The Evolution of the Chef

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The legacy of Antonin Carême sparked the creation of this profession in the 19th century

Each October 20th since 2004, International Chefs Day, which was created by the South African chef Dr. Bill Gallagher, has been observed to pay homage to culinary professionals around the world. Though nowadays this occupation is very respected, it hasn’t always existed.

Food as art and pleasure has very ancient origins. One of the first cookbooks and the only one that remains from the Greco-Roman world was written in part by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a popular epicure known for his excessive banquets, gluttony, and love of food.

Though not actually considered a chef, the contributions of Apicius to the cookbook De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) represent an important evolution in the kitchen. Food was no longer just consumed for necessity, but also pleasure. Furthermore, the book marks a turning point in which people began to develop and conserve recipes, putting a focus on the culinary arts as a structured and artisanal discipline.

But the concept of chef that we know today didn’t emerge until the 19th century. In the thick of the French revolution and at only ten years old, Marie-Antoine Carême was abandoned by his parents on the doorstep of a Parisian restaurant. More commonly known as Antonin Carême, the adolescent soon began working in the kitchen and at 16 became the apprentice of the famous pastry chef Sylvain Bailly.

He ended up opening his own pastry shop, Pâtisserie de la rue de la Paix, which he maintained until 1813, but he achieved his principal accomplishments as the head chef in various important kitchens, even cooking for Napoleon.  

When the French emperor gave money to the Prince of Talleyrand to purchase Château de Valençay, a large estate on the outskirts of Paris, Carême was commissioned with an overwhelming task: create a menu for an entire year, without repeating dishes and only using seasonal ingredients.

The success that he had in Talleyrand paved the way for new opportunities. He served as the head chef for Prince Regent and King George IV in London and even received an invitation from Czar Alexander I to go cook in Saint Petersburg. When he returned to his hometown of Paris, he became the personal chef of the famous banker James Mayer Rothschild.

Antonin Carême is considered by many to be the father of haute cuisine and his legacy lead to the evolution of the profession. Another French chef, George Auguste Escoffier, is credited with leading the important shift between 19th and 20th century cuisine.

Escoffier followed in Carême’s footsteps, modernizing and simplifying his elaborate style, and one of his best-known accomplishments is the opening of the kitchens at the world-renowned Ritz and Carlton Hotels. He also worked as the chef for Kaiser Wilhelm II on the famous German ocean liner Imperator.

With the passage of time, haute cuisine has become much more accessible than it was in the past, and now it is possible to enjoy a gourmet meal without being a member of royalty or aristocracy. Popular cooks like Julia Child and Jamie Oliver have familiarized the general population with the art of cooking, while illustrious chefs like Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adriá, and Joan Roca, among others, have pushed the limits of the culinary arts.

Furthermore, women have finally found their place in the restaurant industry, since historically the chef’s profession was considered to be a man’s role given its implications of power and prestige. Between the 20th and 21stcentury, an endless number of talented female chefs have emerged, such as Ana Roš, Dominique Crenn, Elena Arzak, Clare Smyth, Nadia Santini, and Carme Ruscalleda, just to name a few.

Comparing the origins of the chef with the current state of the profession can inspire us to reflect on how this prestigious occupation will evolve in the future. For now, we’ll continue to follow the impressive trajectories of the stars of the culinary world, and we thank them for their dedication to the continued advancement of their art.

Home chefs will love our Turkey Cordon Bleu recipe. You can find it here.

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