Saturday, March 2, 2013

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

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated August 2019

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 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 today.
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 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.


There’s one place left, so you can still park your yacht.
Monte Carlo Harbor today.
Often, mistakenly, the Prince of Wales' lady guest, Suzette, whose name is forever connected with the crepes, is described as a courtesan.  The Prince had a real-life reputation as a lady's man, but the courtesan story is spurious. The Prince of Wales did have a lover who was not his wife, Alice Keppel.  Then, discussing Alice Keppel can make for an engaging discussion of coincidences when ordering 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 time a dish would be flambéed in the dining room of the Cafe de Paris, Monte Carlo.  Until that day, dishes that had alcohol added for flavor had excess alcohol burned off in the kitchen and the act of controlling the flame was part of any aspiring chef’s job. Now the guests would be provided with a new stunt in the arsenal of restaurant theater,   
The Casino, Cafe de Paris.
Crêpes Suzette remains a great dessert and is still 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  and so chefs still argue about the liquor in the original recipe.  That, however, 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.  Chefs do not ignore good restaurant theatre, and many of the most exceptional chefs have covered up their errors with excellent 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, Henri, and family 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 whirlwind lifestyle within a year, Henri opened his own restaurant. The web address takes you to the Long Island Shore and Lynbrook website. 

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; his son translated it. 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.
IIn 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 still on sale, mostly in second-hand book stores, 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.  Everything was prepared by Henri in his tiny kitchen.

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. Whether they are among the finest patisseries in Tokyo and honor his name is disputed.
Patisseries from the Henry Charpentier Patisserie, Tokyo.
Photograph courtesy of Vivie Hsu


Bryan G Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2017, 2019

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog, contact Bryan Newman.


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