Historical story

How cooking became an art under Napoleon

Last updated:2022-07-25

Paris was once infamous for its bad food. Foreign travelers complained about the quality of meals in public eateries. It was also unpleasant to be there. All this changed under the influence of health advice. And what does Napoleon's reign have to do with the rise of France as a gastronomic guide country?

Foreigners who visited Paris before the French Revolution (1789) without an invitation from the local elite, had to rely on inns and eateries for the evening meal. Dining there was not very comfortable:seated at one large table (table d'hôte), both regulars and passers-by, of every rank and position, ate what the pot was about at fixed times and for a fixed price. These were often richly filled stews and meat pies.

Apart from the lack of quality and variety in the dishes, the forced conversations with strangers and the bad table manners of some of the diners were also a source of annoyance. For this reason women were rarely seen at the table; they preferred to eat alone in their inn room.

About 1765 a new development occurred in this respect. The medical side then pointed out the importance of good digestion for good health. It was therefore better to eat lighter and more balanced. Heavy fare, such as those served in the inns, should be avoided. This idea was put into practice in Paris in a new kind of establishment where an invigorating meat extract could be drunk, allowing the customer (or patient?) to recover from his digestive upset due to bad food. This broth was called 'restaurant', which literally means 'repairer'. Soon the establishment where the stock was served also got this name.

The customer is king

The first Parisian "restaurants" distinguished themselves from the inns and eateries not only by what was served, but also by three other novelties. First of all, one could walk in at any time to drink a broth. The customer could also choose from various meat extracts, each of which was listed with its own price on a printed menu. Most remarkable, finally, was that the guests sat down at separate tables, where one could eat one's order alone or in small company, served by waiters and waitresses. Restaurants attracted a predominantly wealthy and educated clientele, including numerous women.

Featured by the editors

MedicineWhat are the microplastics doing in my sunscreen?!

AstronomySun, sea and science

BiologyExpedition to melting land

Gradually, the range expanded with other foods considered beneficial, such as fish, eggs, rice pudding, boiled vegetables and fruit. After about 1780, the inevitable happened:in the battle for the customer, the restaurants began to serve more and more hearty food in addition to the healthy meals. They did, however, continue to distinguish themselves by the aforementioned services, which are geared to the personal preferences of the customer:extended opening hours, choice à la carte and eating at separate tables. Moreover, the restaurants had a more neat interior than inns and eateries.

Suspicion during the Revolution

In 1789 the French Revolution broke out. It is often claimed that chefs of the aristocratic families, after their masters fled or were guillotined, soon opened restaurants on a large scale. This is a myth, but the Revolution certainly brought changes to the restaurant industry. A favorable consequence of the revolution was the abolition of the guilds with their strict craft monopolies, which also hindered free enterprise in the food industry.

What was threatening, however, was that, as the Revolution became more radical, those in power viewed the restaurants with growing suspicion and disgust. After all, the luxurious ambiance, refined dishes, individual approach and the well-to-do audience were difficult to reconcile with the ideals of equality and brotherhood. There were constant accusations of counter-revolutionary behavior, and a single restaurateur even ended up in jail.

When in the summer of 1794, with the fall of the politician Robespierre, a true reign of terror came to an end, there was great relief. The liberal bourgeoisie with its many new rich now took power, and in response to the previous anxious years, the latter, in particular, gave themselves up to an unbridled pursuit of pleasure and amusement. The Parisian restaurants offered plenty of opportunity to do so.

Menus as books

By 1800, these establishments had completely abandoned their orientation towards broths and other wholesome foods. The key word was abundance, in more ways than one. Firstly, there was an amazing amount and choice of dishes. The options were so great that the menus expanded into small books. The decoration of the dining rooms with mirrors, silk wall coverings and chandeliers also showed an 'aristocratic' opulence, as did the tables covered with damask cloths and napkins, silverware, porcelain and crystal.

Furthermore, the number of restaurants in Paris around 1800 was abundant. It is not known exactly how many there were; reportedly there were about a thousand or two thousand. The most famous establishments, such as Véry, Méot and Beauvilliers, were located under the arcades of the Palais-Royal. In and near this former royal palace, part of which already housed several shops before the Revolution, an important part of the Parisian nightlife concentrated.

Education from glutton to gourmand

This culinary delight flourished during Napoleon's Consulate and Empire (1799-1814/15). There were two reasons for this. To begin with, there was hardly any government interference. Unlike the revolutionary regimes, which had viewed the luxury eateries with suspicion, Napoleon's reign cherished the "freedom of entertainment". As long as the educated public was discussing a new novel, a talented opera singer, or an exquisite dish, at least it didn't talk about politics, the cynical argument went. Or as Napoleon himself put it shortly after taking office:'Let them amuse themselves, and let them dance! But don't let them stick their noses into state affairs!' The authorities even went so far as to deliberately set up or stir up cultural polemics in the press.

