The full title of Ian Kelly’s Antonin Carême biography is “Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef.” Frankly, I’m a bit wary of the term “celebrity chef,” especially in the era of the Food Network and its streak of made-for-TV paper tigers. Placing the word “celebrity” in front of the word “chef” almost seems to diminish the latter; I don’t consider Thomas Keller or Ferran Adria to be “celebrity chefs,” even though they’re both reasonably famous. To me, they’re just chefs — albeit great chefs — plain and simple. I suppose that the word “celebrity” almost seems self-serving in some way, which is really the opposite of a true chef’s character. Although it’s certainly important to build one’s “brand” these days — even with television appearances — the world’s greatest chefs never entered the kitchen with television deals in mind. Professional cooking, with all of its various demands, just doesn’t work like that.
Certainly, Antonin Carême never imagined his own future success when he began his culinary career in 1793 at the tender age of 10. Born the youngest of 16 — and possibly even 24 — children, Carême was abandoned by his family during the midst of the French Revolution, and as the legend goes, his father confided in him, “Nowadays you need only the spirit to make your fortune, and you have the spirit.” On the heels of that succinct pep talk, Carême became a dishwasher, and eventually worked his way into a well-known Parisian pastry kitchen, where his talent blossomed. Despite his Dickensian beginnings, many details of Carême’s early life (as well as many of his recipes) have been lost to war and the general turmoil of French history. Even in adulthood, we know very little of Carême’s personal life, or why his daughter (an only child) destroyed almost all of his letters.
As culinary historians are left to speculate upon the mysteries of Carême’s personal life — his two marriages and an estranged father-daughter relationship — Kelly tackles this impossible biography in the best possible way, with well-researched historical data, and plenty of excerpts from Carême’s menus and cookbooks (although Carême lived just 48 years, his star certainly shined bright, and several of his publications remain, despite others being lost). As for his status as a celebrity, it may prove interesting to learn that an orphan of the French Revolution would eventually bake Napoleon’s wedding cake, but for me, Carême’s profound influence on French haute cuisine remains much more intriguing; to the credit of “Cooking for Kings,” the royal name-dropping represents only one part of the story.