Cookbooks written by celebrity chefs are ubiquitous best-sellers today. You might even say celebrity chefs are expected to write a cookbook. These cookbooks serve as a marketing tool, helping chefs promote their restaurant, TV show, product/name brand, or even a charity.
But did you know that celebrity chef cookbooks are not a modern phenomenon? They were also popular in the nineteenth century (and perhaps even a little earlier). The ulterior motive of these chefs was ultimately the same (to market their name), but others may have simply wanted to share their knowledge and techniques with the public. And since there was no television, Internet, or social media, the written word (in the form of books, newspapers, and magazines) was really the main method of “spreading the word.”
It can be debated who was considered the first true celebrity chef, but I am going to start with culinary innovator Marie-Antonin Carême. Known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” this early nineteenth century French chef played a major role in the standardization of elegant aspic jellies (elaborate cold dishes set in gelatin) and pièces montées (edible, artistic confectionery). Even though you won’t typically see either of these dishes on modern dinner tables, both were extremely popular and integral to nineteenth century fine dining. Carême began serving as an apprentice under one of the best pastry cooks in Paris, Bailly of the Rue Vivienne when just sixteen. He spent hours studying architectural history books in the print room of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, honing his craft. He would then base his designs on these masterworks, which included elaborate structures such as temples, pyramids, and ancient ruins. He wrote a total of seven books between 1815 and 1833, including volumes of his thoughts on architecture. In his book, The Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner, the section on pièces montées reads more like construction blueprints than a cookbook, going into great detail explaining how to build items such as: A Small Rustic House, A Grand Cascade of Sixteen Columns, A Turkish Cottage, A Grecian Fountain, A Venetian Pavilion on a Bridge, and Ruins of Athens. His work was obviously aimed at the elitist of the elite, and even he admitted that “people of lesser means should not attempt his elaborate style of cooking.”
A few decades later, the man often described as America’s first celebrity chef immigrated to the New York from France. His name was Pierre Blot, and he helped enlighten Americans to the wonders of French food by giving lectures in the culinary arts, publishing a series of cookbooks and magazine articles, and eventually launching a cooking school in 1865 that he dubbed the New York Cooking Academy. Quite a showman in his teaching manner, Blot was described as pleasant, conversational, attentive and always ready to take questions from the audience. He explained things simply and clearly, and as noted by a New York Times reporter who sat in on one of his lectures: “He knows, in fact, how to teach.” His first book, What to Eat and How to Cook It, was published in 1863, helping him get his feet wet and establish a presence in the American culinary scene. It featured recipes that were “systematically and practically arranged, to enable the housekeeper to prepare the most difficult or simple dishes in the best manner.” In 1867 he authored the Hand-book of Practical Cookery, For Ladies and Professional Cooks, which features recipes from Roast Chicken, Au Jus and Salmon en Papillote to Tea Cakes and Shrewsbury Cakes. Through his cookbooks and lectures he soon became hugely popular, teaching and giving demonstrations throughout the Northeastern U.S, including stints in Boston and Philadelphia.
Blot’s influence paved the way for a variety of cooking instruction models, including public cooking lectures and demonstrations made popular by his “road show” appearances. This included Sarah Tyson Rorer, a well-known Philadelphia cooking instructor from the late 1870s through the early twentieth century. An energetic and gifted speaker, Rorer was very much at home on the stage, and as a result, “never wanted for an audience,” as she acknowledged in her own words. After appearing at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, she became a household name and traveled throughout the country to personally demonstrate cooking techniques to one packed auditorium after another. Rorer also published books, articles, and testimonials to complement her lecture circuit. She was very outspoken about promoting health and nutrition and felt most Americans wasted incredible amounts of food. She preached about topics that pop up in cooking magazines and websites all the time today: meal planning, budget cooking, and creative ideas for crafting new meals out of leftovers. Rorer published a mind-boggling fifty-plus cookbooks, including The Philadelphia Cook Book, Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book (which features one the earliest recipes for devil’s food cake) and pamphlets to complement her lecture circuit, such as one from 1914 entitled, “How We Serve Hawaiian Canned Pineapple,” produced by the Hawaiian Pineapple Packers’ Association.
So although mass media has changed quite a bit in the centuries since these three celebrity chefs were in their heyday, marketing one’s name, recipes and cooking techniques via cookbooks has not. For more on these and other nineteenth century celebrity chefs, check out The Gilded Age Cookbook.
And here’s some additional food for thought:
- Celebrity Chefs of New Jersey: Their Stories, Recipes, and Secrets
- Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef
- Food media: celebrity chefsand the politics of everyday interference
- I was never in it for the money: Media narratives of celebrity chefsand the gastro-capitalist social entrepreneur
- The role of the celebrity chef
- The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge