REMEMBERING HENRI CHARPENTIER

It was my original intention, early in the last decade, to write reviews about some of my favorite–but perhaps overlooked and forgotten–cookbook authors. This project was waylaid when the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, for which I wrote articles throughout the 1990s, folded. It was a great forum for the kind of writing I enjoy doing most. But fast forward a decade and I find myself with a blog and the ability to write and share with you just about anything that is on my mind. I hope you will enjoy reading about Henri Charpentier! – sls **

It was while reading through Lee Edwards Benning’s book, “THE COOK’S TALES” for something else entirely that I discovered S is for Suzette – as in Crepes Suzette. This reminded me that I have a copy of “THE HENRI CHARPENTIER COOKBOOK” (purchased at a used bookstore for $15.00), and had always planned to write something about him.

It has always been my belief that Henri Charpentier created Crepes Suzette. Benning casts a shadow of doubt on this belief in her book “THE COOK’S TALES”.

Henri Charpentier (1880-1961) had a most intriguing, colorful career which began when, at the age of ten years, he served as a page boy on the Riviera. He served his apprenticeship as a Master Chef in the major dining capitals of Europe: HOTEL DE PARIS in Monte Carlo, MAXIMS and TOUR D’ARGENT in Paris, THE CAFÉ ROYALE and SAVOY in London, as well as other famous hotels in Moscow, Munich and Rome. Charpentier was a student of Escoffier, Jean Camous and Cesar Ritz.

Among Charpentier’s European patrons and friends were Queen Victoria, stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, and King Edward VII, for whom, Charpentier claimed, he created Crepes Suzette.

“Adventurous and ambitious,” state the publishers of “THE HENRI CHARPENTIER COOKBOOK, “Henri came to America in the early 1900s, with his new bride. He worked in the dining rooms of New York’s most distinguished hotels until 1906 when he opened THE ORIGINAL HENRI RESTAURANT in his home in the rural village of Lynbrook, Long Island. The small dining room had only two tables. Felomena, his wife, was in charge, while Henri continued to work in the city during the day to finance the new undertaking…”

During its first year, THE ORIGINAL HENRI RESTAURANT took in only $500 but its owners were not discouraged. The turning point came when J.P. Morgan, one of the most notable financial figures of the time, discovered the little dining place in the country, rumored to serve finer cuisine than in New York City.

HENRI’S grew and prospered until it occupied a rambling mansion on many acres, with sunken gardens and promenades. Over the next 25 years, it attracted the wealthiest and most notable world celebrities.

Among the famous who made the 45 minute trip from New York City were Rudyard Kipling, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Diamond Jim Brady who, wearing $500,000 worth of precious gems and accompanied by two bodyguards, often paid dinner checks totaling $500.00, adding a $100 tip for the waiter.

HENRI’S restaurant continued to flourish until the 18th Amendment to the Constitution introduced prohibition to this country. “In April 1930,” say the publishers, “12 government agents swooped down on the Mecca of ultra-society smashing hundreds of bottles on the premises and confiscating approximately $100,000 worth of rare wines and champagnes.”

And, although the judge refused to close Henri’s because it was too respectable, the further use of brandy or liquor in food was strictly forbidden. Since preparation of most dishes thus became a felony, prohibition put an end to the type of cuisine for which THE ORIGINAL HENRI’S was famous. It was also the beginning of the restaurant’s decline.

The once famous restaurant became almost deserted but remained open. Henri opened an outdoor dance floor and offered a depression-price dinner for $1.50 and a printed menu for the first time.

A few years later, the French government and John D. Rockefeller approached Henri to open the MAISON FRANCAISE in brand-new Rockefeller Center; however, despite an avalanche of publicity and critical acclaim, Henri experienced financial difficulties from the very beginning. An artist rather than a businessman, he failed to realize that the new café was too small for the rent he paid. It was also the height of the depression and Henri refused to compromise his standards. In April 1935, the doors of the Maison Francaise closed and Henri was evicted for non-payment of $12,000 in back rent. Throughout the next three years, Henri struggled to rebuild THE ORIGINAL HENRI’S which he and his wife had managed to hold onto. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to sell some of his remaining real estate to pay the back taxes on the Lynbrook property, the site of THE ORIGINAL HENRI’S. (Henri had been offered $375,000 for the 20 acres of land in 1926 but was unable to find a buyer in 1938 for $10,000. The property was eventually confiscated and razed.

