As the culinary arts became more refined and important in all parts of French culture the first restaurant appeared. In 1765 A. Boulanger, a soup vendor, hung a sign over his business, which offered a choice of soups and broths for health. The name he chose for his business was restorative or restaurant, indicating the nutritive aspects of food. This soup vendor was the first to offer a menu with a choice of dishes. Prior to this a visitor could buy a variety of beverages at an inn or eat off the host’s table at a hotel. But there were no choices. The time must have been ripe for these menu driven eateries because they spread rapidly throughout Europe. Indeed the word restaurant and its variations are now used by virtually all European speakers to signify an eating establishment, which offers a choice of dishes.
In 1782, less than 20 years after its humble beginnings, the first luxury restaurant was opened in Paris. It was called La Grande Taverne de Loudres by the owner, Antoine Beauvilliers, who became the first famous restaurateur and host. He even wrote a standard work on the French culinary art entitled The Art of Cuisine, which was published in 1814. Brillant-Savarin, a famous gastronomic chronicler, credited him with being the first to combine the 4 essentials of dining – an elegant room – smart waiters – a choice cellar – and superior cooking.
Beauvilliers also set the standard for future Maitre’ds and hosts. He pointed out the dishes to be avoided, must dishes, and then suggested the perfect wine with such a gracious and engaging manner that he seemed to doing you a favor as your friend. This was the type of Maitre’d that every chef yearns and even aches for.
Then came the French Revolution. This event leveled out the culinary world just as it did the political world. Justice became more uniform for all classes of society and more people had the opportunity to dine out. Previous to this momentous societal upheaval only the wealthy were dining in the privacy of their estates. However the French Revolution drastically reduced the number of households with elaborate culinary establishments. The multitude of unemployed chefs and cooks, who were lucky enough to escape the guillotine, started restaurants or found work in them. In 1804, only a few short decades after the disruption, Paris already had 500 restaurants.
The upwardly mobile middle classes and the falling aristocracy could not afford their own chef in an elegant dining room of their own with servants to do all the work. However this growing class of the not-quite-wealthy-enough still wanted to have a royal Dining experience with all the trappings – gourmet food, vintage wine, refined service, an elegant place setting and a sumptuous location. Responding to this expanding need some clever entrepreneurs set up some Fine Dining restaurants to allow this emerging class to fulfill their fantasies. By tapping into this pool of resources these early restaurateurs enabled these aristocratic wanabees to dine like royalty – as frequently as their finances would permit. Competing with each other to attract the Public dollar the best of these chefs became celebrities. Thus the equalization of society, not its stratification, led to the birth of restaurants based in Fine Dining.
Of these early public chefs Marie Antoine Carême (1784-1835) was foremost. In fact he was probably the first celebrity chef. His specialty was elaborate architectural representations created with food to be used as table displays. It was he that was Antoine’s namesake and idol.
Carême was born in the late 1700s to a poor family. Thrown out on the street due to the social turbulence, he found work in the restaurant business. Self taught he was especially interested in classical architecture. Obsessed he devoured everything he could find on the subject. However he was trained in the kitchen rather than as an architect. Not to be denied he began recreating these incredible buildings with food nearly as soon as his culinary talents had been cultivated. Born into a Neo-Classical time he replicated classic structures from Greece, Rome and Egypt out of spun sugar, glue, wax and pastry dough. His creations were awesome in their elaborate and precise attention to every detail. These were the precursors to our ice sculptures and food displays.
Carême could be called the first super star of the French culinary world. Before the Revolution the private chefs had developed their own styles and talents independently of each other; so collectively it was a jumble of uneven diversity. However due to Carême’s prestige and fame as the chef of powerful political figures his influence spread widely with many imitators. One of his employers was the consummate politician Talleyrand, who said that a fine table is the best setting for diplomatic maneuvering. He also cooked for Tsar Alexander of Russia, George IV of England, and Baroness Rothschild of Paris.
While his fame was partly based upon his amazing ability to duplicate classical buildings in food, he also had an impact upon the institution of Dining as well. His almost neurotic obsession with detail extended to all aspects of the Dining Experience. Every element became important under his watchful eye. Carême placed a greater emphasis upon course order, paring textures, and food compatibility. His artistic eye also extended plate presentation to a level it had never known before, even demanding complementary colors on his plates. He said that visuals add a full 100% to the taste experience. To augment the concepts that underlay his famous table displays he also wrote cookbooks, which articulated and disseminated his culinary philosophy.