Promoting passion in book collecting
“When we no longer have good cooking in the world, we will have no literature, no high and sharp intelligence, nor friendly gatherings, nor social harmony.” -Antonin Carême
He made souffles flecked with real gold and pastry centerpieces so massive that court jesters could dance on them. Thanks to his encyclopedic cookbooks and royal clientele, Antonin Carême is often considered the first celebrity chef and a pioneer of French cuisine. Yet this rockstar of the culinary world was hardly a likely candidate for such an illustrious career.
Born around June 1784, Carême was abandoned in Paris by his destitute parents when he was only eight years old. The French Revolution was in full swing, and the boy had few prospects. Luckily he found a position at a cheap Parisian chophouse, where he could work in exchange for room and board. Carême showed great aptitude in the kitchen, and when he was fourteen famous patisser Sylvain Bailly invited him to become an apprentice.
Carême eventually opened up his own shop, the Patisserie de la Rue de la Paix. The shop quickly became famous for its elaborate pieces montees, or centerpieces, which Carême displayed in the window. Inspired by architectural history, Carême would study structures at the Bibliotheque Nationale and recreate ancient ruins, pyramids, and other architectural wonders–all using on pastry, sugar, marzipan, and nougat.
Aristocratic gourmand Charles Maurice de Tallyrand-Perigord sent Carême an ingenious (and daunting) test: to create a year’s worth of menu using only seasonal ingredients. Carême completed the task, so Tallyrand brought him into the kitchen. He proved to be much more than merely an employer; Tallyrand truly encouraged Carême to experiment, refine his skills, and focus on cooking with fresh herbs and vegetables. Given the lack of refrigeration available at the time, this was quite paradigm shift–even the wealthy ate preserved produce and dried meats on a regular basis.
In 1804, Napoleon gave Tallyrand money to purchase the Chateau de Valencay, located just outside Paris. He intended to make the property a sort of diplomatic gathering place. Though Napoleon himself was relatively indifferent about food, he understood its utility in diplomacy. Thus, when Tallyrand moved to Chateau de Valencay, he took Carême with him.
After Napoleon’s fall, Tallyrand’s table at the Congress of Vienna quickly became a popular place; Carême amazed statesmen from all over Europe with his culinary masterpieces and ingenious menus. When the Congress dispersed, the borders of Europe had been revised, and leaders from all over the continent had discovered new, delicious cuisine.
Carême’s next stop would be London, where he cooked for the Prince Regent, then George IV. But Carême found the English climate depressing, and he perceived that British chefs treated him poorly because of his celebrity status. After three years, he headed to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he cooked for Czar Alexander I. Carême finally made his way back to Paris, to the kitchen of banker James Mayer Rothschild.
Carême passed away in Germany on January 12, 1833. He was only 48 years old. Experts speculate that his life was cut short by the frequent inhalation of toxic charcoal fumes in the kitchen.
Carême is often credited with creating the standard chef’s hat, known as a toque. And some historians say that Carême played a central role in replacing service a la francais (serving all dishes at once) with service a la russe (serving each dish on its own in the order listed on the menu). Carême also gave us two desserts: mille feuille (also known as Napoleon cake) and charlotte russe.
But Carême’s greatest legacy can be found in his contributions to culinary literature. A prolific writer, Carême wrote a number of encyclopedic cookery books. These books proved an important tool for French chefs both at home and abroad, giving them standardized terminology. For instance, Carême codified the four basic sauces used in French cooking: espagnol, bechamel, allemande, and veloute.
The most impressive of Carême’s works is L’Art de Cuisine Francais au Dix-Neuvieme Siecle. The five-volume work was published in 1833 and 1834. Carême died before it was complete, so his friend and colleague Armand Plumary finished it on his behalf. L’Art de Cuisine is much more than merely a recipe book; it’s an exhaustive reference manual that includes thousands of recipes, along with ideas for menus and centerpieces, a history of French cookery, and instructions for organizing kitchens.