Tired of New York, Henri moved to Chicago where he operated a restaurant, the Cafe de Paris, for a while before moving to Los Angeles, where, after World War II, Henri opened a new Henri’s on Sunset Strip. It was described as an artistic triumph but once again, restaurant economics were severe and Henri was not geared to economizing.

However, for the last 15 years of his life, Henri presided over the type of restaurant he loved most, in Redondo Beach (California). The restaurant served a maximum of 16 guests every night, allowing him to supervise the preparation of each dish. There he served a different kind of royalty that included movie stars such as Bing Crosby and John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman, and Ethel Barrymore. It was so popular that reservations had to be made four years in advance!

Henri’s cookbook was originally privately printed in 1945 and distributed to a select circle of friends. The book’s original title was “FOOD AND FINESSE – THE BRIDE’S BIBLE” and was dedicated to “the queen of the throne – the charming American woman.” The book was designed to serve two (the bride and the groom) and, the publishers note, unlike most master chef’s, Henri had the ability to write his recipes in a simple, concise fashion. Each recipe was his own creation.

Henri Charpentier’s cookbook is also a book of memoirs, which makes fascinating reading. Perhaps the most amusing is his story “A English Plum Pudding in Contes” when his foster brother, Jean Camous, who was at that time a protégé of Escoffier, sent a plum pudding to the French village where Henri was living with his foster family. No one in the village had any idea what a plum pudding was or how it was to be used. Henri embarks on telling the story of the arrival of the plum pudding, which is truly hilarious.

He also tells the story of how he met Queen Victoria and many other famous people, for whom he created many of his specialty dishes – including the famous Crepes Suzette.

According to Henri, Edward, Prince of Wales, the son of Queen Victoria, came often to the Café d Paris in Monte Carlo where, in 1895, Henri—at the age of fifteen—was striving to hold his position as a kind of assistant waiter against the growing hostility of the maitre d’. “Day after day,” Henri recalls, “the Prince came to the Café for his luncheon.” Henri says that he often helped serve the Prince until one day through a series of fortunate circumstances, it fell to Henri’s lot to wait upon the Prince and his party. He recalled that in the party were eight gentlemen and one little girl, the daughter of one of the gentlemen. Henri writes the following, “I had often experimented with what are called French pancakes, and I had watched Maman Camous make them with one egg and much flour. She prepared thin strips of lemon and orange peel with sugar syrup and then cooked the cake and syrup together. As a commis des rangs, who had his share of confidence, I believed I could improve on that. I was not hampered by the poverty of Contes [his hometown] and I had the advantage of my training under Jean Camous [Henri’s foster brother].

The pancakes had to be cooked twice, and since the first was a smoky operation it was performed in the kitchen. But the rest of the process occurred in the dining room right where a prince or princess might watch how it was done. I stood in front of a chafing dish making the sauce. Everything was going along all right when suddenly the cordials caught fire! My heart leaped with the flames…” Henri thought he was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could he begin all over?

He tasted it and thought, “This is the most delicious melody of sweet flavors I’ve ever tasted.” Charpentier believed that the accident, which caused the cordials to flame, was precisely what was needed to bring all those various instruments into one harmony of taste. Henri plunged his supply of folded pancakes into the boiling sauce. “I submerged them,” he recalled, “I turned them deftly, and, again inspired, I added two more ponies of a previously prepared blend of equal parts of maraschino, curacao and kirshwasser. My wide pan was alive once more with blue and orange flame and as the colors died from the pan I looked up to see the Prince of Wales watching me.

That day he was dressed all in gray with a cravat in light blue. There was a carnation in his button hole. His gray beard was faultless. His chin went up and his nostrils inhaled. I thought then, and I think now, he was the world’s most perfect gentleman. He ate the pancakes with a fork but used a spoon to capture the remaining syrup….”

The Prince of Wales asked Henri the name of the dish he had just eaten, to which Henri replied that it was to be called Crepes Princesse. The Prince recognized it as a compliment but protested with mock ferocity that there was a lady present. “She was alert,” writes Henri, “and rose to her feet and holding her little skirt wide with both hands she made him a curtsey….”

The Prince then asked Henri to change the name from Crepes Princesse to Crepes Suzette. The next day, Henri received a present from the Prince, a jeweled ring, a Panama hat and a cane. “After that,” says Henri, “how could the maitre d’ possibly dismiss the fifteen year old Henri?”

Now, fast-forward to 1992 and Lee Edwards Benning’s research for “THE COOK’S TALE” and the chapter, “S is for Suzette”. Benning considers Crepes Suzette to be the cookdom’s version of the whodunit. She notes the clues as to who inspired it and does relate the story Henri told in the original “FOOD AND FINESSE, THE BRIDE’S BIBLE” which ultimately became the foundation for Price/Stern/Sloan’s “THE HENRI CHARPENTIER COOKBOOK”.

