The Ghost of Careme

I’m not being haunted exactly, but in the past month or so, the number of references to Antonin Careme popping up in my life are really, well…beyond coincidence.

Careme was, of course, the world’s first celebrity chef. Know as the King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings, he began cooking as a teenager and worked his way out of poverty to eventually cook for Napoleon. He was, first and foremost, a pastry chef, and with his pièces montées (huge structures and centrepieces, often in the shape of buildings) is likely responsible for their ongoing popularity to this day – all of those crazy cake competitions on The Food Network – Careme started that trend.

It may just be that I watch far too much British food programming. In March, there were 4 different UK shows that mentioned Careme.

The most Careme-focused was a series called Glamour Puds in which pastry chef Eric Lanlard traces the history of Careme from his childhood home to some of the castles and estates where he worked, even cooking in the historic kitchen of Valencay Palace where Careme worked for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, right-hand man to Napoleon. Lanlard also offered demos and recipes of some of Careme’s most famous pastries, from the Mont Blanc to the famous macaron tower.

If that wasn’t enough Careme, his name popped up in a number of other British food shows, including a documentary on the Michelin guide, a two-part series called France on a Plate, and New Yorker writer Bill Burford’s 2-part series called Fat Man in a White Hat, in which the writer spends a year in France learning about its food, both high- and low-end.

Of course, all of these shows focused on French food first and foremost, so it’s not unreasonable for Careme’s name to be mentioned. To this day he is still considered to have been one of the best chefs of France, and his influences shaped French cookery. And if you believe that French cookery influences all other forms of cookery, then his influence reaches even further. Careme created the big white toque hat chefs are known for, and he is responsible for creating and categorizing new sauces – every culinary student who spent hours memorizing and making “mother sauces” can blame Careme for their angst.

The man popped up again recently, this time utterly out of context. It wasn’t a show about famous pastry dishes, or about French food. As part of his Feasts series, Heston Blumenthal decided for the “Fairytale”-themed dinner to cook cock’s testicles, and mentioned that they were a specialty of Careme.

I suppose it’s less of  coincidence given the number of shows that were about France or French food – so far, Careme is not showing up anywhere else in my life. If he starts getting mentioned in the news or on non-food-oriented TV shows (wondering how they’d work a mention of Careme into an episode of Nurse Jackie), I’ll start to worry. In the meantime, it’s interesting to see what an impressive legacy he’s left behind. Chefs and food freaks still read his books, make pilgrimages to his kitchens and give him props for everything he did for French cuisine.