The culinary artistry (not to mention machinations) of the great French chef Antonin Carěme seduced the likes of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and the future King George IV. We know that these monarchs vied for his talents, but what really went on in Carěme’s kitchen? In a recent performance of Cooking for Kings, “a restauration comedy,” Ian Kelly presented an answer of sorts.
Kelly wrote and performed the play to promote his new book on Carěme, similarly titled Cooking for Kings. Readers of Carěme’s cookery books know that he had a healthy ego (attributed to him is the claim that “the fine arts are five in number, to wit: painting, sculpture, poetry, music, architecture—whose main branch is confectionery”). And there’s no doubt that alongside his genius lay shameless self-promotion, even if he did have reason for pride. Over his lifetime Carěme defined and expanded the entire repertoire of French cuisine. Ever an innovator, he asserted a modern type of cook over the traditional one, a cook who streamlined kitchen operations and donned a stiff-rimmed bonnet that would evolve into the toque. (In a lapse from his otherwise consistent modernist practices Carěme remained steadfast in his belief that service à la russe should never displace service à la française.)
Knowing Carěme’s volatile nature, and having seen the promotional photograph for Kelly’s play depicting him holding a dead chicken and wearing a feather-spattered butcher’s apron smeared with blood, I feared the worst: a performance that would highlight Carěme’s fulminating personality. But what emerged from the play was a kinder, gentler Carěme, a man with longings and deep sadness. Estranged from his daughter, he epitomized the predicament of the modern chef who has a passion for his work that leaves no time for his family (for more on that see the Chef’s Page in this issue). Unfortunately, Carěme’s recognition of how much he had lost came too late for amends.
But what made Cooking for Kings resonate wasn’t merely Kelly’s fine performance or his personal take on Carěme. It was the larger issues the play raised. Out of Kelly’s portrayal of Carěme evolved an understanding of the chef’s need to order his world, to create control out of kitchen chaos. Hence Carěme’s systematic classification of French cuisine, and his love of the French-style service in which all dishes for a course are neatly arrayed on the table (unlike the seemingly chaotic Russian style where service could easily go awry). It was through the kitchen that Carěme brought order into his world, a Europe in imminent danger of collapsing after Napoleon’s defeat. Above all else Carěme believed that each time we prepare a meal it’s an act of ordering as well as an act of faith. The carefully conceived meal offers a moment of stability and calm in a world spinning out of control.
Carěme created an empire in his kitchen; many different traditions and foods came together there. And from the often-noxious depths of his poorly ventilated cookrooms, he sought to bring about a newly ordered empire on the world stage: here was gastronomy as diplomacy. Carěme traveled from France to Russia to England to Austria over the course of his professional life, often hating his employment, and never quite feeling at home apart from his native land. But he put his calling ahead of his health—and his family life—committed to the belief that his meals could change the world.
In our time, when the world seems to be imploding, when international dialogue seems increasingly shrill and fruitless, it feels particularly luxurious to travel back to an orderly era when matters of state were decided civilly, over grand meals.