The second reason for the culinary boom at the beginning of the nineteenth century is related to this need for debate about beautiful and pleasant things. This also included 'gastronomy', a term that was coined at the time. Questions such as which dishes are the tastiest, how best to prepare them and where to eat them have now been discussed with seriousness and passion by a wide audience for the first time. With this, a new figure came into the open, namely that of the gourmand :the culinary connoisseur. In other words, cooking became a true art form under Napoleon's reign.

During these years, the 'debate about taste' was dominated by Alexandre Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1837), who could be called the first culinary journalist. He was annoyed by the lack of "savoir-manger" in the new rich who had risen by the Revolution. By pointing out the most delicious dishes and guiding them to the best restaurants, Grimod wanted to educate them from indifferent gluttons to delicate gourmands.

For this Grimod used the widely read and much discussed Almanach des Gourmands, an annual guide to food, eateries and delis in Paris, which he published between 1803 and 1812. In this forerunner of the Michelin Guide, Grimod, self-proclaimed “Minister of the Mouth” (Ministre de la Gueule), laid down rules for the art of dining and praised and criticized new dishes. He did the latter in consultation with a twelve-member 'tasters forum' (Jury dégustateur). Every Tuesday they expertly judged the dishes served by restaurateurs and caterers for five hours.

Host on behalf of France

During the Consulate and Empire, gastronomy flourished not only in the top Parisian restaurants. Impressive culinary achievements were also achieved at the table in government circles. This was not the case with Napoleon himself. The haute cuisine was not for him (see box); besides, he simply didn't have time for it. He therefore delegated the task of regularly organizing official dinners to his close associates Cambacérès and Talleyrand, who were perfect for this. "Above all else, give good receipts," he commanded them, "for it is in the name of France!"

Jean-Jacques de Cambacérès (1753-1824), Napoleon's Second Consul and Archchancellor during the Empire, received the highest praise from culinary journalist Grimod for his richly decorated and richly provided table, with specialties such as half-grilled and half-roasted partridges, Corsican blackbirds and hare tails. It is clear that you could have a delicious dinner at Cambacérès. But it is doubtful whether the meals were also pleasant. The host saw to it that the approximately thirty guests – as befits real gourmands – concentrate entirely on the dishes, eat everything and speak as little as possible.

Things were quite different at the official dinners hosted by Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838) four times a week for as many as 48 guests. For this bon vivant, dining was an essential part of his existence, and pleasant conversation was emphatically part of that. By having his servants play eavesdropping, he also received useful information.

Talleyrand spared no expense in his receipts. In a year, the menu was not allowed to be the same on any day. Among the minister's guests were, of course, many diplomats who, deeply impressed, spread the fame of French gastronomy abroad.

'King of cooks and cook of kings'

Talleyrand had a unique trump card. At the head of his immense kitchen with eventually about eighty employees was Antonin Carême (1784-1833). Although his surname suggests otherwise - 'Carême' means 'Lent' - he was the undisputed top chef of his time. His contributions to French cookery are manifold. In this way he took the patisserie to unprecedented heights. Carême was the grand master of the pièces montées:spectacular structures made of cake, nougat, marzipan, meringues and almond paste, sometimes tens of centimeters high, which were primarily intended as table decoration. The 'Palladio of French cuisine' was his nickname.

Just as Grimod set himself the task of educating the 'eater' into a gourmand, Carême wanted to elevate the craft of cooking into an artistic profession, expressed in the white chef's hat he introduced. He didn't just do this in the kitchen practice. He also published several books, in which he organized existing culinary knowledge and explained preparation techniques. For example, Carême designed a system for the classification of sauces and compiled a list of culinary terms to be used on menus. Convinced of the superiority of French haute cuisine, he carried it out abroad after 1814, as chef for, among others, the Russian Tsar, the British Prince Regent and the Austrian Emperor. They called Carême the 'king of cooks and cook of kings'.

Classic about gastronomy

A third star in the gastronomic firmament at the beginning of the nineteenth century was Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). Incidentally, this magistrate and bon vivant did not make himself heard until 1825, when the Empire was long over. Physiologie du goût . published shortly before his death In a light-hearted but crumbly way, Brillat contemplates the sensory pleasures of dining:the fragrant dishes, the tasty ingredients, the eye-pleasing decorations, the entertaining company.

Physiology du goût grew into a classic work, which is still being reprinted and translated into many languages, into Dutch by Wina Born under the title The essence of taste. Many of Brillat's life wisdom became famous, such as 'A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye' and 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are'. The book serves an ambitious purpose. Drawing on his many years of experience gained at private dinners such as that of Cambacérès and in the luxurious restaurants of the Palais-Royal, Brillat tries to establish in this 'the theoretical foundations of gastronomy, so that it can join the sciences, a place which is undeniably hers'.

It would retain the leading position that French cookery acquired in the culinary world at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In fact, from then on, new French master chefs arose and modernized and perfected haute cuisine. Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) and Paul Bocuse (1926-2018) are the most important of them. They ensured that the primacy of French gastronomy has remained untouched to this day.