent of £127,000 a year to cook for the Paris elite), but money was never Carême’s sole motivation. He considered that serving a rich patron meant greater creative freedom: “The man born to wealth lives to eat, and sustains the art of the chef,” he wrote.

Supreme cuisine 

Political change came in 1814 after the downfall of Napoleon. Russia’s Tsar Alexander I and other allies who had defeated Napoleon arrived in Paris to negotiate the war’s end, and Talleyrand asked Carême to cater the affair. The delicious cuisine may have helped Talleyrand secure generous terms under the restored Bourbon dynasty. Carême was happy to take credit: “My cooking was the advance guard of French diplomacy.”

Tsar Alexander I was certainly impressed and sought to lure Carême to St. Petersburg. The chef refused, preferring to see through the publication of his first book in 1815, Le pâtissier royal parisien, a massive two-volume set of pastry recipes. In addition to writing the recipes, he also drew most of the illustrations. It was quickly followed by Le pâtissier pittoresque that included 124 designs for extraordinaires.

(Queen Victoria's wedding cake set pastry trends that lasted for centuries.)

Carême worked in the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, from 1816 to 1817 as chef to the Prince Regent, the future King George IV.
Photograph by Angelo Hornak/Alamy

In 1816 Carême agreed to join the service of the prince regent of Great Britain, the future King George IV. After a year, he left the post because of a dislike of the English climate and the jealousy of English cooks there. He later travelled to Vienna to work for the British ambassador Charles Stewart, then made a fleeting visit to St. Petersburg, but ultimately decided to return to Paris, where he focused on his writing.

In 1822 he published the two-volume Le maître d’Hotel Français, which famously features the four French mother sauces: Allemande (light stock, lemon juice, egg yolks), béchamel (milk thickened with a butter and flour roux), espagnole (reduced brown stock with tomato sauce), and velouté (light stock thickened with a butter and flour roux). These recipes became the foundation for creating hundreds of different sauces to complement any kind of dish and have served as the building blocks of French cuisine ever since.

Carême turned away many offers to run elite kitchens during this time before he accepted one from James de Rothschild, a banker who wanted to impress French high society. Carême remained in his service from 1823 through 1830; he left the position to return to writing and focus on the work that would be his masterpiece, L’art de la cuisine française.

Carême, pictured here in a lithograph by Charles de Steuben, elevated the status of the chef to new heights. The showmanship of his confections could be seen by all at his pastry shop, and his cookbooks appealed to a public eager for access to the art of haute cuisine previously limited to the aristocracy. As his popularity grew, he put self-portraits in his books so fans might recognize him. Royalty and high society bid for his services, but he often turned them down to write. When the composer Gioacchino Rossini was asked if he planned to tour America, he replied, “Only if Carême comes with me.”
Photograph by Fine art/Album

The first part of his five-volume work on French cuisine would be published in 1833 (two of the five volumes were published after his death). L’art de la cuisine française introduced principles that many modern cooks would recommend today. Carême rejected the heavily spiced foods of 18th-century grand cuisine and embraced more natural flavours. He advocated cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. His plates were pleasing to the eye with balanced portions and aesthetic presentation. Moreover, he wrote this book not for royalty, but for the wider public. “My book is not written for the great houses alone,” he wrote. “I would like every citizen in our beautiful France to be able to eat delicious food.”

Carême died on January 12, 1833, believed to be a victim of lung disease from a life spent breathing coal fumes in unventilated kitchens. One of Carême’s successors, the better known Auguste Escoffier, played a similar role adapting French cuisine to the 20th century, but gave the original maestro his due: “The fundamental principles of the science (of cooking), which we owe to Carême . . . will last as long as cooking itself.”

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