Life and Times
Marie-Antoine Carême was a French chef and food writer who lived from 8 June 1783 — 12 January 1833. His tombstone says he was born in 1783. Sometimes the birth year is given by historians as 1784, though some counter that may have been the year in which he was baptized. Though named in honour of Marie Antoinette, he preferred to call himself “Antonin” — no doubt for many reasons, particularly after the French Revolution.
A celebrity chef, his was a style of cooking that would now be deemed opulent if not outright excessive. He is now seen as the founder of “La Grande Cuisine Française”, having established the supremacy of French cooking in Europe for the next 200 years. He was also very interested in architecture, an interest which he translated into his monumental edible table pieces constructed of food.
He abolished the presence of fish and meat on the same plate. In his book “L’Art de la Cuisine Française”, he revolutionized away old-style garnishes such as cockscombs and offal (remnants of Renaissance cooking style.) Instead, he would use meat to garnish meat, and fish to garnish fish.
He was a modernizer. He called Roman cookery “essentially barbaric.” He is the one who classified French sauces into the four groups they remain known as today. (Some now say his sauces hid too much of the flavour of the actual dish, a flaw that Escoffier would later aim to correct.)
He codified the art of “cold food” that aimed to preserve as much taste as it had when cooked. In fact, he was a big proponent of cold buffets.
His books include topics such as the history of French cooking, menus, recipes and directions on how to run a kitchen. And as you can imagine, he had precise kitchen standards, right down to what people wore when working in them. It was he who instituted the double-breasted kitchen jackets still worn today, and headgear: tall hats (toque with folded pleats) for chefs and caps for cooks. Both jackets and caps had to be in white. Carême thought white more appropriate for kitchen uniforms, as it would indicate cleanliness.
Carême was born in Rue du Bac, Paris, to a poor family that had somewhere between 15 and 25 children. His father was a dock worker at the nearby river wharves. Carême was sent out to fend for himself at a young age: some say 8, some 10, others 12. Depending on which age you plump for, this would have been 1792, 1794, or 1796. In any event, it would have been during the ongoing turmoil of the French Revolution. Some say he was sent out to find work; others say his father bought him a meal at a bistro (as if people that poor would be admitted into restaurants of that era) and then abandoned him at the end of the meal.
A tavern keeper took pity on him, offered him lodging for the night, and then in the morning offered him work. The tavern was the “Fricassée de Lapin”, an inexpensive tavern by the Maine gate in Paris. Carême signed on for a 6 year apprenticeship, starting as a potwasher and gopher boy.
In 1798, at the age of 17 (some say 1799 at age of 16), Carême obtained another apprenticeship with Sylvain Bailly a famous pastry chef whose shop was in rue Vivienne near the Palais-Royal. Bailly’s head pastry maker, Avice, took Carême under his wing, taught him to make pastry, and encouraged him to learn how to read and write. Bailly allowed him time to study in the “Cabinet des Gravures” (Department of Prints/Engravings) at the Bibliothéque Nationale, where Carême deepened his drawing as well as his reading skills. As his study of design grew, particularly from his admiration of the works of works of Palladio and Tertio, he was able to reproduce in sugar and pastry the famous architectural works that he had seen in the books. Bailly displayed these elaborate architectural pastry pieces in his shop window, which helped increase his business.
Carême stayed with Bailly for two years. During this time, he also did freelance work for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince of Bénévent (1754 — 1838) Talleyrand remains one of the most important diplomats in European history. Talleyrand was French Foreign Minister from 1797 to 1799, when he resigned, then took up the post again five months later, and held it until 1807, when he resigned again. He was reappointed in 1814, resigning again in 1815 when Napoleon was defeated for the second time (at Waterloo in 1815.) Talleyrand stayed in retirement until 1829, and then was ambassador to London until 1834., and while doing freelance work in Talleyrand’s and other people’s kitchens, he learned to cook things other than pastry. Talleyrand took his food seriously, and liked to spend an hour each morning going over the menu for the day. Boucher (full name Boucheseiche) was Talleyrand’s head chef / controller. Carême worked for Boucher for 12 years, and learned a great deal from him. Some sources, in fact, credit Carême’s idea of chefs hats, and of kitchen clothing being white, to Boucher.
Many sources say that in 1804, Talleyrand took Carême on full-time when Talleyrand purchased (with money supplied by Napoléon) a large estate outside Paris called Château Valençay. Napoleon intended the estate to be a useful tool in diplomacy.
