Marie-Antoine Carême had the misfortune to be born the sixteenth child of a desperately poor Parisian family, five years before the French Revolution. At the culmination of the revolutionary period so bloodthirsty it would be called the Reign of Terror, Papa Carême walked a ten-year-old ‘Antonin’ from their shanty home on Rue du Bac to the nearby Porte du Maine (one of the city gates), and abandoned him to his supposed, sad destiny.

But little Antonin wasn’t ready to let fate victor over him so easily. He had a couple of winning cards of his own up his sleeve. For one, he had a desire to live, to savour life. And also, he was lucky enough to be born in Paris, a city that inspired greatness and celebrated genius.

Like all chefs, Carême had to work his way up. And his beginnings were particularly lowly, as a kitchen boy in a rowdy chophouse. But the job gave him board, and soon an apprenticeship. It was an exciting time to be in hospitality. Revolution or no, people still had to eat. And now, more than ever, Parisians craved the comfort of food. Many, of course, wanted to experience the gastronomic joys once reserved for the nobility. And they now could, because the old guild rules that codified who was allowed to do what in the food business had been destroyed, and A-list chefs, forced out of the châteaux along with their aristocratic bosses, opened their own restaurants, catering for a city hungry for a new world.

Bœuf à la Mode, which opened in 1792 at the Palais-Royal, was part of the post-revolutionary Parisian restaurant boom.

Restaurants were a relatively new concept; they were eateries that had originally specialised in soup, and it was this signature ‘restorative broth’ that gave these establishments their name. Restaurants were also popular for their introduction of the menu concept. Once, taverns had served a dish of the day, and you liked it or lumped it; now, diners could pick their meals from a list on a card — à la carte. As dining became a thrilling choose-your-own-adventure-style experience, chefs experimented with menus. Especially the crème de la crème of a meal: dessert.  

Pâtissiers were gastronomic superstars in post-revolutionary Paris, where everyone wanted a taste of the sweet life. As pâtisseries popped up all over town, a teenage Carême found himself an apprenticeship in one that boasted a particularly fortuitous location. Bailly, on Rue Vivienne, was a brioche’s throw from the Palais Royal, the social centre of Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the scene of many of the city’s most exciting new restaurants — restaurants that Carême would visit during his daily cake deliveries.

The Palais-Royal in 1800. Seen here is Café Chartres, which would become Le Grand Véfour, one of the most romantic and celebrated of all Parisian restaurants to this day.

As in-demand as Bailly’s cakes were, Carême had grander plans for their creations. In search of inspiration, he found himself one day in the prints department of the Bibliothèque Nationale. (At the time, it was located in a basement level, approximately beneath the current Rue Vivienne entrance.) He was so enthralled with the artwork he discovered here that it would become his second home. Here, he’d spend all his free time poring over illustrations of ancient temples and old castles, creations he’d go on to reconstruct with meringues and pastry, sticking everything together with mastic and gum Arabic, and decorating with lashings of spun sugar and icing. When Bailly began to sell Carême’s confectionary centrepieces — known as pièces montées — Paris went wild.

Carême’s cakes began to grace all the most important tables in town. At a time when the new order of France was re-establishing relations with the rest of the world, Carême even helped to enhance its efforts in soft-power diplomacy — he was employed by Napoléon’s powerful Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand.

At the height of his own power, Carême was running an eponymous pâtisserie (above) on Paris’s most prestigious street, Rue de la Paix, writing influential cook books, and creating cakes for the emperor himself, including for Napoléon’s second wedding. (While Carême’s pièces montées would eventually fall out of fashion, a descendant lives on in the form of the elaborately sculpted wedding cake.)

Carême as head chef for the Prince of Wales, in the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

By now, Carême had mastered all manners of cooking, and spent time heading the kitchens and overseeing the banquets for some of the world’s key power players, such as the Prince of Wales, Tsar Alexander I, and the Baron de Rothschild. He passed away in 1833, at the too-young age of 49, but he left a legacy that lives on to this day …

Carême-influenced Creations to Savour in Paris

1) Croquembouche

Carême is credited as the inventor of the croquembouche, the conical tower of choux à la crème (cream puffs) drizzled in caramel. It’s still a staple at French weddings, and can be widely ordered at top restaurants and pâtisseries (such as at Éric Kayser, whose version is pictured above) for celebratory dinners. Or, for a bite-sized version, buy a handful of choux at Odette, which specialises in flavoured cream puffs.

2) Millefeuille

Carême perfected the millefeuille thanks to his lamination method, where butter is rolled into the dough, which is then folded, over and over, to create an aerated, flaky result. (The same process is used for croissants.) Every Parisian pâtisserie worth its pinch of salt sells a millefeuille; pictured above is the one at Angelina.

3) Vol-au-Vent

Carême invented these pastry cases — so light they ‘flew on the wind’ — and filled them with both sweet and savoury ingredients. These days, vol-au-vents often make an appearance at bistros and restaurants focussing on traditional gallic fare. Photographed above (by Romain Ricard) is the one at Maxim’s. You can also buy canapé-perfect vol-au-vents at traiteurs such as Stohrer.

4) Soufflé aux Fraises

It’s no surprise that Carême loved soufflés, given his passion for delicately light desserts. Soufflés of all kinds featured in many of his feasts, and he’s credited with the invention of the strawberry variety, which you can best savour at the Left Bank soufflé restaurant Le Récamier.

5) Meringues

Carême was the first to pipe meringue through an icing bag, and started the trend for the large meringues you can still buy in pâtisseries all over Paris. For some of the best in town, head to La Meringaie.

Source: Much of the above information comes courtesy of the brilliant Cooking for Kings: The Life of the First Celebrity Chef, Antonin Carême by Ian Kelly, which has inspired an upcoming Apple TV biopic (release date TBC).

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