The French revolution gave birth to fine dining and the celebrity chef as we know them today. After France’s royal family was overthrown and many nobles were killed during the revolution, French’s finest chefs — who had previously served in private homes and catered only to the most lavish feasts — suddenly found themselves without jobs. Just a few months after these violent events, around 50 new restaurants sprung up in Paris, re-establishing fine dining as an industry rather than a private luxury — though it was still too expensive for most people to eat at.
It was in this environment that the so-called first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, earned his fame. Carême apprenticed for pâtissier Sylvain Bailly before a chance encounter with French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord launched him into the dining table of Napoleon Bonaparte. The rest was history and he was followed by famous chefs such as Julia Child whom some consider to be the first American celebrity chef.
But time is massive and history stretches further than memory and records can remember, so while your searches may be telling you that Marie-Antoine Carême was the first celebrity chef, we may want to stop and think about what we mean by first (First to whom? First to do what?) and celebrity chef (How famous or innovative does one need to be?) to find a better candidate for the first celebrity chef.
What Makes a Celebrity Chef a Celebrity Chef?
There’s no grand arbiter for who is and isn’t a celebrity chef. There’s no celebrity chef police or committee that will lay down the law on how famous you have to be to count as a celebrity chef. A quick look at what everyone else is saying online seems to indicate that the celebrity chef, to qualify as one, has to be known for their cooking. According to Wise Tour, the celebrity chef doesn’t even have to be a formally trained cook. And this is true — Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver, and Guy Fieri didn’t go to culinary school (via Showbiz Cheatsheet).
Aside from being famous for cooking, the celebrity chef often has some kind of media material associated with their name. These days, that’s likely to be a YouTube channel or a T.V. show and, especially before the advent of the internet and T.V., a cookbook. Marie-Antoine Carême has a cookbook. So does Julia Child.
So you’ve got two things: The celebrity chef has to a) be famous for cooking and; b) have a cookbook to their name.
If not for one of these two things being missing, a Korean woman would already have Marie-Antoine Carême beat. Jang Gye-hyang, who was born in 1598, didn’t become famous for her food in her lifetime. She was more of a scholar, but she did leave behind the first cookbook written in Hangul.
But there’s one chef that’s attested to have been famous for his cooking in his lifetime and for writing a cookbook.
Meet Mithaecus, the Chef Who Made Sicilian Cuisine a Thing
When it comes to firsts of anything, it pays to dig through ancient history because chances are, it’s already been done before. While Marie-Antoine Carême’s celebrity chef status can be largely attributed to his influence on French cuisine and fine dining in general, the same can be said for Mithaecus and his influence on Greek cuisine. How can we tell he was famous by some measure? Well, Plato praised his food while dissing him.
In Gorgias, Plato mentions Mithaecus as the “author of a book on Sicilian cookery“. Famous? Check. Cookbook author? Check.
The Greek philosopher writes, “…Thearion, the baker, Mithaecus, the author of the book on Sicilian cookery, Sarambus, the vintner—these have shown themselves wonderful ministers of the body; the first providing admirable loaves, the second tasty dishes, and the third wine.”. Sure, he’s telling people off for admiring him, but what a temptation Mithaecus’ food must be that Plato rails against him.
Mithaecus likely lived around 400 B.C. and was mentioned to have lived in Syracuse, Italy. It’s said that his cooking was a bad influence — so good it made people fat — that he was expelled from Sparta. Mithaecus is credited for laying the Sicilian groundwork for Greek fine dining and is cited three times in The Gastronomers by Athaneus.
You Can Still Eat Mithaecus’ Food. Well, Kind Of.
Mithaecus’ cookbook didn’t survive to our time, but Athaneus preserves one recipe from Mithaecus’ work in his The Gastronomers about how to cook tainia, a fish that Greeks today call Kordella.
Mithaecus instructs that to prepare tainia, the cook must “gut the ribbon-fish, cut the head off, wash it and cut it into slices and pour on cheese and oil.” Yes, cheese and fish. It was considered a strange combination by some back in Mithaecus’ time, to the point that Archestratus, himself a Sicilian Greek, considers the fish and cheese combo equivalent to “fancy non-sense” in his recipe “Amia”, a dish that involves tuna.
But Marianna Leivaditaki, a Cretan-born chef, told Culture Cheese Mag, “The truth, though, is that the two ingredients can go well together and nothing strange happens.”
Leivaditaki recommends a seafood and cheese combination that mixes fillet of fish with feta.
Taste of Home has a recipe for Greek Fish Bake that you can follow to take your tastebuds backward in time.
A Greek Fish Bake That Will Give You a Taste of Ancient Greek Fine Dining
You will need:
- 6 ounces of cod fillet
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 1 green pepper cut into strips
- 1/2 small red onion sliced
- 1/4 of sliced and pitted Greek olives
- 8 ounces of tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup of crumbled feta cheese.
This simple two-step recipe can be whipped up in an hour tops, even for the slowest mise en place – er. Just preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and, while waiting, grease a baking dish. Put your cod fillet in, and add olive oil, salt, pepper, green pepper, onion, and olives. Follow with tomato sauce and cheese then pop it in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
But Is Mithaecus Really the First Celebrity Chef? Enter Ancient Chinese Cook Yi Yin Who Was So Good at His Job, He Advised a King
The further back in time you go, the murkier things get so while it’s harder to claim Yi Yin as a celebrity chef before Mithaecus, you can perhaps consider him a proto-celebrity chef. The cook lived in the Shang Dynasty, over 3,700 years ago, and is attested in the book “Lu’s Annals”. However, the accuracy of the information is dubious as the writer wrote it roughly a thousand years after the legendary cook lived.
The story goes that Yi Yin wrote the first Chinese cookbook and basically invented the basics of Chinese cooking. He formalized the idea of the five flavors — sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and salty — and the three materials of cooking which were water, fire, and wood.
Yi Yin became the first prime minister of the Shang Dynasty, according to The Epoch Times. Though he originally came from the Xin Kingdom — where he learned under his adoptive father, the chef of the Xin king — he eventually made his way to the Shang kingdom when he was sent there together with the Xin princess who married the Shang king. The Shang king took a fondness for Yi Yin and made him his consultant. Yi Yin, who was not taught to counsel kings, would use cooking methods as an example for his advice to the Shang king.
“Ruling a dynasty is just like cooking. It won’t be good if you put too much salt or too little salt. The seasoning you add should be modest.” Yi Yin is said to have told the Shang king.
Huh, imagine if The Art of War was written by a chef instead of a general.