Saturday, March 2, 2013

Crêpes Suzette, the Prince of Wales, and the Chef Henri Charpentier.

Crêpes Suzette and Crêpes Suzette Flambé
Behind the French Menu
Crepes Suzette Flambé
Photograph courtesy of Charles Nouÿrit.
    Crêpes Suzette; a  dish of sweet, thin, crepes, served in a hot sauce of fresh orange juice sauce flavored with a combination of liquors.  Traditionally the sauce, poured over the crepes, is set alight, flambé, flambéed, in front of the diners; however, in the over 100 years since that tradition was created many restaurants no longer flambé the dish considering that bit of restaurant theatre to be passé.
Crepes Suzette, served  with ice cream.
Photograph courtesy of  boo_delicious
    Crepes served in different sauces have been a popular part of French cuisine for over 150 and years, but Crepes Suzette became an overnight sensation.  The time was 1896, and the place was the restaurant the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo;  then a  group of diners including the Prince of Wales, of the UK, the future King Edward the VII, ordered crepes in an orange flavored sauce as a dessert.

Photograph, 1905, 
Taken from the terrace of the Cafe de Paris, Monte Carlo.
Photograph courtesy of Morton 1905
     A young, commis chef, an under-chef, the 16 year-old Henri Charpentier (1880- 1961) was tasked to serve the dish to the diners from a chaffing dish heated by a direct flame underneath.  By mistake, or possibly with malice aforethought, a drop of the alcoholic sauce fell on the flame, and the rest is history.  The fire that arose created shock and awe but was immediately turned into controlled restaurant theatre. Henri Charpentier never lost his cool, and explained to the Prince that this was a new creation. Henri then asked the Prince, who had congratulated him on both the show and the dish, to choose the name of the dish; the Prince chose the name of the 8 year-old young lady sitting next to her father, a guest of the prince and voila; we now have Crêpes Suzette.
The Cafe de Paris Monte Carlo, now.
Photograph courtesy of king_david_uk
     Often, and quite incorrectly, the Prince of Wales' lady guest whose name is connected with the crepes, is described as a courtesan called Suzette.  Despite the Prince’s real life reputation as a lady’s man that story is spurious; the Suzette in question was a real a young lady, just eight-year’s old. Despite the allegations concerning the Suzette the Prince of Wales did have a love who was not his wife, Alice Keppel. Discussing Alice Keppel can make for an interesting discussion of coincidences when discussing Crêpes Suzette.  Alice Keppel’s great-great granddaughter is Camilla Parker Bowles, the second wife of the present Prince of Wales, Prince Charles.  Royalty may say that heredity is everything; however, Alice and Camilla would probably say that, from one Prince of Wales to another, tradition is everything!
The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
    Now back to Crêpes Suzette; certainly this was the first dish served flambéed in front of a Prince and probably the first dish publicly flambéed in the history of the Café de Paris.  Until that day dishes that had alcohol added for flavor had excess alcohol burned off in the kitchen; the act of controlling the flame that  act created was part of any aspiring chef’s job.
   Make sure you bring the right car to the Cafe de Paris.
Photograph courtesy of Karma Motorsports (Speedin')
    Crêpes Suzette, a great dessert, is still on many menus, and the alcoholic eau-de-vie used to flavor the fresh orange juice sauce will probably be Cointreau or Grande Manier;  that despite Henri’s original recipe being a combination of Maraschino, Curacao and Kirsch. Some chefs disagree about the original liquor in the recipe; however, the original recipe is, beyond dispute, it is all there in black and white, in English, in Henri’s first book: Life à la Henri.
     Chefs may tell you that Henri became famous because he was as a good showman not because he was a good chef, but that is just kitchen envy.  The best chefs do not ignore good restaurant theatre in their dining rooms, and many of the truly greatest chefs have covered up their errors by good showmanship; anyone questioning Henri’s story should be reminded of the origins of Tarte Tatin. For more about Tarte Tatin see the post: The Real Tarte Tatin 
     Following his apprenticeship at the Cafe de Paris Henri travelled and worked in a number of famous restaurants in Europe; his most memorable apprenticeship was working under Escoffier  and César Ritz at the Savoy Hotel in London. Then, in 1905 Henri, aged 21, and already married and a father, emigrated to the United States. Directly off the boat Henri began work at the legendary Delmonico’s French restaurant in New York;   as could be expected from Henri’s world-wind life-style within a year Henri opened his own restaurant.. The web address, ttt   takes you to the Long Island Shore and Lynbrook  web site, there it notes that Henri’s French Restaurant  was opened in 1906 on Scranton Avenue, Lynbrook. The restaurant, Henri’s French Restaurant, was an instant success and rapidly grew in size; then, in 1920, came prohibition!  Under prohibition French restaurants that wished to offer aperitifs, serve dishes like Crepe Suzette or coq au vin, all accompanied by fine wines, either closed, or became  a speak-easy.  Henri closed his restaurant and returned to France.

    With the end of prohibition, in 1933, John D Rockefeller enticed Henri back from France to open a French restaurant in the newly built Rockefeller center in New York. The restaurant was too small for the extremely high rent that Henri had to pay, and the restaurant closed already in 1935. While running his new restaurant Henri wrote his first book, translated by his son, and it was published, in 1934, in English:  Life à la HenriI have seen on a 2001 reprint of  Life à la Henri. Modern Library Edition, Random House.
Henri Charpentier on the cover of his book
Life à la Henri.
    In 1945, Henri privately printed  with the W.B. Conkey Co, another book called:  Food and Finesse -- The Brides Bible. That book was reprinted in 1970  and is on sale, mostly second hand,  under the title: The Henri Charpentier Cookbook,  printed by Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc.
     After further culinary adventures in Chicago and Los Angeles somewhere around 1947 Henri retired to Redondo Beach, California.  Henri, however, was a born chef and could not just fade away, in the front room of his home Henri opened  another small restaurant where, unless you were a close friend, there was a two-year waiting list for a table
    Henri died in 1961 in California, and the town of Contes, near Nice, France, where Henri grew up, he was born in Nice, has named a street after him. That’s very gratifying, but I am sure his descendants would have been far happier with the royalties on Crêpes Suzette alone.  
   In Tokyo, Japan, there is a pâtisserie named after Henri, it is of course, considered the best patisserie in Tokyo.

   Chefs working at the Henri Charpentier  Patisserie
Ginza, Tokyo
Photograph courtesy of Janine Cheung
Patisseries from the Henry Charpienter Patisserie.
Photograph courtesy of Janine Cheung

Bryan Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013.

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