Talleyrand’s table diplomat

The Secret of Chantilly by Laura Rahme

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours


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r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about the first international celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Carême, and how he contributed to French diplomacy.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 377

Publisher: Self

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

French Revolution through Napoleonic Era

From the publisher: PARIS, 1792. Antonin Carême is eight years old when he is left to fend for himself in a city about to enter the darkest days of the French revolution. The imaginative boy who yearns for a fairy tale come true soon discovers his talent for pâtisserie. When he meets the mysterious Boucheseiche, maître d’hôtel for Napoleon’s minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Carême’s world is turned upside down. 

In one of those odd coincidences in life, I happened to be in a group with three French folks while I was reading this, and asked what the popular perception of Talleyrand was. I didn’t really get an answer to my question so much as I got a question back: “Why do Americans know of Talleyrand?” My response was that most don’t; I’m a history (and historical fiction) nerd. But maybe this compulsively readable book from the point of view of his famous chef, Antonin Carême, will make more Americans familiar with the brilliant Talleyrand as well as the relatively unknown (in the US, at any rate) Carême.

To be clear, this is definitely Carême’s story. But Talleyrand, best known from his role as Napoleon’s foreign minister, is a constant presence in the story, as Carême is mesmerized by “the Devil,” as he often calls Talleyrand. Wikipedia states that “Talleyrand polarizes scholarly opinion. Some regard him as one of the most versatile, skilled and influential diplomats in European history, and some believe that he was a traitor, betraying in turn the Ancien Régime, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Restoration.” Perhaps that’s why I didn’t get a clear answer about public perception of Talleyrand from the three French folks I asked, although they agreed, without hesitation, that the chef would be instrumental to Talleyrand’s diplomatic success. One noted that the French also use “under the table” to describe private dealmaking and kickbacks, tying that to the diplomacy of the dining table.

Diplomacy, Carême, plays itself in the dining rooms, then in the drawing rooms, under the chandeliers at the balls, behind the scenes always, when those who have dined together, savored the same meals and shared the joys of the table, recognize one another, and enjoy relaxed company. But first, they must dine.

Laura Rahme, The Secret of Chantilly

However, during his life, Carême de Paris was probably just as well known internationally, at least among the aristocracy. Carême was called “Le Roi des Chefs et le Chef des Rois” (“The King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings”), having served, among others, Emperor Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and  Prince Regent, later George IV of England. His first claim to fame was the creation of the pièce montée, an architectural “cake” made of choux pastry, marzipan, and nougat.

Gaston Lenôtre’s interpretation of Carême’s Venetian Gondola pièce montée.

Laura Rahme does a magnificent job imagining Carême’s journey from abandoned child to celebrity, transitioning smoothly from one part of his life to another. The majority of the book is from Carême’s POV, but there are occasional switches to a third person which were a little jarring, as there was no particular cue to realize the POV was switching, and it took a moment to recalibrate. Despite these minor transitional issues, Rahme’s writing and organization of the story is clear and compelling.

It turned out that in the British Isles, French fruit and wine were the delectable pleasures of the rich. I found this ironic, for in France, anyone could permit themselves an excellent meal.

Laura Rahme, The Secret of Chantilly

Rahme also does a great job of letting the reader draw their own conclusions about Talleyrand, despite the way Carême characterizes him, by showing all the ways Talleyrand was thinking ahead, trying to ensure the best future for France under whatever political circumstances. I would have liked more about his subsequent employment by James Rothschild; that period is covered, but in far less detail than Carême’s employment with Talleyrand.

Misery sharpens the critical pen. One’s penchant for finding fault is accentuated when one lives in a state of gloom.

Laura Rahme, The Secret of Chantilly

The narrator often describes his life as a fairy tale, and Rahme develops that metaphor in an extended way throughout the book. It’s cleverly done, as Carême’s life does sound like a male Cinderella at times, and demonstrates he that felt that his life was unique, sometimes even difficult for him to believe.

My fairy godfather had forever departed. How was I to face the world? My fairy tale could only end badly.

Laura Rahme, The Secret of Chantilly

Well-researched, thoughtful, and compelling, Laura Rahme’s The Secret of Chantilly has plenty to love for fans of food, cooking, pastry, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Era, and/or rags-to-riches narratives.

Apologies to the author for misspelling her name in the original post—note that the last name ends with an “e”!