Henri Charpentier (1880 – 24 December 1961) was a French chef who lived in the United States and became a U.S. citizen.
During his lifetime, Henri was known as the inventor of Crêpe Suzette. That is now disputed by some, but without doubt he was the one to popularize it, and, in the minds of newspaper writers in the United States, that was his signature dish.
Henri was more a chef (in the true sense of leader) or restaurateur than a cook, usually having people work for him, with him looking after overall direction and the customers.
Every year, he looked forward immensely to the Christmas card that he received from Britain’s Royal Family.
Henri Charpentier was born in 1880 in Nice, France. His father was a lawyer; his mother was French nobility. His father died in a horse-riding accident just three days after Henri was born. His mother died five years later.
He was born in 1880 in Nice, France, of a 58-year-old lawyer father and a 17-year-old mother, who was the daughter of the Marquis Riboude Guibout. Charpentier’s father died three days after his son was born and his mother was killed five years later. Then Henry was taken into the home of a neighboring farmer family.” Bacon, James. Kitchen Still First Love of Veteran French Chef. Petersburg, Virginia: The Progress Index. 5 April 1961. Page 21. [Ed: his mother was not killed, she died of natural causes.]
The farmer family mentioned was the family of Rousson Camous in Contes. They had a son who was working at the Hotel Cap Martin on the French Riviera who procured a job there for Henri at the age of 10 in 1890.
“At the age of 10, young Henri deserted the farm life and took his first job, running dishes in the kitchen of a swank hotel on the French Riviera.” Bacon, James. Kitchen Still First Love of Veteran French Chef. Petersburg, Virginia: The Progress Index. 5 April 1961. Page 21.
Henri worked at the Hotel Cap Martin for at least three years.
The invention of Crêpe Suzette
By 1896, Charpentier was working as a Commis des rang at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo. It was there, at that time, that he claimed to have invented at the age of 16 — by accident — Crêpe Suzette.
It was 65 years ago, but Henri Charpentier, one of the last of the great chefs, remembers that breakfast on the terrace of the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo as if it were this morning. That’s the day he created Crêpes Suzette. Charpentier is 81, and now it takes four years to get a reservation at his tiny restaurant. But let him tell the story of that breakfast, and where it led:
“I was only 16 and serving the Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, later King Edward VII of England. Among the diners at the Prince’s table was a beautiful French girl named Suzette. I cannot recall her last name. It does not matter. His highness ordered crêpes — the French pancakes. I mixed the sauce, and added a brandy blend of my own. As I did, the heat of the chafing dish accidentally set the simmering cordials afire.
“I was embarrassed but I did not show it. I poured the fiery sauce of the crêpes, as if the flames were set on purpose. The prince tasted. Then he smiled and said: ‘Henri, what have you done with these crepes? They are superb.”
“I was thrilled and offered to name them in his honor. But he declined. ‘Henri,’ he said, ‘we must always remember that the ladies come first. We will call this glorious thing crêpes Suzette.’
“That was the day, monsieur. People had been eating pancakes from the days of Napoleon — even the Romans, but never before that day, crêpes Suzette.” — Bacon, James. Kitchen Still First Love of Veteran French Chef. Petersburg, Virginia: The Progress Index. 5 April 1961. Page 21.
Further European travels
Charpentier then worked at various restaurants in Europe:
“The next 10 years led Henri into jousts with the kettles and pots in such world-famed European eating houses as the Savoy in London, in Monte Carlo, the Metropole in Moscow, Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich and Maxim’s in Paris.” Berman, John. Biggest Stars Wait on Him. Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield News Journal. 21 August 1955. Page 37. He also worked at the Quirinale in Rome.
Charpentier’s transfer to the Savoy in London was to accompany Georges Escoffier there.
Charpentier emigrates to the United States
From London, Delmonico’s Restaurant of New York recruited him.
