Marie-Antoine Carême (he always called himself Antonin) was born in Paris in 1783, in the build-up to the French Revolution. His start in life was fairly inauspicious, he was apparently the 16th of 25 children, and was kicked out of home by his parents at about the age of 9 with the words (reported by him later in life) – ‘Go my child and fare well in the world. Leave us to languish; poverty and misery are our lot and we will die as we have lived. But for those like you with quick wits, there are great fortunes to be made’.
…and of course he did go on to great things, he was the first of the really famous chefs, at a time when chefs were moving from being seen as senior servants to being self-employed independent artisans. He made his way up with the help of a pâtisserie apprenticeship to a famous Parisian pâtissier, Sylvian Bailly, where he was promoted to making the impressive pièce montées, designed to be the centerpieces of large banquets. These could be up to 3 feet high, and were made of sugar, marzipan, and pastry. They were frequently reproductions of architectural works, which Carême had studied from books at the Bibliothèque Nationale, teaching himself to read and write in the process, and were said to be so solid that court jesters could dance on them at the grand functions called ‘extraordinaires’. They would be subsequently displayed in the shop window, bringing fame to Bailly – and raising Carême’s profile.
Carême moved on to work for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a diplomat who makes Henry Kissinger or Machiavelli look tame [my opinion], but had his priorities straight – he was said to discuss his menu for an hour every morning. Talleyrand encouraged Carême to keep things simple but varied, and inspired great loyalty – Carême later gave his motto as ‘one master – Talleyrand, one mistress – cooking’. In return Talleyrand used Carême and the food to get what he wanted for France, working for the different régimes as they came and went.
Later, Carême worked for the Prince of Wales in the new (then) Brighton Pavilion, also the Tzar in St Petersburg , but these were short-lived, he was French and returned to Paris, to be able to pick and choose his employers from the very rich and influential, leaving him time also to work on his books, copies of which I have and draw inspiration from, if I don’t use his actual recipes (they’re mostly very complicated). His work caught up with him however, and he died at 50, worn out from too much work and the fumes from the charcoal fires over which he cooked, and is buried in the Montmartre cemetery in Paris.