Food & Drink

Cooking for Kings, The Life of Antonin Carême by Ian Kelly

A fascinating biography of Antonin Carême, the first celebrity chef.

Antonin Carême made his name in many ways but to give him contemporary spin, Ian Kelly calls him the first celebrity chef, which indeed he was. Born four years after the French Revolution in 1783 and abandoned as a child, he was apprenticed to one of the finest pastry cooks of the time, Sylvain Bailly. By 1803 he was self-employed as a specialist pastry cook, becoming the master of figurative food. These pièces montées were fashioned out of pastry, lumps of lard or spun sugar and were spectacular in their dimensions and explored Carême’s love of architecture. No banquet was complete without one.

Ian Kelly’s spell binding biography is a whirlwind of Carême’s climb up the social ladder from street urchin to cooking for kings. The pages turn quick and fast as Carême is chef to Talleyrand, the Prince Regent at Brighton Pavilion, Tsar Nicholas I and at the court of Vienna. He was lured with money across Europe to cook in some of its finest houses. As Carême said, ‘For a great diplomat to maintain his position, he must employ a great cook.’ In 1823 Jacob de Rothschild was anxious to be accepted amongst Parisian society and his procurement of France’s greatest chef was indeed the icing on the cake. With his marriage to his teenage niece, Betty, the couple soon won over the new post-Napoleonic high society, with a campaign built on Carême’s food.

Not content with cooking for kings alone, Carême was the author of a number of highly successful cookbooks from which he drew substantial royalties, making him a very rich man; the most famous of which was L’Art de la Cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle. He invented the vol-au-vent and in Cooking for Kings, read the recipe which lists assorted gonads, sweetbreads and lambs' brains amongst its ingredients. He was also the creator of the meringue. Carême’s starched chef’s toque soon became part of the chef’s uniform in place of the floppy nightcaps normally worn. His influence stretched far and wide and even today, his recipes still grace the tables of French restaurants.

Ian Kelly has combined biography with some of Carême’s recipes (many of which you will be tempted to try), with pages interspersed with illustrations from Carême’s books. This is an entertaining read, a gastronomic romp through 19th Century European kitchens. A triumph.

Publication details:
287 pp. Illustrations by Antonin Carême. £16.99
Published by Short Books
ISBN 1904095208

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