I like food. I like to read about food and cooking although I rarely follow recipes. So I very much enjoyed this entertaining book by Ian Kelly (Diane blogged about his biography of Beau Brummell a few months ago) about the great chef Antonin Careme, who cooked not only for Napoleon but also for the Prince Regent (who was delighted to hire his rival’s chef), Talleyrand, the Rothschilds, and the Tsar of Russia.

It’s hard to believe it now, when reading Careme’s lavish recipes–for instance, Les Petits Vol-Au-Vents a la Nesle–that his techniques and innovations formed our modern dining experience. He introduced dining a la russe–that is, with food individually plated and served, which, by the end of the nineteenth century, replaced dining a la francaise (where the food was placed on the table and diners fended for themselves). He believed vegetables should be served slightly crisp and that cooks should wash their hands. He invented the chef’s toque. He cooked for kings but he came from very humble beginnings–like a Dickensian hero, he was abandoned when very young to fend for himself on the streets of Paris.

Early on he developed an interest in architecture, taught himself to draw, and later became famous for his extraordinaires–elaborate architectural centerpieces made of spun sugar. These huge, fragile masterpieces were recycled and in some cases outlived their creator, who succumbed, like many in his profession, to charcoal poisoning at a relatively young age.

This is the entire picture from which the cover art was created–the kitchen of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, pretty much as it was during Careme’s time there (1816-1817)–the palm tree leaves were added later. The center table is a huge steam table to keep food warm.

You can visit the kitchen as it looks now–scroll down the page to look at a 360 panoramic view.

And if you’d like to buy the book, it’s on sale at a massive discount (along with many other goodies) at Daedalus Books.

I don’t think I’m going to attempt any of the recipes, even the simpler ones–and Kelly warns that the modern palate may find them a little bland. But I do like reading about food and life below stairs, so I really enjoyed this book. How about you? Are you a cookbook junkie? Have you ever attempted a historic recipe?