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Carême: France’s first celebrity chef

Despite a traumatic childhood which saw him abandoned aged nine, Marie-Antoine Carême went on to become a totemic figure in French cuisine. Samantha David gets a taste for his remarkable story

Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833) was arguably the world’s first celebrity chef; he made Napoleon’s wedding cake, cooked for the Prince Regent at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the Romanov family in St Petersburg and according to legend, created fantastic soufflés flecked with real gold for the Rothschild family in Paris.

His talents in the kitchen, however, were almost outshone by his talent for self-promotion and marketing. Famous amongst the rich for his culinary creations, he became well known amongst the middle classes for his cookbooks.

His childhood was traumatic. Born in Paris, his family fled the French Revolution but left him behind. He was only nine. Telling the tale later, he recounted that his father had refused to take him along, saying, “You’re old enough to fend for yourself.”

Off they went, leaving him on the streets, and Carême never saw any of them again. He is then reputed to have been taken in by a family and to have worked in a Parisian chophouse until, aged 13, he was apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a well-known pâtissier (pastry chef) in a fashionable neighbourhood.

He used his time there to learn to read and write, and studied architecture, using pictures of tombs and cathedrals as inspiration for the fantastical pastry structures he made to go in the window of the shop.

These became increasingly complex and beautiful until he started receiving personal orders for them from rich people wanting an impressive centrepiece for their diner parties. He subsequently opened his own pastry shop, the ‘Pâtisserie de la rue de la Paix’, which stayed open until 1813.

Hard facts are difficult to establish about Carême, however, partly because his books do not contain any personal information, partly because many official records of the time were destroyed in fires at the Hôtel de Ville during the Prussian bombardment of 1871, and partly because his daughter Marie destroyed all his papers after his death.

“This one fact tells us a lot about him,” says Ian Kelly, the author of a biography of Carême (Cooking for Kings, published by Short Books Ltd and available on Amazon), who also appeared in a play based on the biography. “She was his only surviving child as far as we know, but she destroyed everything; dispersed his belongings and money. He was rich, there was plenty of money around, but after the cholera epidemic she gave him a pauper’s funeral and he was buried in an unmarked grave. So we can guess that his relationship with her must have been disastrously bad.” 

Kelly’s impression of Carême is that he was febrile and restive and uncomfortable in his own skin. “But that’s only an impression from what he achieved, which was extraordinary and must have taken a massive amount of work, and from the reactions of his contemporaries. Many of the true facts about his life are obscured; even his birth date is approximate. We know, however, that he did not invent caramel, but he did have two wives. Whether that was due to death, divorce or desertion, it’s impossible to say.”

Carême contributed to his own fame by including a portrait of himself in every book, and although he wasn’t shy of claiming inventions for his own, he was also constantly inventing new techniques. Using a nozzle and a piping bag to make decorative meringues, perfecting the cream puff, melting and moulding sugar like glass. He is credited with inventing millefeuilles, strawberries Romanoff, and Charlotte Russe.

He seems, however, not to have made himself popular in Britain. “The impression is of a difficult man. The British records relating to his time in the UK have survived and from those we know he was unpopular in the royal household. But he was a celebrity chef earning ten times what everyone else was paid. He was very ambitious, hard-working, very keen that his work should be recognised as an art form.”

Kelly points out that Carême was multi-talented. He was a fine graphic artist and illustrated the books himself, his dishes were always beautifully-presented, and his celebrated pièces montées (giant architectural constructions made of various edible ingredients including choux pastry, marzipan, and spun sugar were very aesthetic as well as impressive.

“He was the first chef to get rich and famous writing books about food. He coined the phrase, ‘you can try this at home’.” His books were not really ‘how-tos’, they were glimpses of another world, at the lives of the rich and famous. They were aspirational, lifestyle books. “Carême connected glamour royalty and wealth to fine dining and his books gave people access to that.”

Pâtisserie pages

His first book, published in 1815, was called Le Pâtissier Royal Parisien which gave a good idea of the contents, and why it appealed so immediately to the general public. He followed it with Le Pâtissier Pittoresque, which included 128 illustrations.

His book Le Maître d’Hôtel Français compared old and new styles of cooking and gave recipes for menus to serve during each of the four seasons.

His final book, a vast encyclopaedia, not only gave hundreds of recipes but instructions for laying out kitchens, sourcing ingredients, menus, table plans, and serving suggestions. L’Art de la Cuisine Française was to be published in five volumes but he only completed three of them before his death.

