Marie Antoine Careme was a French chef and food writer born in 1784 (8th June). Although named in the honor of Marie Antoinette, he preferred to use the name Antonin, especially after the French revolution. So don’t be confused when you’ll see Antonin Careme or Antoine Careme, it’s the same person.
Marie Antoine Careme – “The King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings”
A celebrity in his time, Careme had a very special style of cooking, a style that would be considered innovative, opulent and often excessive even nowadays. But it’s particularly this style that brought him the name of the founder of the classic French cuisine, a cuisine that reigns over Europe even decades later.
His addition to the French cuisine include: classifying the sauces into four groups, creating the so called cold food which aims to preserve the exact taste as it had when it was cooked (such as cold buffets) and establishing very high standards in professional kitchens, from recipes and menus to what workers wore during service (it was he who introduced double-breasted kitchen jackets as seen today and headgear. He was also the one to promote white as the universal color for chefs’ clothes as it indicated cleanliness).
Careme was born in Paris in a poor family which had somewhere between 15 and 25 children so supporting all of them was difficult. For that reason, his parents sent him away at an early age – some people say he was 8, others say he was 10, but even so, he was out on the streets having to look after himself at a very early age. Soon a tavern keeper took pity on him and offered him lodging for the night then the next morning offered him work. That’s when he first entered a professional kitchen. He took a 6-years apprenticeship at the tavern, starting as a potwasher and slowly moved his way up into the kitchen.
A few years later, in 1799, Careme obtained another apprenticeship with Sylvain Bailly – a very famous pastry chef who had a well-respected pastry shop near the Royal Palace. Bailly’s head pastry ched took Careme in his care and taught him not only how to master the pastry craft. but also to read and write. Once able to read, he spent a lot of time at the National Library where he began reading more and more while learning how to draw. He’s always been interested in architecture so his design study was hand in hand with that. It’s his skills and this study that allowed him to create amazing pastry masterpieces which were used as centerpieces for Bailly’s shop.
During his two years in Bailly’s shop, Careme also worked for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, Prince of Benevent and developed a strong work relationship with Talleyrand’s head chef – Boucher. But when the prince bought a large estate outside Paris, Talleyrand hired Careme as full-time chef. According to some writers, Careme worked exclusively for the Prince of Benevent, but certain writers claim that he did not. Instead, they say that while working for Talleyrand, he also opened a pastry shop in Rue du Paix which he ran until 1814. His job with Talleyrand was „on demand”, meaning that he went there to help with the menu on certain events rather than working there every single day, full-time.
At his shop he was allowed to let his imagination go wild so his centerpieces became more and more popular and famous. He created these centerpieces out of materials such as nougat, marzipan, sugar and dough and used architecture, pyramids and ancient ruins as inspiration. He crafted centerpieces for the Parisian high society, including Napoleon himself (it was Careme who made the cake and centerpieces at Napoleon’s wedding).
In 1815, Careme went to London and worked as head chef for George, Prince of Wales who would become George IV of England. But Careme hated England, he found the weather to be depressing and disliked the way the English chefs treated him in the kitchen due to his well-known name already. So 3 years later he returned to France and accepted to work for the British Ambassador in Vienna. In the same year, he published a book – Le Patissier Royal – which was a 400 page, two volume book focusing on patisserie. The book was so popular that he printed a second edition. What I find interesting about this book is that Careme himself drew the illustrations. When he realized that the critiques of his first book focused a lot on his illustrations, he took art lessons for his next book – Le Patissier Pittoresque.
Careme cooked occasionally for the Russian Emperor Alexander and it is known the fact that the Emperor loved Careme’s cabbage soup. He also had Antonin cook for a grand banquet he held at Plaine de Vertus outside Paris. In 1819, Careme went to St. Petersburg to work as head chef in Alexander’s kitchen, but the Emperor was absent and Careme was refused work until the tsar returned home. While waiting for the Emperor’s return, Careme had the chance to observe the Russian’s kitchen and did not like the atmosphere and intense surveillance so he returned to France before even meeting Alexander.
Back to Paris, Careme worked for Princess of Bragation and Lord Stairs until he found at job at the Baron James de Rothschild. He worked there until 1829 when he decided to retire and dedicated himself to art and writing books. His most famous book was published over the course of 1833 to 1834 and was called Lárt de la cuisine francaise au dix-neuvieme siècle. The book had 5 volumes, but he only managed to finish three of them as he passed away in 1833. His colleague Plumery finished the last two volumes.
Careme died at the age of 49 and is buried in Montmartre at the Cimitiere de Montmartre. He remains known as the one who founded the classical French cuisine even today and he is an inspiration for every modern chef nowadays.
Some of his gastronomical contribution to the world’s cuisine include: the famous Croquembouche, the well-known dessert Charlotte Russe which was created in the honor of the Emperor Alexander and the common meringues – it was at his pastry shop that he began piping meringue to a pastry bag; nobody did it before him. He is also credited to have invented the Napoleon Cake (Mille Feuille), inspired by Napoleon himself.