In praise of the pastry chef

Marie-Antonin Carême

Marie-Antonin Carême was a French revolutionary. Not as a Jacobin – he was born in 1783, six years before La Révolution  – but as a chef, a pioneer in the kitchen.

With his ground-breaking L’Art de la Cuisine Française (1833), an illustrated encyclopaedia in five volumes (two of which posthumous), he asserted himself as a paladin of French culinary creativity.

He was a man of incredible energy, Carême: aside from being a prolific author, he also helped organise sumptuous state banquets and cooked for the likes of Talleyrand in France, George IV in Britain and Czar Alexander I in Russia.
Not for nothing, he was nicknamed ‘the king of cooks and the cook of kings’.

But more than a cook, he was a pastry chef. After serving his apprenticeship under the benign tutelage of Sylvain Bailly at his renowned patisserie in Paris, Carême invested his savings in a shop of his own, free at last to let his flair run free. Hence inventions such as the vol-au-vent, the meringue and the boudoir biscuit, personal takes on established favourites, from blancmange to charlotte, and creations such as the William Tell cake for Rossini and his legendary pièces montées, colossal architectures in sugar.

Carême also dedicated his first book, Le Patissier royal parisien, to the recipes and techniques of pastry and confectionery. In the wake of its success, he wrote that, ‘When I stroll round the streets of Paris, I’m delighted to see how pastry shops are growing and improving. None of this existed before my work and my books’.

Le Patissier royal parisien

Carême was evidently not the self-effacing type, but his words were later endorsed by another great French chef, Alexis Soyer, who in his recipe book, The Gastronomic Regenerator, published in 1846 after he moved to London, wrote, ‘It is only within the last twenty years that it [the art of making pastry] has attained any degree of perfection, which is partly due to the talent and intelligence of my illustrious compatriot and confrère, CARÊME, who has left little or no room to innovation in that vast field of culinary delight’.

Confectionery is sweetness and sweetness is sugar. And without sugar all Carême’s novelties would have been impossible.

Luckily for him, his career coincided with a trade revolution that spanned three continents and, unluckily for the victims, caused incalculable human suffering.

Sugar cane had been brought to the Mediterranean towards the end of the first millennium by the Arabs, but sugar was largely used to mask the taste of salt, omnipresent in techniques for preserving food, or even as a medicament.
In pre-Crusades Northern Europe, however, it was very rare and it only became widespread in the Renaissance following the discovery of the New World. Even then it was expensive, affordable only for the wealthy.
It was in the 18th century with the installation of plantations in the Americas with a guaranteed supply of labour via the slave trade that the price plummeted. It was thus that sugar, once so precious, became a staple in Europe.

However disagreeable the circumstances, they opened whole new possibilities for people who knew how how to handle sugar – people like Carême and pastry chefs of his ilk. The art of confectionery flourished and sweetness was assigned a place of its own at the end of the meal.
The dessert – or pudding or sweet – was born. Some say it’s the most superfluous part of the meal (who can say they’ve never skipped it?), others that it’s the most harmful (visions of obesity, diabetes, sugar addiction).
Be that as it may, dessert is also the course that most exalts the skills of the pastry chef, a cook a cut above the rest. A stew or a sauce may be over-flavoured or it may be bland, but it can never implode like a soufflé. An exercise in artificiality, not to say virtuosity, the art of pastry demands the utmost precision, care and attention.

Maybe Carême wasn’t exaggerating when he made his famous claim that the fine arts have five branches and that the greatest of these is confectionery. But he forgot to mention that, aside from being an artist, a pastry chef is also a magician and a scientist.
Cooking transforms nature by interpreting it, pastry making transforms it by denaturing it – with flair and careful calculation. Degrees of refinement vary, of course and there’s a world of difference between the rough-and-ready jam tarts my auntie used to turn out in her neighbourhood bakery, sat and the dainty petite patisserie of Piedmontese confectioners or the siphoned sweetmeats of experimental molecular chefs such as Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adrià. But they do have one point in common: namely that they are the product of scientific principles and exact ingredient quantities.
Every piece of party art is born of chemistry – leavening, aeration, blending – but when everything is just right, it comes close to alchemy.

Still in France, more than a century after Carême’s haute cuisine and in parallel with the nouvelle vague in cinema and the nouveau roman in literature, nouvelle cuisine appeared in the kitchen. Another case of a food phenomenon being spurred by a pastry chef, this time Michel Guérard.
Two pastry chefs, two culinary revolutions. Aristotle was right: ‘Change in all things is sweet.’