The first French celebrity chef Marie Antoine (Antonin) Carême was born on 8 June 1784. It is rather surprising Carême achieved such wonderful success as his initial beginnings did not seem to indicate such an illustrious future. He was one of fifteen children, and, in 1794, at the height of the French Revolution, his father left him on the streets of Paris and told him to go and seek his fortune.
Hungry and in despair, Carême begged for shelter. The following day he was admitted into the service of a man who owned a cheap eating house or chop-house, and, at that point, he began working as a kitchen boy. Four years later, in 1798, he was apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous pâtissier with a shop near the Palais-Royal. Bailly immediately noticed Carême’s talents, and Carême quickly gained fame for the works that he created and displayed in Bailly’s shop window.
The works that gained Carême fame were elaborate confection centerpieces. They were created from marzipan, pastry, and sugar and sometimes several feet high. Known as pièces montées, they were modeled on temples, pyramids, or ancient ruins that Carême found in architectural history books, which Bailly allowed him to study at the Bibliothèque Nationale. With focused attention and faithful studies, Carême soon earned the title of “the Palladio of pastry.”
During his apprenticeship, Carême became dedicated to improving his art. He was an early advocate of grande cuisine, a type of cooking that was favored by international royalty and by the newly rich of Paris. Carême also broke the mold of the old school of pâtisserie and introduced valuable improvements that included light puffed and ornamented pates. In fact, one person noted that “some of the most splendid dinners of modern times have owed their perfection in detail and artistical adornment to the fanciful genius of Carême.”
Carême’s was known to have several habits. One well-known habit was noting any modifications he made to his dishes daily. Of this habit he wrote:
“This accounts for my progress in the art. There is always in everything a way which is, at the moment, the best and most convenient; the sagacity of ready wit will recognize this. At one period of my life I was thrown into the most active and extended service, yet I did not renounce my habit of writing down every evening what I had altered or modified or done over during the day, fixing thereby those ideas and combinations which would have otherwise escaped my memory.”
At the age of twenty, Carême obtained one of his most important positions. It was working for the politician and diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, better known as Prince Talleyrand. However, before Carême got the position, he had to pass a test given to him by Talleyrand. It was to create a year’s worth of menus, without repeating any dish, and using only seasonal produce. Carême passed the test and began working as chef de cuisine. In this capacity, Carême developed new simple food styles that consisted of fresh herbs, vegetables, and simplified sauces. Moreover, although many of his preparations today might appear complex and extravagant, he actually simplified earlier and more complex cuisines.
Carême, who is often called the “Father of French Cuisine,” also became known for his detail ability. One person reported there is rarely a sauce or pottage that is not somehow attached to his name. One person also credited him with inventing “big nougats and the big meringues … which are so beautiful when looked at and so good when eaten!” The standard chef’s hat, known as the toque, was also his idea, and he published a classification of all sauces, which were divided into groups based on four mother sauces. In addition, he become one of the most prolific food writers of the nineteenth century.
There are many interesting stories about Carême, but one interesting story occurred when he met a weeping woman at the door of a wine shop and questioned her as to why she was crying. She told him that her husband, who was a silversmith, was inside the wine store. She said that he spent all his money on wine and claimed that her family was about to starve to death. More questioning caused Carême to learn that the only thing the wife cooked was boiled beef. Carême immediately understood the problem and the next day called with a silver cup to be repaired. While he was there, he cooked a woodcock and shared it with the family. The next time Carême called to check on his cup, he made wild duck.
“Meantime, the wife made rapid progress in the chef’s art. The husband ceased wasting his money … and finally one day Carême received a box containing a silver woodcock exquisitely carved, carrying in its beak a tiny silver cup, with the inscription, ‘To Carême, from a friend who was saved by good cooking.'”
The largest and grandest of all meals that Carême ever created was a military dinner in Paris for 10,000 soldiers. Here is the description:
“Two rows of tables stretched all the way from the Place de la Concorde to the Barrière de l’Étoile … We read of 6 oxen, 250 sheep, 75 calves, 800 turkeys, 4,000 fowls and partridges, 1,000 hams and tongues, 2,000 carp and pike, and so forth; with 18,000 bottles and 145 casks of Macon.”
After Napoleon’s fall, Carême went to London and served as chef de cuisine for two years to the Prince Regent, later George IV. He then worked for the Princess de Bagration, who was a Russian princess married to general Pyotr Bagration and known for her beauty and unconventional behavior. Tsar Alexander I then requested that Carême visit him in St. Petersburg, which he did. However, Carême did not stay long enough to prepare even a single meal for the Tsar. When Carême returned to Paris, he became chef to the wealthy banker James Mayer de Rothschild.
Carême died in Paris at his home on the Rue Neuve Saint Roche at the age of forty-eight and was interred in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. Some people claim that because he cooked with charcoal, the constant inhaling of these toxic fumes contributed to his early death. Supposedly, the last words of this famous chef were given to a pupil standing near his bedside. Carême drew the pupil close and said, “Shake the sauce-pan!”
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