However, Benning notes that the accounts of how the dish originated are contradictory.

“Did it,” asks Benning, “as an occasional dish will do, leap to life like a gastronomic Minerva, springing fully armed and with a tremendous battle cry from the brain of a single creator? Did it evolve slowly as successive cooks added to it and improved it? Was it an accident, the result of a cook’s mistake? Could it have resulted from spontaneously combusting in several places at once—a case of great minds thinking alike?” Benning suggests we judge for ourselves. Henri’s story, as it was told, stood until his death in 1961.

“Then,” says Benning, “brave naysayers came forward to question not only Charpentier’s veracity but his expertise in the kitchen. They laughed at the thought that a fifteen-year old assistant waiter had access to, much less conversation with, a prince. That the maitre d’hôte would have allowed this callow youth near the person of the prince with his chafing dish. That the chef de cuisine would have even allowed the lad into our out of his kitchen…”

“Version two,” says Benning, “comes from Joseph Donon—one of the last private chefs in America—who wrote in FRANCE-AMERICAN that, among others, the crepes were invented by another chef, Monsieur Joseph, for a German actress, Suzanne ‘Suzette’ Reichenburg. According to Donon, Monsieur Joseph first made the crepes in 1889 while working at the restaurant Paillard, at the rue de la Chaussee-d’Antin and the boulevard des Italiens….” At this time, the pancakes were spread with an orange-sugar-butter sauce and remained nameless. “When Monsieur Joseph opened his own restaurant, the Marivaux, he continued to make the crepes…”

Apparently, in 1897, a play opened in which a character, a maid called Suzette, was to serve the principals some pancakes. These were supplied nightly by Monsieur Joseph from his restaurant. And so the restaurant staff would know for whom the pancakes were intended, they were called simply pancakes for Suzette or crepes Suzette. Since eating cold pancakes isn’t especially appetizing, just before they were rushed over to the theater every night, Monsieur Joseph dipped them into a sizzling mixture of butter, sugar and orange juice. No liqueurs, no alcohol, no flames.

From yet another source we have version #3. Louis P. De Gouy was a contemporary of Charpentier. De Gouy had worked at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo too—but as a chef. He also worked, as had Charpentier, at the Waldorf-Astoria here in America. According to De Gouy, crepes Suzette originally appeared in a cookbook published in 1674. According to De Gouy, Jean Reboux is credited with creating the crepes, which were served with afternoon tea to Louis XV and fellow huntsmen in the forest of Fontainebleau by order of Princesse (Suzette) de Carignan, who was infatuated with the king.

“Was she,” asks Benning, “the source of both of Charpentier’s names: first crepes princesse and then crepes Suzette?”

Version four, says Benning, “is presented by still another authority, Robert Courtine, alias Savarin. Savarin claims that all the previous claims are incorrect. He says that true crepes Suzette were made with tangerines…”

“Alas,” laments Benning, “tangerines, also known as mandarin oranges, were not introduced from China until the nineteenth century, so they could not have been used for crepes princesse. Further, the tangerine yields much less oil than any other orange, changing the recipe dramatically…..”

So much for version four.

It seems possible—perhaps logical—that Henri Charpentier didn’t really create Crepes Suzette when he was a fifteen-year-old waiter at a famous Monte Carlo restaurant. Undoubtedly, however, he managed to make them famous throughout his spectacular career. It was a good story, though and Henri Charpentier’s Cookbook provides entertaining recollections, true or otherwise, along with a collection of recipes. One also can’t help but wonder why those naysayers didn’t come forward until after Charpentier’s death to dispute the authenticity of his recipe.

In any event, no one disputed that Crepes Suzette makes for good eating.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.

The Henri Charpentier Cookbook was originally published in 1945 as “FOOD AND FINESSE, THE BRIDE’S BIBLE.” It was republished in 1970 by Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers under the title “THE HENRI CHARPENTIER COOKBOOK”.

Imagine my surprise when I entered Henri Charpentier’s name onto my favorite information website, Google.com, and discovered that Modern Library Food series has re-published Henri’s book in 2001 with a new introduction by Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl. The new name of the book is “LIFE A LA HENRI” and it should be available to you through most of your bookstore resources.

–Sandra Lee Smith

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One response to “REMEMBERING HENRI CHARPENTIER

  1. Thank you for your information and nice to meet you

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