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French History: The First Celebrity Chef

At the height of the French Revolution in 1792, a young eight year old boy named Marie-Antoine Carême was abandoned by his family. Carême, the 16th child born to his very poor family, began working as a “kitchen boy” in Paris.

Walking down the streets of Paris in the early 1800’s, the Eiffel Tower—built in 1887—was still decades away from becoming a fixture of the Parisian skyline. At the time, restaurants were just becoming a staple of Parisian culture, as French cuisine began finding its footing in history and became codified into the cuisine that we know today.

Careme portrait
Photo from Getty Images

By 1810 the once orphaned child, Carême was a young man making a name for himself as the first celebrity chef in history. Working under well-known pâtissier Sylvain Bailly, he became one of the first modern chefs to focus on the appearance of plating and presentation, contributing to its importance in many cuisines today. After designing Napoleon Bonaparte’s wedding cake to his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria, he solidified his place in history as the founding father of French cuisine.

Times had changed by 1814. 30 years after Carême was abandoned by his family, he found himself surrounded by crowds gathered outside his shop, Patisserie de la Rue de la Paix. And, just as he gained notoriety in France, Carême left to travel the world and cook for nobility, furthering his fame. While he once struggled to survive, decades later, he found himself sought after by many.

Throughout history, Carême worked for many notable figures including Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (Talleyrand)—Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Napoleon himself, Russian Emperor Alexander 1, Russian Princess Catherine Bagration and finally in the kitchens of Baron James de Rothschild. All of these famous figures in history helped to cement his reputation as the first celebrity chef and allowed him to create the many lavish items we still recreate today.

French cuisine is one of the most well documented cuisines in history, which, in addition to its timelessness, is one of the reasons it is the foundation for cooking throughout the world. The impact that Marie-Antoine Carême had on Haute Cuisine in the 18th and 19th centuries—and later, the world of cooking itself—would be forever immortalized in his many cookbooks and writings on French Cuisine. In part due to Carême’s need for fame and adoration—which led to a photograph in each of his cookbooks so people would recognize him—French cuisine was finally chronicled and able to be passed down.

Chef Ben teaching students

Today, chefs wear a white jacket and toque in kitchens for many reasons—cleanliness, prestige, and order, among other elements. Even this can be credited to Carême’s desire to be noticed and create a distinction among his peers in the kitchen. His creation of the four mother sauces—béchamel, velouté, espagnole and allemande—would help to build many foundational French entrées for centuries to come. Today, with credit to Escoffier’s adaptation, they are taught as the five mother sauces, replacing allemande with hollandaise and sauce tomate. Carême’s influence expanded to pastry as well. He perfected the souffléwas possibly the first chef to pipe meringue through a pastry bag, and codified many elements of modern gastronomy.

Jacques Torres making a croquemboucheThe croquembouche, which Dean of Pastry Arts Jacques Torres, demonstrates every year as a holiday tradition, can be credited to Carême when he first fashioned it to impress royalty. While Escoffier remains more widely-known than Carême, he popularized Carême’s initial ideas of the brigade system and modernized it to the system we have today. Even today, we tip our toques to Carême for codifying the fundamentals of French cooking as we know it.