Antonin Carême

careme pastry designs

Antonin Carême [kah-rehm] (1784 – 1833), known as the ‘King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings’ was an early practitioner and exponent of the elaborate style of cooking known as haute cuisine, the ‘high art’ of French cooking: a grandiose style of cookery favored by both international royalty and by the newly rich of Paris. Carême is often considered as one of the first, internationally renowned celebrity chefs.

He is remembered as the founder of the haute cuisine, and credited with creating the standard chef’s hat, the toque. He designed new sauces and dishes, and published a classification of all sauces into groups, based on four mother sauces. He is also frequently credited with replacing the practice of service à la française (serving all dishes at once) with service à la russe (serving each dish in the order printed on the menu).

He wrote several books on cookery, above all the encyclopedic ‘L’Art de la Cuisine Française,’ aside from hundreds of recipes, plans for menus and opulent table settings, a history of French cookery, and instructions for organizing kitchens.

Born in Paris and abandoned there by destitute parents in 1792 at the height of the French Revolution, he worked as a kitchen boy at a cheap Parisian chophouse in exchange for room and board. In 1798, he was formally apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous pâtissier with a shop near the Palais-Royal. Carême gained fame in Paris for his pièces montées, elaborate constructions used as centerpieces, which Bailly displayed in the pâtisserie window.

He made these confections, which were sometimes several feet high, entirely out of foodstuffs such as sugar, marzipan, and pastry. He modeled them on temples, pyramids, and ancient ruins, taking ideas from architectural history books that he studied at the nearby Bibliothèque Nationale, thanks to the enlightened attitude of his first employer Bailly.

He did freelance work creating pieces principally for the French diplomat and gourmand Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, but also other members of Parisian high society, including Napoleon. While working on his confections at many private kitchens, he quickly extended his culinary skills to main courses.

Napoleon was famously indifferent to food, but he understood the importance of social relations in the world of diplomacy. In 1804, he gave money to Talleyrand to purchase Château de Valençay, a large estate outside Paris. The château was intended to act as a kind of diplomatic gathering place. When Talleyrand moved there, he took Carême with him.

Carême was set a test by Talleyrand: to create a whole year’s worth of menus, without repetition, and using only seasonal produce. Carême passed the test and completed his training in Talleyrand’s kitchens. After the fall of Napoléon, Carême went to London for a time and served as chef de cuisine to the Prince Regent, later George IV.

Returning to the continent he followed the invitation of Tsar Alexander I to come to St. Petersburg, where he lived so briefly he never prepared a meal for the Tsar before returning to Paris, where he was chef to banker James Mayer Rothschild. He died in Germany at the age of 48, due perhaps to many years inhaling the toxic fumes of the charcoal on which he cooked.

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