He had kitchens built right beside dining rooms instead of having them miles away. He was keen on using new technologies, keeping up to date in fashion and art and he put all that on the table.

At that time in France all the dishes arrived on the table at once, but in Russia they were served one at a time, and he introduced this style of eating to France. It is possible to see this change in his books, in the later ones, he publishes menus in the order they should be served.

He invented the white chef’s hat, and vol-au-vents amongst a host of other innovations. But it was publishing that really extended his influence. 

In 1804 Napoleon funded Talleyrand’s purchase of the Château de Valençay as a place to hold diplomatic meetings, and when Talleyrand moved there he took Carême with him and set him a test: create an entire year’s worth of menus with no repetitions, using only seasonal produce. Of course, Carême passed the test with flying colours.

A sorcerer of sauces

Until that period, meat had mainly been cooked with the aim of disguising the stale, and often rank, smell of it. But Carême, using the finest ingredients, developed a whole range of sauces which he categorised into four main types:

Sauce Allemande is a white sauce thickened with cream and egg yolks, and seasoned with lemon. It was renamed ‘sauce blond’ by Auguste Escoffier at the outbreak of the First World War. It accompanies eggs, fish, and chicken.

Sauce Béchamel (named after Louis de Béchamel, the Marquis of Nointel) is made from a white roux of butter and flour thinned out with milk. It is the basis for many other sauces including sauce Mornay, white wine sauce, tarragon sauce and the humble cheese sauce we use today with macaroni or cauliflower. It is used to make croque-monsieur, lasagne, moussaka and vol-au-vents

Sauce Espagnole is made from a brown roux of butter and flour thinned out with a brown meat stock flavoured with tomatoes, or mushrooms, or even a ‘mirepoix’ – tiny cubes of onion, carrot, celery, herbs and spices, and sometimes ham or bacon. The sauce is the basis for all types of gravy to be served with meat.

Sauce velouté (velvet) is made by making a stock and enriching it at the end by adding crème fraîche and egg, or sometimes even a roux. It is used to make various soups including cream or asparagus soup.

He produced refined flavours using herbs and vegetables, and had a wide variety of dishes at his fingertips. His cuisine changed everything, particularly after he went, with Talleyrand, to the Congress of Vienna. International leaders from across the continent were treated to dishes they had never before tasted, and to a style of cookery that was more magnificent and complicated than had previously been seen, and went home converted. It’s not too much to say that Carême changed cuisines across Europe. 

After the fall of Napoleon, Carême went to London where he worked for the Prince Regent (later to become George IV). Later on he went to Russia, where he was employed by Tsar Alexander 1st, but he stayed such a short time that he never in fact cooked for the royal family themselves. He also worked for Emperor Francis I of Austria. On his return to Paris he became chef to the banker James Rothschild.

He died in Paris at the age of 48 and is buried at the Montmartre Cemetery. The cause of death is uncertain. Perhaps a lung problem caused by inhaling fumes from charcoal in the kitchens, or a dental infection. His skull, gruesomely enough, is preserved in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and displays evidence of dental decay which was a professional hazard of being a pastry cook at that time. 

The cake-maker’s sweet art continues on campus

By Brian McCulloch

Trainee pâtissiers at the Barbezieux campus of the Chambres de Métiers et de l’Artisanat in Charente, are continuing Carême’s tradition of art and architecture-inspired recipes by making gâteaux inspired by the oil and acrylic paintings of Clare Avery, an Anglo-Franco artist who lives near Barbezieux.

She had an exhibition in December and it is after seeing it that Myriam Maillet from the training campus, put the idea to the students. The results were stunning confections, all decorated to be similar to the paintings.

Two identical  gâteaux were made by each of the four students and their trainer, with one being shown and eaten with Clare Avery, and the other put on show at the campus open day. “I never imagined that my paintings could inspire such wonderful treats,” said Clare.

“The decorations were wonderful and for me when each one was cut open and the different layers inside were revealed it was very exciting.”

The students, most of whom are nearing the end of five years training, were equally enthusiastic. “The colours and textures in the paintings were wonderful and I tried to express some of the feelings I got from them as I worked,” said Eva Rouquette who chose a large oil painting called Honeybow II as her inspiration. Her gâteau had a honey and biscuit base, lychee cream, a green tea, cherry flower and rose petal bavaroise with a raspberry colis.

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