“After learning all the kitchens of the continent could teach him, Charpentier made his way to America five years after the turn of the twentieth century. His second night in New York, and already employed as a chef at Delmonico’s, Henri still remembers the warm compliment the late President Roosevelt paid to his favorite dish, a bowl of onion soup. Henri says the President gave him another compliment, too, by remarking “how wonderful” it was of him to have applied for citizenship papers on his first day in a new land.” Berman, John. Biggest Stars Wait on Him. Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield News Journal. 21 August 1955. Page 37.
He kept a scrap book of newspaper coverage showing the famous people he had fed:
“Henri is a world famous chef, and has 18 bulging scrapbooks of clippings to prove it. He served delicacies to Diamond Jim Brady, Theodore Roosevelt and Lillian Russell when he was chef at the famed Delmonico’s in New York.” Mosby, Aline. Film Stars Wait Months to Eat at Henri’s Tiny Restaurant. charOelwein, Iowa: The Oelwein Daily Register. 6 January 1953. Page 7.
Charpentier’s business ventures
In 1906 or 1907, Henri opened a restaurant called “Original Henri Restaurant & Bar” at 666 Scranton Avenue, Lynbrook, New York (Telephone Number Lynbrook 759.) At one point, he had live music: “Pierre di Bernard and His Continental Orchestra.” He — or rather his wife, Philomène — ran the restaurant for 31 years, until 1938.
During that time, though, he also tried his hand at restaurants in New York City. His first attempt there seems to have been a restaurant called the “Henri Charpentier” in Rockefeller Center, which lasted for about a year and a half, investing his savings from the Lynbrook restaurant. The restaurant failed, and he lost his savings, owing to a misunderstanding of the financial arrangements with the Rockefeller Centre.
“Opulent Rockefeller Center echoed and re-echoed today to succinct Gallic phrases and flamboyant Gallic arm-waving. Monsieur Henri Charpentier, creator of celebrated crepes suzette and one of the world’s most famous chefs, was expostulating. Monsieur Henri wished to see John D. Rockefeller; senior, junior, or third, it didn’t matter. It had been his understanding that he had been in the restaurant business with a Rockefeller. When city marshals came around and evicted him and his staff right out of Rockefeller’s own building, he was bitterly and tragically disillusioned.
Monsieur Henri presided over the kitchen of the restaurant Henri Charpentier, Inc., in Maison Francaise, a part of Rockefeller Center. He and his staff of seventy-seven had finished serving 192 patrons at luncheon. They were preparing for dinner and parties afterward. Three birthday cakes, freshly created by the great Monsieur Henri himself, were in the oven. The marshals chased them all into the street and padlocked the place. They acted on a writ obtained by Rockefeller Center, Inc. His white linen chef’s cap at a rakish angle on the back of his head, Monsieur Henri explained his troubles. In 1933, one Isaac Frankel, a Rockefeller agent, conferred with him in Paris, and asked him to open a Parisian restaurant in Rockefeller Center. He understood he was to receive $35,000 a year and one third of the profits.
“I sign the lease without reading eet, ” he exclaimed, waving both arms. “I would have signed eeneet’ing. Ees not Mr. Rockefeller the most philanthropic man in America?”
When he did read the lease when he took over he discovered he was supposed to pay 12 % percent of the gross receipts as rent. He stopped paying three months ago and began negotiating for a reduction. At a crucial moment his lawyer suffered a ruptured appendix. Yesterday he was evicted for being $13,825.98 behind in rent.
“I learn one fine lesson,” concluded Monsieur. “I tink M’sieur Rockefeller and I, we partners in restaurant. M’sieur Rockefeller, he provide the mon-nee, I provide the exqueesite artistry. “Nevaire again!” Nevaire! M’Sieu Henri Victim of a Horrible Mistake at Rockefeller Center. Middletown, New York: Middletown Times Herald. 12 April 1935. Page 6.
He then worked at other restaurants in New York during this period, such as Central Park Casino Caviar Free: M. Henri Charpentier, wistful maitre d’hotel of the swank Central Park Casino, is so pleased he’s going to give caviar away free with each $19 cover charge. It is, he whispered, the New Year’s eve parfait — like a lover’s dream , non?” — Miller, Sherman. New York Expects to Pull Off Real New Year Fiesta. Helena, Montana, USA: The Independent. 29 December 1935. Page 9., and House of Morgan.