However, a Spanish writer, Manu Ruiz de Luzuriaga, challenges the traditional view that Carême actually worked exclusively for Talleyrand. De Luzuriaga says that, instead, in 1801, at the age of 18, Carême left Bailly, and headed up another pastry shop, run by the descendants of a pastry maker named Gendron, which agreed to allow him even greater freelancing freedom. According to de Luzuriaga, in 1802, Carême left that pastry shop as well, and went full-time “freelance”, opening his own pastry shop in Rue du Paix in 1804, which he ran until 1814. Carême’s position with Talleyrand was on an “on demand” basis, in position of “chef de bouche” (though de Luzuriaga allows that the demand was frequent.) The whole misunderstanding, de Luzuriaga says, comes from Carême himself, in dedicating his 1815 book Le Pâtissier Royal Parisien to Monsieur Boucher, “contrôleur de la Maison de Talleyrand.” In the dedication, Carême gives his own position as “chef de bouche” du prince de Talleyrand. While de Luzuriaga agrees that Carême was indeed “Chef de bouche”, he maintains Carême was a freelance, consultant one.
In 1808, Carême married Henriette Mahy de Chitenay. Carême had one child a few years later, a daughter named Marie, but not with Henriette: rather, with a woman named Agathe Guicharder. Records aren’t clear whether Carême had remarried at the time, or just had an affair.
Some feel that the popular belief that Carême was at the Congress of Vienna (1814 — 1815) is also false. Yet a quote attributed to Talleyrand, at least, implies that Carême was there . When leaving for the Congress of Vienna, Talleyrand is reputed to have said to the newly-installed Louis XVIII, “Sire, j’ai plus besoin de casseroles que d’instructions. Laissez-moi faire et comptez sur Carême.” (Sire, I need saucepans more than instructions. Let me do my work, and count on Carême.) [Ed. as reported by Lucien Tendret, French lawyer, 1825 — 1896.]
In 1815, Carême went to London and worked as head chef for George, Prince of Wales (1762 — 1839), who would become George IV of England in 1820. Carême didn’t like England; he found the climate depressing, and the English cooks in the kitchens treated him badly because of all the celebrity attention paid to him. He returned to Paris in 1818, and accepted an offer to travel on to Vienna to work for the British Ambassador there, Lord Charles Stewart.
In 1815, he published a book, “Le Pâtissier Royal.” Some say it was his first book, others say “Maitre d’Hôtel Français” was his first. The difficulty in knowing is that the publication date of “Maitre d’Hôtel Français” remains uncertain. In any event, the “Pâtissier Royal” was a 400 page, two volume book. It was so popular that a second edition had to be printed 3 months later. Carême himself drew most of the illustrations. Critics focussed on the quality of the illustrations, so Carême took art lessons before doing his next book, “Le Pâtissier Pittoresque.”
Popular belief is mistaken in holding that Carême actually worked full-time as a cook for the Russian Emperor Alexander 1 (1777 — 1825.) Carême cooked for Alexander at the gatherings of the victors in 1815 in France after the defeat of Napoleon. Alexander had Carême make and serve cabbage soup several times. (At home, Alexander may have eaten a great deal of French food, but during these negotiations, he wanted to emphasize that all things Russian were good.) Alexander also had him take charge of a grand banquet on 10 September 1815 held at Plaine des Vertus outside Paris.
In 1819, Carême went to St Petersburg to work as head of kitchen for Alexander. Alexander was absent, though, on an extended trip to the other end of the Russian Empire in Archangel, and Carême wasn’t allowed to start work until he returned. While waiting, Carême decided he didn’t like what he’d seen of the palace kitchens. The kitchen staff had been previously deemed corrupt and so were chafing under intense, constant surveillance. Carême didn’t want to work with them or in such an atmosphere, so he returned in France in 1820 before Alexander even returned to St Petersburg.
In Paris, Carême did some cooking for the Princess of Bragation, but was then lured back to Vienna by Lord Stewart for a short while until the Ambassador returned to London in 1820. Carême returned to Paris, worked for a short time for Lord Stairs, then in 1821 worked for Prince Sterhazy, the Austrian ambassador in Paris, then finally worked in Paris again for Baron James de Rothschild (1792 — 1868) from 1823 to 1829. In 1829, he retired from work and dedicated himself to writing. Rothschild offered to let him retire at his castle, but Carême declined.
