Antonin Carême was, how do you say in your country, a very interesting fellow. Yes, he may have been responsible for vol-au-vent, Napoleons and other pastries we know today, but these are only a sneeze in ze bucket when you consider what he did not just for French food, but for European cuisine as a whole.
Carême’s is a classic rags-to-riches story that just happened to take place during the French Revolution. He was born into a Parisian family which by some accounts had 25 children. Being the only smart one of the bunch, he was kicked out of the house at age ten, ostensibly because a peasant household with two dozen kids was no place for a person with brains.
He landed in what we moderns would call a “greasy spoon” where he worked for room and board for seven years. Somehow he was noticed by the preeminent pâtissier of the day, Sylvain Bailly, under whose tutelage he distinguished himself as a maker of pièces montées, the grand food sculptures that decorated the banquet tables of the period.
It was his highly imaginative architectural work that made Carême a celebrity in Parisian society, and caught the eye of one Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, known to his friends simply as “Talleyrand.” Here was a fellow who was fascinating in his own right, sort of a Bill Clinton of his day: brilliant and visionary, yet self-centered and ultimately rather unscrupulous. He was also quite the ladies’ man. Talleyrand was an aristocrat and a Catholic Bishop who managed to thrive during the most violently anti-aristocratic and anti-Catholic social upheaval Europe had ever seen. A pretty neat trick all by itself.
He went on to become France’s foreign minister, helped engineer the coup d’état that brought Napoleon to power, and became one of Europe’s most influential diplomats. Napoleon, of course, soon fell, though that was by no means the end of Talleyrand. In fact he negotiated on behalf of France at the Congress of Vienna following Napoleon’s defeat, and eventually helped restore the deposed Bourbons to the French throne. He was, you might say, the consummate political survivor. He died of old age, tremendously rich and with a reputation as one of the greatest diplomats to have ever lived. His former home in Paris is now the US embassy.
So where was I? Oh yes, Carême. Talleyrand had a huge influence on Carême, whom he tasked with creating an entirely new, post-Revolutionary French cuisine. Why was this important? Because the French Revolution marked the beginning of the end for the great aristocratic club that was Europe. Though the French Revolution was fundamentally different than the American one, certain currents were the same: civic institutions vs. hereditary rule, law vs. privilege, personal property rights vs. patronage. Even after the fall of Napoleon and the Bourbons were restored to power, most of these ideas endured, leading to reforms and the fall of monarchies around Europe.
So where was I? Oh yes, Carême. Talleyrand, big-picture fellow that he was, recognized clearly that the face of Europe was changing. And if the face of Europe was changing, so must the food that fed that face. With that he tasked Careme with creating a new cuisine that was more…how would you say it…”people friendly.” That is, he wanted a cuisine that was simpler and less flamboyant than that of the old aristocracy, that was focused on ingredients over elaborate techniques, vegetables over meat, and that emphasized seasonality. Sounds a bit familiar, eh?
Carême succeeded brilliantly with a stripped down seasonal menu that caused a sensation among the European statesmen and aristocrats that had the good fortune to dine at Talleyrand’s table. Upon leaving Paris, they implemented aspects of the new food aesthetic in their homelands, transforming the way the upper classes (as well as the emerging middle classes) ate. Not too shabby for guy who started out as a peasant with 24 sisters and brothers. More on Carême and his achievements later. I gotta get to work!