Henri claims to have invented crepes suzette, among other things, and for this the town pays him homage, as if he had invented electric light or the telephone. He is known by the great men of the city, he is followed from one restaurant to another (he moves often because of the height of his salary) and at each place he is set upon a platform with a lot of spluttering silver pans about him, and there before the gentry he cooks away. He’s at the House of Morgan now, having failed in an attempt to establish his own swanky restaurant in Rockefeller Center. He has worked in many of the world’s finest hotels, the Savoy and the Cecil in London, the Paillard in Paris, the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo; all this before coming to America.
A restaurant of his own out in Lynbrook earned him a small fortune. This he invested in the Rockefeller Center venture. Now he is building up his finances again. He stands on his platform right out front in Miss Morgan’s shiny room and bows to the guests as they come in. A pleasant old apple-cheeked philosopher, he makes a trip around the dining room every few minutes to ask you if everything is all right. Most of the time he spends at his guests’ tables, discoursing on his favorite subject: wine. He is a sort of cook emeritus, and I doubt if he ever sees most of the food that’s served.” A New Yorker at Large. San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio Express. 20 April 1936. Page 9.
He operated the restaurant Lynbrook restaurant for 31 years, closing it on 28 September 1938 to make a move from New York State to Chicago. HENRI CHARPENTIER QUITS; Noted Chef Closes Restaurant in Lynbrook After 30 Years. New York Times. 1 October 1938. The restaurant in Chicago was called Café de Paris.
“THE FINE NONCHALANCE of Henri Charpentier, the courtly, white-mustached originator of crepe suzettes, in his excellent new restaurant (tucked away in the Park Dearborn) as he pours Cointreau and brandy directly from the bottles without measuring it but with a great flourish, into the pan for the sauce . . the lusciousness of the sauce AND the crepes.” Cass, Betty. Day by Day: Impressions of Chicago. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin State Journal. 5 May 1942. Page 13.
In May 1946, Henri started working at a restaurant on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles named “Henri’s” after him. He was not the owner, though. For the opening, a hired press agent engaged a leggy redhead to go around to newspaper offices to give out promotional gifts. “We were shocked when a beautiful redhead, garbed in the shortest shorts we’ve ever seen, walked into the office and passed out presents from Henri Charpentier, the French chef who’s opening a nitery [sic] on Sunset Strip.” Jamie Fidler in Hollywood. Joplin, Missouri: Joplin Globe. 23 May 1946. Page 11. AND Jamie Fidler in Hollywood. Joplin, Missouri: Joplin Globe. 31 May 1946. Page 11. The restaurant introduced Caesar’s Salad to the west coast. [See Literature and Lore section below.]
Henri didn’t last long at Henri’s, though. He left after a dispute with the owner about creative freedom. He then tried working at Malibou Lodge, at Lake Malibou, Malibu, California, but left there in 1948. Mosby, Aline. Film Stars Wait Months to Eat at Henri’s Tiny Restaurant. Oelwein, Iowa: The Oelwein Daily Register. 6 January 1953. Page 7.
During this period of his moving about from restaurant to restaurant throughout America, Henri also at some point worked in Miami.
In 1948, Henri finally settled into his second successful restaurant venture after Lynbrook: a small restaurant owned and run exclusively by him in Redondo Beach, California, 30 miles (48 km) from Hollywood.
It was an unfashionable area at the time, but then the restaurant was untypical, too. It was in his living room. The maximum capacity that he could sit and feed was 14, though he preferred dinner parties of 4 to 12. The price of the meal in 1948 was 7 dollars (by 1961, he had raised it a whole dollar to 8 dollars), and demand was so great reservations had to be made at least a year in advance. The actual cooking was done by Mary Kalk, who by 1961 had worked with Henri for 22 years. Guests brought their own alcohol to the restaurant, but Henri allowed only wine, because he said hard alcohol deadened the taste buds.