Carême’s most famous book today is “L’art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle” (published Chez MM. J. Renouard et Cie.) It was published in five volumes over the course of 1833 to 1834. He died after the third volume was published in 1833; his colleague Plumerey edited the final two volumes, 4 and 5.
Carême was 49 when he died in January 1833. (50, if you take his birth year as 1783.) A plaster cast was made of his head right after he died. He is buried in Montmartre at the Cimetière de Montmartre. His wife was later buried in the same place. The tombstone reads:
“Ici reposent Marie Antoine Carême né à Paris le 8 juin 1783 et decedé à Paris le 12 janvier 1833. Mme Carême née à Phillipeville le 23 Decembre 1792 et decedé à Paris le 1er mars 1840. La mort les a enlevés trop tôt. A leurs enfants et leurs amis. Un de profundis.”
“Here rests Marie Antoine Carême born in Paris 8 June 1783 and died in Paris 12 January 1833. Madame Carême born in Phillipeville 23 December 1792 and died in Paris 1st March 1840. Death took them too soon. To their children and their friends. Un de profundis.”
18**. Le Maitre d’Hôtel Français
1815. Le Pâtissier Royal Parisien, ou traité élémentaire et pratique de la Pâtisserie ancienne et moderne de l’Entremets de sucre, des entrées froides et des socles
18**. Le Pâtissier Pittoresque
1828. Le Cuisinier Parisienne
1833. L’Art de la Cuisine Française au dix-neuvième siècle
Literature & Lore
“At Vienna, Talleyrand wanted to give a dinner that would pay honour to France, which was after all the subject of the congress [Ed. in fact the goal was more like how to stop France and Napoleon causing a European war every other year.] Above all, Talleyrand wanted to serve a magnificent fish, and in order to be sure of getting one good fish, he ordered two, each one from a different merchant.
One that arrived was from the Rhine, almost as big as a man. The second salmon also arrived, from the Moselle River. It was at least 6 feet (2 metres) long. Carême said to Talleyrand, there’s one too many. I can’t serve both. Talleyrand replied, you will serve both. I won’t, said Carême, it’s against all the rules. Talleyrand said, but when I command… and Carême said, “No one can force me to make a professional blooper like that”. “Now don’t get angry, said Talleyrand, and then whispered a few words into Carême’s ear.
During dinner, the salmon dish was announced by flutes and violins, and carried in by two waiters on a silver tray. It was the Rhine salmon, in a bed of flowers and garnished with lemon and parsley. All the guests cried out in admiration, but just as they did, one of the waiters slipped and the salmon fell on the floor. The guests were dismayed. Talleyrand called for Carême, and asked him in front of everyone if he had foreseen that such an accident could happen. Carême replied that he always took precautions, and had another one prepared. And he had the ceremony restarted, and as he and Talleyrand had decided during the whisper that morning, the salmon from the Moselle, looking far more spectacular, was paraded out to the astonished guests.”  From: Talleyrand: Biographie du Prince et Ses Lieux de Vie. Chapitre IV : Textes, Memoires et Opinions. “Le Saumon de M. de Talleyrand”. Retrieved October 2005 from http://pcombal.club.fr/index5.html.
de Luzuriaga, Manu Ruiz. Antonin Carême: El cocinero de los reyes y el rey de los cocineros. In “Zapardiel: revista de cultura y gastronomía”, No 1, September 2000. Vitoria Gasteiz, Spain.
Kelly, Ian. Crème du Carême. Manchester: The Guardian. 12 October 2003.
|↑1||His tombstone says he was born in 1783. Sometimes the birth year is given by historians as 1784, though some counter that may have been the year in which he was baptized.|
|↑2||Talleyrand remains one of the most important diplomats in European history. Talleyrand was French Foreign Minister from 1797 to 1799, when he resigned, then took up the post again five months later, and held it until 1807, when he resigned again. He was reappointed in 1814, resigning again in 1815 when Napoleon was defeated for the second time (at Waterloo in 1815.) Talleyrand stayed in retirement until 1829, and then was ambassador to London until 1834.|
|↑3||Some sources, in fact, credit Carême’s idea of chefs hats, and of kitchen clothing being white, to Boucher.|
|↑4||From: Talleyrand: Biographie du Prince et Ses Lieux de Vie. Chapitre IV : Textes, Memoires et Opinions. “Le Saumon de M. de Talleyrand”. Retrieved October 2005 from http://pcombal.club.fr/index5.html.|