From the creation of the four mother sauces to the stunning croquembouche and mille-feuille to designing the format of professional food writing, Marie-Antoine Carême was a culinary legend and the first celebrity chef. With Teachers’ Day coming up, we pay an ode to this great chef and his heritage
The creators of dishes, and curators of experience. The people who have since time immemorial invented, innovated and defined how a nation/world dines. Minds who with their ingenuity have created a delicious repertoire that has then become the foundation of many a culture, and beyond. People who were gamechangers in their own right—not just in the politics but in the tapestry of evolution.
And yet, history, which has reams dedicated to kings and queens for their patronage of food, offers little on the men and women who were once prized treasures worth their weight in gold.
That was till Marie-Antoine Carême. Considered to be the father of modern cuisine and plating, the Frenchman is the first celebrity chef in the history of food known not just for his lavish creations including the famous croquembouche but also for the four mother sauces that are used to make a wide variety of dishes across the world and for presenting the first format of a professional cookbook. In fact, it was Carême who designed the concept of Enlightenment Cuisine which led to the concept of fine dining in restaurants replete with the different ways food could be presented including very distinct carving of fruits. Carême—who came to the forefront of French dining around the early 18th-century century when restaurant dining was becoming fashionable among not only the aristocracy and title holders but also the richer class of society—became the first to bring architecture into food. A gifted pâtissier, he firmly believed that dining out was all about experiences and needed grandeur of texture, taste and artistry. He had his first introduction to the crème de la crème of French society through his elaborate sugar and pastry artwork that would often adorn the glass showcase of the patisserie owned by Sylvain Bailly near Palais-Royal. Carême, who had risen from the ranks of dishwasher in taverns to Paris and Sylvain’s favourite apprentice, was just 16.
The next two years saw Carême not just perfect his knowledge of food architecture but bring it to the forefront with centrepieces. The most prestigious was the cake he created for the wedding of Napoleon and his second bride, Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810. A few months later, the “eat with your eye” specialist found himself at the service of the fastidious Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (Talleyrand), Napoleon’s chief diplomat. Food lore has it that Talleyrand by then had earned the reputation of being a terror for the culinary community. Excessively well-travelled, privileged, powerful and with a mercurial temper only matched by his unrealistic expectations when it came to food, the diplomat found a match in the cocksure Carême. Sources have it that while creating a feast to mark Napoleon’s victory at Château de Valençay—the residence that was purchased and designed for entertaining diplomatic guests—the diplomat and the chef got into an altercation, to which, Carême, one of the top pastry chefs in France at that point, is said to have replied thus: “I am here to treat you to great pleasure of food and taste the way I know it.”
It is everyone’s assumption that the meal was a huge success as Carême continued to be with Talleyrand till 1814 during which he brought in his trademark playfulness, out-of-the-box thinking, precision and pageantry to savoury dishes as well. As with most great chefs of the time, the Frenchman’s unique approach and showmanship soon landed him as the head chef of the most modern kitchen at the palace of the Prince of Wales. It is during his three-year stint here that the culinary crafter wrote his first book, Le pâtissier royal, a 482-page, two-volume tome that was an ode to his culinary ingenuity and architectural nature of food. The book, replete with line drawings and instructions, became the template of modern food writing. Till then books were written more as notes for chefs and cooks only. With Carême began the trend of documenting recipes, techniques and styles along with the phrase “you can try this for yourself at home”. The bestseller tome however also made news for yet another first: Carême’s vainglorious self-promotion. Each book carried a portrait of the chef in the first few pages along with his famous reference to himself, Le Roi des Chefs et le Chef des Rois, translated as “The King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings”.
Fascinatingly, his ability to walk his trumpet worked for Carême as he continued to set new trends both for French and English dining, all the while penning down several more books including the seminal five-volume L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle: traité élémentaire et pratique. With each book, Carême began systematising the cuisine by decoding the grand cuisine française which required new techniques, expensive ingredients and a bevy of chefs to put together. Chefs, who by then would learn by mimicking techniques that others developed, took to his book to understand the nuances of haute cuisine, and learn by watching, testing and repeating. In fact, one of the charms of his manuals was that it helped rationalise the cuisine of the rich and the royal. He would often begin by explaining how to make bouillon and then use it to create an array of soups and sauces that he would use to create more dishes.
What worked in Carême’s favour was the dining culture that was witnessing a surge of new-age ingredients and spices and diners who were willing to experiment and pay any price for it. Thanks to his almost molecular gastronomy style take on food, Carême would spend the subsequent years with Russian Emperor Alexander I before travelling much of Europe serving princes, landlords and ambassadors before taking charge of the kitchens of Baron James de Rothschild where he laid what eventually became a standard practice for many a chef’s table today. A format where everyone sat around a table that was beautifully laid out with food of all manners presented on grand platters, towering structures of cold salads, soups, hot roasts, delicate pastries, rich sauces and stews. And it was the chef who would take you through the gourmet journey. The feast he created for the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia’s visit to George IV’s Brighton Pavilion in 1817 was such a classic case. The menu that was read out to the esteemed diners was made of 120 different dishes, with eight different soups, 40 entrees including the glazed veal with chicory and jellied partridge with mayonnaise and close to 33 desserts.
Thanks to his bespoke tables, by 1827 Carême was a celebrity, valued, revered and loved by royalty and those who could afford to come to his table. In the world of the kitchen though, he influenced many a young chef to think beyond as he wrote in L’Art de la cuisine française, “Young people who love your art; have courage, perseverance… always hope… don’t count on anyone, be sure of yourself, of your talent and your probity and all will be well.” His life from an orphan to the celebrated chef of the royals was a living example. Two years later, the legendary chef succumbed to the vagaries of a choking, coal-filled, soot-heavy, airless underground kitchen like many of his peers. He was 44.
Post his death, many found Carême’s culinary vision limited given that his life’s work was about the food of the rich and royal, but his legacy at opening the gates to endless possibility through culinary art remains undeniable. In fact, most modern cuisine practitioners today look upon his playfulness, grandeur and penchant for pageantry as tools to curate memorable dining experiences.
In his lifetime Carême understood what most food writers, chefs and bon vivants have come to appreciate as the foundation of fine dining: To live well, one must dine well. And the legend did it exceptionally well.
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.