Five years ago, Henri, broke, moved to his tiny beach house.
“I bought this old stove for ten dollars from the Salvation Army and I started cooking, ” he says. “Many people all over remember Henri. I never advertise. The word got around and they come from all over — Santa Barbara, San Diego, Los Angeles, even New York.”
There’s no sign out in front, waitress or menu. For $7 a plate (you bring your own wine) Henri will whip up and serve lobster Victoria, Roast duck with cherry sauce, sweet potatoes with fruit, Romaine salad and crepe suzettes. Along with the food, you get Henri’s conversation. The 70-year-old chef, wearing his white cap and apron, settles down behind your chair while you eat. He discourses — non-stop — on the good, old days: President Truman, how wonderful women are, and other bits of French philosophy.
“I used to own castles in France,” the white-haired chef says. “But I am happier here. I can cook my own way.” Mosby, Aline. Film Stars Wait Months to Eat at Henri’s Tiny Restaurant. Oelwein, Iowa: The Oelwein Daily Register. 6 January 1953. Page 7.
“He is Henri Charpentier, in whose weatherbeaten frame house in Redondo Beach the most elegantly prepared dinners in the United States are served nightly to those gourmets with the patience to reserve the single table a year or so in advance.” Berman, John. Biggest Stars Wait on Him. Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield News Journal. 21 August 1955. Page 37.
The world’s most unusual restaurant is located in a small humble house, half hidden by tangled bougainvillaea and ivy, at 304 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach. There are no flashing signs, no neon out front to indicate that this is the establishment of one of France’s greatest chefs — Monsieur Henri Charpentier…. When they make their reservation, the guests order what they choose, but all the members of the party must order the same items…. Over the years he amassed with the help of the 1920’s booming stock market — some $4,000,000. But bad luck dogged him. The millions are gone now, with an assist from the same stock market and unsuccessful eating places he promoted in Miami Beach, Chicago and Los Angeles.” Thomey, Tedd. Now Taking Reservations for ’59. Long Beach, California: Long Beach Press-Telegram. 27 December 1955. Page 34.
Henri had a heart attack during 1961 which slowed him down. He died at the end of that year on Christmas Eve, Sunday, 24 December 1961. The restaurant was continued on for some time afterward by Mary Kalk, his assistant:
“His longtime assistant, Mary Kalk… will continue the restaurant, using Charpentier’s recipes.” Bacon, James. Henri Charpentier, Discoverer of Crepes Suzette, Dies at 81. Long Beach, California: Press-Telegram. 25 December 1961. Page 10.
Henri’s wife’s name was Philomène. The couple had a son named Camile Henri Charpentier, who owned a harness racing stable called “Paladin” in Westbury, New York, and who remained living in Lynbrook, New York after his father moved.
Henri also had a son named Pierre. Henri Charpentier Quits; Noted Chef Closes Restaurant in Lynbrook After 30 Years. New York Times. 1 October 1938.
Publications & Media
In 1934, Henri published his biography up to that time in a book called “Life a la Henri”. Excerpts of the book were run in the Saturday Evening Post in spring 1934.
“Two people not habitually writers have utilized their specialties in widely different ways this week. Henri Charpentier, the chef and restaurateur, has produced a book entitled “Life a la Henri” (Simon & Schuster) which is not only the story of how a little French boy became a great cook, but an evocation of the typical Frenchman. The book was put into shape by Boyden Sparkes, who has destroyed none of the flavor of the Henri personality, and certainly has not made the descriptions of food and its preparation less delicious sounding. Henri has some amusing glimpses of important people; he sees them through the steam and aroma of fine food, as it were.” —Selby, Jon. Scanning New Books Column. Canandaigua, New York: New York State. The Daily Messenger. 5 November 1934. Page 4.
In 1936, Henri wrote the “Calvert’s Thanksgiving Menu and Recipe Booklet” for Calvert Whisky. The promotional booklet was distributed free.
