In March 1811, Napoleon and his new wife, Marie Louise, welcomed the birth of a boy, the longed for male heir needed to carry the Bonaparte line forward. A grand feast was ordered to celebrate the christening of the young “King of Rome.” Only a year earlier, a young pasty chef named Marie-Antoine Carême had dazzled the court with a still-talked about wedding cake. For the christening he would out-do himself again. Using spun sugar, confectioner’s paste, cream, and meringues all dyed in varying shades of blue, rose, and gold, Carême created a magnificent replica of a Venetian gondola.
The decadence of Napoleon’s court was a far cry from the gritty Left Bank slum that Carême first called home. Born into a family of limited means and many children, Carême was turned out by his father when he was 10 or 11 and told to make his way in the world. (Never quite sure of his age, Carême thought he was born in 1783.) A piece of luck, something there wasn’t much of in Paris during the Terror of 1792, landed Carême work in a kitchen. Five years later he traded up to an apprenticeship with a pâtisserie on the Rue Vivienne.
No banquet in Napoleonic France was complete without an elaborate centerpiece, called a pièce montée, and Carême became its premiere purveyor. Patience and attention to construction allowed him to turn sugar, eggs, and butter into Greek and Roman temples, ships, maps, and churches. His skill brought him to the attention of one of France’s most powerful men and discerning gourmands: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. It was through Talleyrand that Carême came to bake for Napoleon and his empress.
With the money he made as a freelance chef, Carême opened his own pâtisserie on the Rue de la Paix during the winter of 1803-04. Its windows regularly showcased his pièce montées prompting travel guides to make it a recommended stop. Over the next decade, Carême would also study with the chefs of the Old Regime, transforming himself from a pastry chef into man capable of orchestrating elaborate multi-course feasts. During the Congress of Vienna, the diplomats of the Great Powers forged a new European order while tucking into meals cooked by Carême.
In September 1815, Carême published his first cookbook, Le Patissier royal parisien, increasing his fame and ensuring his posterity. The cookbook—two volumes at 400 pages each—consisted of recipes, menus, and charming stories from Carême's adventures as chef to the rich and titled. Le Patissier was also extraordinary for its inclusion of drawings of desserts, centerpieces, buffets, and courses. Carême drew the plates, having studied with Charles Percier, a neoclassical architect, to refine his illustration technique. Unfortunately for the baker wanting to replicate one of Carême’s lavish creations, neither the recipes nor the drawings provide any help with construction.
More cookbooks followed along with stints cooking for the Prince Regent (later George IV) in England and the Rothschilds in Paris. In his later years, his body ailing from the effects of inhaling the toxic fumes of charcoal for decades, Carême devoted himself to writing. Shortly before his death, he completed the five-volume L’Art de la cuisine francais au 19eme siècle (1833), which includes essays on food, menus, thousands of recipes, and accounts of epic meals cooked, eaten, or learned of second hand. His feat accomplished, Carême died in January 1833.
If you want to try your hand at a Carême recipe, Ian Kelly has translated some of his more famous and accessible ones in Cooking For Kings: The Life of Antoine Carême, the First Celebrity Chef.
More top chefs from our "Food" issue:
Sabba da Castiglione, The Kitchen Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
c. 1490: Kitchen Appliances
M.F.K Fischer, An Alphabet for Gourmets
1949: M.F.K. Fisher on the Basics
Charts & Graphs: "Top Chefs"July 20, 2011
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