Antonin Carême: Top Chef of the Regency

"The King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings"

You might think celebrity chefs are a modern phenomenon, products of reality TV shows like Top Chef, Cutthroat Kitchen or Cake Boss. But the development of today’s publicity-savvy culinary stars can be traced all the way back to the Regency era, to a self-made man who started out as a homeless street urchin and became an international culinary star – Antonin Carême.

Carême’s backstory is as sensational as anything a reality show writer could invent. One of 15 children, Carême was christened Marie-Antoine at his birth in 1784, in honor of the doomed Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. 

As an adult, he preferred the more classic-sounding “Antonin” to his birth name. And the post-Revolutionary king, Louis VIII, gave him permission to sign his name simply as "Carême of Paris" - making him the first celebrity to use only one name, like Cher and many others today.

The French Revolution caused turmoil not only in France but in the Carême family as well, and the story goes that one night in 1794, while the Revolution was raging across France and particularly in Paris, Carême’s pére took his son to dinner at a Paris tavern and afterwards turned him loose on the streets, telling him that it was time for him to make his way in the world because his family could no longer support him.

Little Antoine promptly returned to the tavern where he had just eaten and got work as a kitchen boy. Soon he was learning how to cook and helping to prepare meals.

The Rue de la Paix in Paris, where Careme's shop was located.

By 1798 he was working at a shop in the fashionable Paris neighborhood of Palais Royal, as an apprentice to a famous pastry chef, Sylvain Bailly, Bailly encouraged his young apprentice to develop his talent. Soon Carême had his own pastry shop, which he called Pâtisserie de la rue de la Paix. He kept the shop throughout the early part of his career, until 1813.

Carême first made a name for himself in pastry and desserts, especially his famous  pièces montées,  huge confections that could be several feet tall, composed entirely of sugar, pastry, and marzipan. 

These confections were structural works of art, and they made jaw-dropping centerpieces at banquets. Carême got his inspiration for his creations from architectural monuments, like towers, temples and pyramids. Carême, who combined his dual passions for architecture and pastry in his work, once said that architecture should have a special branch for patisserie.

As a freelance pastry artist, Carême worked for the rich and titled in French society, including Napoleon. While creating his confections in the kitchens of the rich and famous, he began to branch out into cooking main dishes as well, becoming a well-rounded chef who could plan and prepare an entire meal of several courses.  

Chateau de Valencay, the Loire Valley home of Talleyrand,
where Chef Careme reigned supreme in the kitchen.
Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, CC BY 3.0

Carême also attracted the attention of the ambitious diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. According to one story, Talleyrand challenged the young chef to create a year’s worth of menus, never making the same dish twice and using only produce in season. (This sounds much like something you might see on Iron Chef America.)

Carême passed this test, and Talleyrand hired him to prepare banquets, cementing the young chef’s reputation as a culinary star.

Carême’s contribution to French gastronomy went far behind patisserie – he developed a whole culinary system, working out the logistics of preparing and serving grand feasts.

He was one of the first chefs to have an independent career - he wasn't bound to a rich or noble family. He was also very good at promoting himself, and in the process, he raised the status of his profession.

He worked across Europe as a free agent for wealthy and titled clients like Tsar Alexander in Russia, banker Baron James de Rothschild in Paris, and even the Prince Regent in England.

Tsar Alexander, by George Dawe, 1824

During his career, Carême wrote several books about cooking, but the most influential was L’Art de la Cuisine Française. That book helped codify French cookery for generations of chefs and is still an important reference work in French gastronomy today.

There is a host of other culinary achievements credited to Carême, including major innovations such as classifying sauces based on four major, basic sauces (Espagnoleveloutéallemande, and béchamel) from which a host of minor  “petite” sauces could be derived.

Later, another famous French chef, Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935), modified Carême’s list of sauces to include Hollandaise, a sauce familiar to anyone who loves having eggs benedict for brunch as much as I do. 

Carême improved sanitation systems in restaurant kitchens, making them a cleaner, safer place to prepare food. He is also credited with inventing the hat that chefs often wear, known as the toque - a minor achievement, perhaps, but a lasting one.

A French chef wearing a toque.  

There is one dish in particular that’s associated with Carême’s time in England, a simple dessert that got a glamorous makeover from the French chef.

This dish first surfaced as Apple Charlotte in 1796, named in honor of King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, who loved apples and gardening and became the patroness of apple growers in Britain. This dessert, still popular today,  is basically a bread pudding made with sliced apples, pieces of white bread, butter, eggs sugar and cinnamon. (Yum!)

When Carême came to England to work for the Prince Regent in the early 19th century, he came across this rather humble dessert and elevated it to something grander.  

He transformed the hot pudding into what we’d call a no-bake cake with a rich, egg and cream custard filling, placed in a mold lined with pieces of sponge cake (or ladyfingers) and decorated with fruit and whipped cream. Apples aren’t necessarily involved, but you can find versions with fruit like cherries, raspberries or strawberries.

A Charlotte decorated with sliced strawberries and kiwis
Photo by Mythe, CC-BY-3.0

Carême was only in England a short while before he went to Russia to cook for the Tsar, where he stayed even more briefly. So he called his modified version of the English pudding Charlotte Russe, honoring Princess Charlotte, the Tsar, and possibly the Tsar’s sister-in-law, who was also named Charlotte. (And let’s not forget the dessert’s original namesake, Queen Charlotte.) When it comes to honoring people named Charlotte, that’s one hard-working dessert.

There’s even the possibility that when he was back in his home country, Carême called his creation Charlotte à la Parisienne, but later changed the name to Charlotte Russe when he served it to the Tsar at a banquet. Whether or not that’s what happened I like that story, because it highlights at once how pragmatic the French chef was, and his considerable skill promoting his own work to influential people.

In sum, Carême had a huge impact not only on French cuisine but also in the development of restaurant culture. He’s considered the first independent, international star of the culinary scene – the first celebrity chef. Unfortunately, he died at a relatively young age, 48, most likely due to a lung ailment contracted by working in poorly ventilated kitchens. You could say he was a victim of his art, or at least his profession.

But his work lives on, along with the restaurant systems and standards he designed, and in his signature dessert creations – including treats like his grosse (large) nougats and meringues, croquantes (a crisp cookie-like pastry, made with almonds and honey) and his solilemmes (a hot, yeasty roll known in England as a Sally Lunn bun).

A  croquante with strawberries.  Author ADT 04; CC BY 2.0

Speaking on behalf of people like me who have a sweet tooth and always make room for dessert, thanks Chef Carême! 

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sources for this post include:

  • Culinary Biographies, A Dictionary of the World’s Great Historic Chefs, Cookbook Authors and Collectors, Farmers, Gourmets, Home Economists, Nutritionists, Restaurateurs, Philosophers, Physicians, Scientists, Writers, and Others Who Influenced the Way We Eat Today, edited by Alice Arndt, Yes Press, Inc., Houston, Texas, 2006
  • A History of Food in 100 Recipes, by William Sitwell, Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY, 2013
  • Who Put the Beef in Wellington? By James Winter, Kyle Books, Lanham, MD, 2013

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