In 1945, Henri privately published “Food and Finesse — The Brides Bible”, a book with a small circulation. (The book was reprinted in 1970 by Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc, and re-titled “The Henri Charpentier Cookbook.”)
In 1958, there was a television special about Henri called “Recipe for Success”, in which Henri was portrayed by Walter Slezak:
“Telephone Time—”Recipe for Success.” Tuesday night’s best show. Nothing much happens in this drama about Henri Charpentier, the renowned French chef who created Crepe Suzette, but Walter Slezak is so charming in the lead that the play is irresistible. Scene where Charpentier gets a chance to serve his boyhood idol, Sarah Bernhardt, beautifully portrayed by Edith Barrett, is delightful. You’ll meet the real Charpentier at the end, and perhaps he’ll help you understand why his restaurant is booked solid through 1961. 8:30 p.m., channel 2.” — Tonight’s TV Highlights. In Salt Lake Tribune. Salt Lake City, Utah. 11 February 1958. Page 21.
Literature & Lore
“HENRI CHARPENTIER is one of the best known French chefs in this country. He is a genial man with a full philosophy of life which regards food and its enjoyment as one of the greatest and sanest of gifts which the gods, have given to men and women — and to little children.
“Ah. yes. In France the mama begins to teach the little fellows early how to appreciate good food,” exclaims M. Charpentier. “She makes first plain bread. They taste it. Learn to know how good plain bread can be.
“They get a little older, then the mama puts a few raisins In the bread. They must eat the bread to get the raisins — you see. They learn a little more about how to eat. Later on, she puts some nuts in the bread, too, and they learn a little more about tasty food.
“Little by little her children get themselves so well educated that they can eat pastries and cakes with full enjoyment. Their palates have been educated. That, my friend,” he adds a bit sadly, “is much different from letting the children eat all the ice cream sodas and lollypops they want.”
This wise Frenchman approves of the modern way school teachers ask children with low grades, “What did you eat for breakfast?”
He explains. “Of course, tell me what a man eats and I will tell you how he thinks, feels, and works. Why is it that only school teachers ask “what did you eat?” The big boss in the office should ask his workers, too. “If they do not eat happily, then he should do something about their diet if he wants them to work well and hard for him. And I think each mother should realize, too, that children will be good and lead happy lives only if she teaches them early in life how to prepare and to enjoy the right food.”
Henri Charpentier has just written a history of his very friendly life, “Life a la Henri,” in which he uses food, philosophy, and adventure to weave a stirring and rich picture of the good life as one courageous and slightly sentimental Frenchman sees it.” — Lyly, Penrose. How The French Introduce Children to Good Food. Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune. 11 January 1935. Page 16.
Henri was opposed to the American habit of having a salad as an appetizer:
“And finally I found [Caesar] was invented by an Italian named Caesar Gardini [Ed.: misspelling of Cardini in the original article] in his Tiajuana [Ed.: sic] restaurant, called Caesar’s. Edmund Lowe tasted it there and brought it to Hollywood. Caesar’s ex-partner, Peter Frigerio, formerly at the Colony and Marguery in New York, is now a captain at Henri’s here where, of course, you can get a wonderful Caesar Salad. But confidentially, the French-born Henri de Charpentier, who’s chef there and used to be at Lynbrook, L.I. [ed. Long Island, NY], thinks it’s a big mistake to down such a huge glamourous salad before the main course… Chef Henri says, his 250 pounds trembling with indignation, “How can you start with a salad and appreciate the wonderful food that’s to come? I’ve never seen it in the world before. Dat’s against good eating. It’s a grave mistake.” — Earl Wilson. “Dressing Up Garlic”. New York Post. Appearing in The Times Recorder. Zanesville, Ohio. 1 February 1947. Page 4.
” ‘Up until the day of his death,” said Miss Kalk. ‘Henri awaited the mail, looking for his 71st annual Christmas greeting from Britain’s royal family. It will come. It always does, but sometimes the mails are late.’ Henri, as an apprentice of 10, caught the favor of Queen Victoria while she vacationed on the French Riviera.” — Bacon, James. Famed Crepes Suzette Creator, Henri Charpentier, Dies At 81. Lawton, Oklahoma: Lawton Constitution. 25 December 1961. Page 11.
