Napoleon’s Chef

He was the first ‘celebrity chef.’ Emperors and Kings, the elite of Europe in the age of romantacism paid homage to Carême’s amazing culinary creations .

Abandoned by his parents in Paris in 1794 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. The post-revolutionary Palais Royal was a high profile, fashionable neighborhood filled with vibrant life and bustling crowds. Bailly recognized his talent and ambition. By the time he was prepared to leave Bailly, he could stipulate that he should be free to leave his new employer when a better offer came along. He opened his shop, the Pâtisserie de la rue de la Paix, which he maintained until 1813.

Today’s parade of wannabe chefs putrifying our TV screens would make this exceptional man turn in his grave! He was the first celebrity chef and a master of the culinary arts. 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 is credited with the inventions of gros nougats and grosses meringues, croquantes, made of almonds and honey, and solilemmes.

caremechefsHe 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 sent 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 his Paris house on the Rue Neuve Saint Roche at the age of 48, due perhaps to many years inhaling the toxic fumes of the charcoal on which he cooked. He is remembered as the founder of the haute cuisine concept and is interred in the Cimetière de Montmartre alongside the likes of Degas, Foucault and Berlioz.

In his first major position, Carême worked as chef de cuisine to Talleyrand who actively encouraged Carême in the development of a new refined food style using herbs and fresh vegetable, simplified sauces with few ingredients. Talleyrand became a famous host during the Congress of Vienna—when the congress disbanded, not only the map of Europe but also the culinary tastes of its upper classes were revised.

Carême’s impact on culinary matters ranged from trivial to theoretical. He is credited with creating the standard chef’s hat, the toque; he designed new sauces and dishes, he 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) after he returned from service in the Russian court, but others say he was a diehard supporter of service à la française.

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.

caremedisplayNo 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 (only two months after Waterloo), 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 reconstruction.

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.

Recipe of Marie Antonin Careme

Les Petits Vol-A u-Vents al a Nesle

Brighton Pavilion and, Chateau Rothschild

20 vol-au-vent cases, the diameter of a glass

20 cocks-combs

20 cocks-s tones (testes)

10 lambs sweet breads (thymus and pancreatic glands ,washed in water for five hours, until the liquid runs clear)

10 small truffles, pared, chopped, boiled in consomme

20 tiny mushooms

20 lobster tails

4 fine whole lambs’ brains, boiled and chopped

1 Frenchloaf

2 spoonfulls chicken jelly

2 spoonfulls veloute sauce

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 tablespoons chopped mushrooms

4 egg yolks

2 chickens, boned

2 calves’ udders

2 pint scream

sauce Allemande

salt, nutmeg



lobster tails

four fine whole brains


Crumb a whole French loaf . Add two spoon fulls of poultry jelly, one of veloute, one tablespoon of chopped parsley, two of mushrooms, chopped. Boil and stir as it thickens to a ball. Add two egg yolks. Pound the flesh of two boned chickens through a sieve. Boil two calves’  udders —once cold, pound and pass through a sieve. Then, mix six ounces of the breadcrumbs pan add a to ten ounces of the chicken meat, and ten of the calves’ udders and combine and pound for 15 minutes. Add five drams of salt, some nutmeg and the yolks of two more eggs and a spoonful of cold veloute or bechamel.  Pound for a further ten minutes. Test by poaching a ball in boiling water—it should form soft, smooth balls. Make some balls of poultry forcemeat in small coffee spoons ,dip them in jelly broth and after draining on a napkin, place them regularly in the vol-au-vent, already half filled with: a good ragout of cocks-combs and stones (testicles) lambs’ sweet breads ( thymus and pancreatic glands, washed in water for five hours, until the liquid runs clear). Cover all with an extra thick sauce Allemande.

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