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Saturday, March 2, 2013

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

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated November 2018

Crepes Suzette Flambé
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, flambéed, in front of the diners. Today, more than 100 years since the 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.
Crepes served in different sauces had long been popular desserts in France, but the flambéed 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 hosted by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward the VII of the UK, ordered crepes in an orange flavored sauce as a dessert.

The Cafe de Paris in 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 chafing 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 eight-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.
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.  Nevertheless, the Prince of Wales did have a lover 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 without any doubt in the history of the Café de Paris, Monte Carlo.  Until that day dishes that had alcohol added for flavor had excess alcohol burned off in the kitchen; the act of controlling the flame 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 remains a great dessert and will still be on many menus.  The alcoholic eau-de-vie used to flavor the fresh orange juice sauce will probably be Cointreau or Grande Marnier.  That despite Henri writing that the recipe was a combination of Maraschino, Curacao, and Kirsch.  Some chefs will argue about the 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 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 with good showmanship.  Anyone questioning Henri’s story should be reminded of the origins of Tarte Tatin.
Following his apprenticeship at the Cafe de Paris Henri traveled 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 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 takes you to the Long Island Shore and Lynbrook website; 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 a French restaurant that wished to offer aperitifs, serve dishes like Crepe Suzette, Coq au Vin or Tournedos Rossini accompanied by Champagne and followed by a fine Cognac, 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 high rent that Henri had to pay, and the restaurant closed in 1935. While running his new restaurant, Henri wrote his first book Life à la Henri in 1934; it was translated by his son.  A 2001 reprint by Modern Library Edition, Random House is still on sale.
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.  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 happier with the royalties on Crêpes Suzette. 
In Tokyo, Japan, there are three patisseries named after Henri, they are, of course, considered among the finest patisseries in Tokyo.

Patisseries from the Henry Charpentier Patisserie, Tokyo.
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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2017.
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