Charpentier, Henri. Life a la Henri: Being the Memories of Henri Charpentier (affiliate link)
Bacon, James. Kitchen Still First Love of Veteran French Chef. Petersburg, Virginia: The Progress Index. 5 April 1961. Page 21.
Bacon, James. Henri Charpentier, Discoverer of Crepes Suzette, Dies at 81. Long Beach, California: Press-Telegram. 25 December 1961. Page 10.
Charpentier, Henri. Life a la Henri: Being the Memories of Henri Charpentier. Modern Library Food Series. February 2001.
Denicola, Linda. My Take Column: The French connection. Freehold, New Jersey, USA: Freehold News Transcript. 26 December 26 2007.
|↑1||Bacon, James. Kitchen Still First Love of Veteran French Chef. Petersburg, Virginia: The Progress Index. 5 April 1961. Page 21.|
|↑2||Bacon, James. Kitchen Still First Love of Veteran French Chef. Petersburg, Virginia: The Progress Index. 5 April 1961. Page 21.|
|↑3||Berman, John. Biggest Stars Wait on Him. Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield News Journal. 21 August 1955. Page 37.|
|↑4||Berman, John. Biggest Stars Wait on Him. Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield News Journal. 21 August 1955. Page 37.|
|↑5||Mosby, Aline. Film Stars Wait Months to Eat at Henri’s Tiny Restaurant. charOelwein, Iowa: The Oelwein Daily Register. 6 January 1953. Page 7.|
|↑6||Nevaire! M’Sieu Henri Victim of a Horrible Mistake at Rockefeller Center. Middletown, New York: Middletown Times Herald. 12 April 1935. Page 6.|
|↑7||Caviar Free: M. Henri Charpentier, wistful maitre d’hotel of the swank Central Park Casino, is so pleased he’s going to give caviar away free with each $19 cover charge. It is, he whispered, the New Year’s eve parfait — like a lover’s dream , non?” — Miller, Sherman. New York Expects to Pull Off Real New Year Fiesta. Helena, Montana, USA: The Independent. 29 December 1935. Page 9.|
|↑8||A New Yorker at Large. San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio Express. 20 April 1936. Page 9.|
|↑9||HENRI CHARPENTIER QUITS; Noted Chef Closes Restaurant in Lynbrook After 30 Years. New York Times. 1 October 1938.|
|↑10||Cass, Betty. Day by Day: Impressions of Chicago. Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin State Journal. 5 May 1942. Page 13.|
|↑11||Jamie Fidler in Hollywood. Joplin, Missouri: Joplin Globe. 23 May 1946. Page 11. AND Jamie Fidler in Hollywood. Joplin, Missouri: Joplin Globe. 31 May 1946. Page 11.|
|↑12||Mosby, Aline. Film Stars Wait Months to Eat at Henri’s Tiny Restaurant. Oelwein, Iowa: The Oelwein Daily Register. 6 January 1953. Page 7.|
|↑13||Mosby, Aline. Film Stars Wait Months to Eat at Henri’s Tiny Restaurant. Oelwein, Iowa: The Oelwein Daily Register. 6 January 1953. Page 7.|
|↑14||Berman, John. Biggest Stars Wait on Him. Mansfield, Ohio: Mansfield News Journal. 21 August 1955. Page 37.|
|↑15||Thomey, Tedd. Now Taking Reservations for ’59. Long Beach, California: Long Beach Press-Telegram. 27 December 1955. Page 34.|
|↑16||Bacon, James. Henri Charpentier, Discoverer of Crepes Suzette, Dies at 81. Long Beach, California: Press-Telegram. 25 December 1961. Page 10.|
|↑17||Henri Charpentier Quits; Noted Chef Closes Restaurant in Lynbrook After 30 Years. New York Times. 1 October 1938.|