Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse…everyone’s heard of (or seen on television) these and a dozen other celebrity chefs. But celebrity chefdom isn’t by any means a modern phenomenon. It actually began early in the 19th century with a Frenchman named Marie-Antoine (though he preferred to be known as Antonin) Carême. And just how much of a superstar chef was he? Hmm…how does working for Napoleon, the Prince Regent, and the Tsar of Russia sound to you?
Carême’s career in cookery started more or less by accident. Born in Paris to an impoverished family sometime in 1783, he was abandoned by his parents in 1792, in the middle of the Terror, to make his own way in life. Fortunately for him, he was taken in by a cook at a chophouse to serve as a lowly kitchen-boy in exchange for room and board. Cookery must have suited him, for in 1798 he left the become an apprentice to a pâtissier, or pastry and confectionery chef, in the busy and fashionable Palais Royal district of Paris.
He also became a reader, and spent all his free hours at the Bibliothèque Nationale reading about food in history and classical architecture…and soon after, began recreating the ruins, temples, and castles that he’d studied in pastry and marzipan and spun sugar. These centerpieces or extraordinaires, often several feet high and wide, gained him the title of master patissier (premier tourrier) by his 17th birthday. They also brought him to the attention of Charles Maurice Talleyrand, that wily politician who somehow managed to hold high office under every administration in France from King Louis XVI to Napoleon to the Citizen King Louis-Philippe.
In addition to being a brilliant politician, Talleyrand was also a brilliant connoisseur of food. It’s likely that Carême came to his attention via his extraordinaires, and soon he was serving as a freelance chef, supervising Talleyrand’s more important dinners as well as making his famous centerpieces. He became known to many important people in this way, and was able to earn enough to open his own pâtisserie in 1803, before he had even reached his majority. He continued to work hard, learning from other chefs, and became better and better known thanks to his continuing work for Talleyrand. He catered the wedding of Napoleon’s brother Jerome in 1808, and in 1810, made the wedding cake for the Emperor’s own marriage to Marie Louise of Austria (and the following year, one of his extraordinaires for the christening of Napoleon’s son).
But though Napoleon fell in 1814-1815, Talleyrand and Carême did not. When Tsar Alexander I entered Paris after Napoleon’s defeat, he stayed at Talleyrand’s house…and ate Carême’s cooking. Alexander’s steward offered him a job on the spot, but Carême refused for the time being. Instead he wrote a cookbook while Talleyrand went to the Congress of Vienna, and a year later, accepted the offer of the Prince Regent to be his chef for the enormous salary of £2000 per year. Prinny redid his kitchens at the Brighton Pavilion expressly for Carême, now known as the best chef in the world. But despite his splendid kitchens, the best ingredients, and the personal interest of the Prince, who actually came down to the kitchens to see his chef in action, Carême returned to France within a year, uncomfortable with the English way of life and profoundly homesick for Paris. He worked for a while for British diplomat Lord Charles Stewart, brother of Prime Minister Lord Castlereagh, and then in 1819 finally accepted that offer to become Tsar Alexander’s chef. He did not last long in Russia either, however, and returned to France, working again for Lord Charles and writing more cookbooks, before joining in 1823 the household of James de Rothschild, with whom he stayed until his early death in 1833, probably from pulmonary disease brought on by years of working in badly ventilated kitchens.
Carême’s influence on what and how we eat lasts to this day: he was the first to pipe meringue from a pastry bag and created vol-au-vents, or puff-pastry cases, and the classification and use of French sauces. He was one of the first chefs to pay attention to the pairing of wines with food, and brought back from Russia a preference for decorating dining tables with flowers rather than with displays of fruit and crockery, and for service à la russe, the method of serving food by individual courses rather than by placing it all on the table at once (called service à la française). Oh, and he created the tall white chef's toque worn by chefs to this day. Definitely a candidate for his own show on the Food Network, don’t you think?