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The Chef They called the King : The life of France's first kitchen superstar. It wasn't all sugar and cream.

February 22, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

France, 1794: a seething stockpot of war, revolution and terror. In Paris, a pauper informed his youngest son that from that day forth, he would have to find his own way in the world.

Literally abandoned in the street at age 10, young Antonin Care^me survived by finding a job in a cheap restaurant. Five years later he graduated to a well-known pastry shop, where his talent was quickly recognized. Before he was 20, he was creating centerpieces for Napoleon's table.

From then on, the world's first superstar chef traveled strictly in the highest circles. For 12 years he worked for the diplomat Talleyrand, who exploited the kindly mood created by Care^me's dinners to negotiate treaties favorable to France. This was quite OK with Care^me, who described his art as a natural foil to diplomacy.

But he was not getting rich. A guest exclaimed to Talleyrand, "Mon Dieu! You have given us such magnificent food--it must have cost you a lot of money."

"Ah, madame," Talleyrand replied, "you are very kind; it is not a well-paid job."

For two years Care^me cooked for the future George IV of England. When the Prince Regent complained that he was gaining weight because he couldn't resist Care^me's cooking, Care^me gravely responded that the prince's weight was no part of his concern. (He was not the father of spa cuisine.)

Then he spent a couple of years at the court of Czar Alexander I of Russia and bounced around the other aristocratic kitchens of Europe until he landed his dream job: cooking for the Baron de Rothschild in Paris.

"In this wealthy household," he oncewrote, "I could spend as much as was necessary to prepare things as I wished. This is the only way a truly creative cook can fully profit from his talents." He worked there until his death in 1833, finding time to write several cookbooks, two of which ("The Art of Cookery in the 19th Century" and "The Picturesque Pastrymaker") were published after his death.

Since his time, Care^me has been the name to conjure with in French cuisine. He was the chef who made cuisine a leading matter of French national pride. Caring nothing for wealth but everything for glory, he personally created la grande cuisine.

The most famous thing about him is probably his statement, "The fine arts are five in number, to wit: painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture, whose main branch is confectionery." He published scores of detailed diagrams of pastries and pieces montees, which do look like works of architecture--Egyptian, Greek, Gothic, Turkish or Chinese--in miniature. For that matter, he published a book of architectural designs intended to beautify Paris and St. Petersburg.

His culinary style embodied the high-flown Romanticism of the Napoleonic period, and in the first half of the 19th century every ambitious chef had to cook a la Care^me. But like all fiercely fashionable styles, it eventually became old hat. For more than a century, French chefs have been acknowledging Care^me's greatness and then hastening to add that they themselves go for a simpler, more natural style.

The present-day consensus is that his dishes were too grand-looking. Not that grand appearance is bad in itself, as some of Care^me's contemporaries felt ("the idle amusements of an outrageously luxurious lifestyle," commented Baron von Rumohr, the great German cookery writer), but that it would take so long to ready the dishes for the table that the food would get cold.

In Care^me's defense, it can be said that he was quite aware of the problem. For something that absolutely must be served hot, such as a souffle, he gave precise instructions for keeping it hot on the way to the table--at a time when kitchens were often several floors away from dining rooms. And most of his dishes were pastries and buffet food, which don't have to be hot in the first place.

When it came to serving meat, Care^me often presented it in meat pies, to which most of the ornamentation could be applied before baking with the result going almost directly from the oven to the table. But it's true that his roasts--arranged just so on their display stands, surrounded by numerous garnishes and pierced with ha^telets (ornamental skewers, themselves often holding additional garnishes)--look as if they couldn't be much above lukewarm.

Still, the more you read Care^me's books, the more the praise he receives today looks like lip service. Everybody reverently says he perfected sauce espagnole, but nobody follows his recipe: two thick slices of ham, a leg of veal and a couple of partridges stewed down with consomme to a glaze, thinned with more stock, thickened with a roux and simmered with herbs, shallots and mushrooms. Since the time of Auguste Escoffier (the superstar chef of his own day, who was born only 12 years after Care^me died), espagnole sauce has been brown stock simmered with roux, tomatoes and mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion).

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