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Let them eat cake: Urbain Dubois

Dubois urbain e emile bernard da cuisine classique chateau fort en gaufres crop

Food as phantasmagoric spectacle conceals murkier aspects of power relations

The AR of July 1936 contained the fourth instalment in the series ‘Minor Masters of the XIX Century’ with a meditation on the life and work of Urbain Dubois (1818-1901) French chef-de-cuisine to the Prussian court. Authored by JM Richards, the AR’s longest serving editor, it unspools as a leisurely reflection on Dubois’s meteoric career and a speculation on how the creative propensities of royal chefs might be analogous to the practice of architecture. Both, it seems, require a certain penchant for megalomania, as well as a feel for the properties of materials and a willingness to mine the wilder shores of human imagination. Illustrations of Dubois’s phantasmagoric creations are employed to emphatically prove these points. 

The design for a ‘Trophy of War’, for instance, depicts Minerva, the Roman Goddess of War, equipped with a furled standard, war-trumpet and laurel wreath, all painstakingly modelled in fat. ‘Cannonballs’ composed of ‘galantine of snipe with chaufroix sauce’ serve as an appropriately belligerent yet visually appealing garnish. For pudding, there might be a ‘Great Oriental Mounted Piece’ nearly a metre high, comprising a quasi-Moorish tower with elongated onion dome, constructed from pastillage or gum-paste, mounted on a grotto hewn from biscuits through which flows ‘water’ executed in spun sugar. Another equally complex pièce montée takes the form of a picturesque Roman ruin confected from Genoise sponge, its decaying Corinthian columns cemented together with icing sugar.

To Marie-Antoine Carême is attributed the self-aggrandising aphorism ‘The most noble of all the arts is architecture, and its greatest manifestation is the art of the pastry chef’

‘In the eclectic extravagance of 19th century courts’, writes Richards, ‘royal chefs, who occupied a respected, even exalted position, found themselves engaged in a creative art hardly less complicated and exacting than architecture itself’. Author of several hefty tomes on the culinary arts including Cuisine Classique and Cuisine Artistique, the latter published in England in 1887, Urbain Dubois leaves the reader in no doubt that he could just as easily have confected in bricks and mortar as sponge, marzipan and crème pâtissière. For Dubois, ‘Culinary decoration was on the same serious plane as the more celebrated arts and its proper regard was a sure test of a nation’s civilisation’, writes Richards. 

Dubois urbain da cuisine artistique 51 trionfo per centrotavola

Dubois urbain da cuisine artistique 51 trionfo per centrotavola

Hand-coloured drawing of an elaborate pièce montée from Cuisine Artistique by Urbain Dubois, whose series of books on the culinary arts helped to consolidate his international reputation

In the rarefied and pampered milieu of European court society, operatic spectacles staged around food and feasting represented aggressive displays of political power and resources. Such operations were highly labour-intensive, involving a cast of thousands of cooks, craftsmen, waiters, cleaners and bottlewashers. Heading up these ranks was the pastry cook – le pâtissier or Konditormeister – the original celebrity chef, given a free rein as choreographer of lavish fantasies of display and consumption. Within this society of pâtisserie spectacle, no request was too extreme. The christening cake designed for the grandson of Louis XIV involved simulating his entry into the world by means of a cunning clockwork mechanism secreted in a marzipan vagina.

Convinced that in culinary arts, his generation stood at the apex of progress, Dubois bestrode the 19th century, capitalising on the earlier achievements of another French chef, Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). The son of a stone mason, Carême began his career by studying Palladio’s architectural drawings in the Cabinet des Gravures at the Bibliothèque Nationale and interpreting them in sugar and pastry. Briefly chef to the Prince Regent, he became known as the ‘Bernini of the banqueting table’, making high art out of his elaborate pièces montées, adapted from traditional sugar sculptures, which first made an appearance in Italy during the 15th century. To Carême is attributed the self-aggrandising aphorism ‘The most noble of all the arts is architecture, and its greatest manifestation is the art of the pastry chef.’

Dubois urbain e emile bernard da cuisine classique chateau fort en gaufres

Dubois urbain e emile bernard da cuisine classique chateau fort en gaufres

A selection of ‘architectural’ desserts, executed with scrupulous regard to style and detail

For most of the 19th century, the French reigned supreme in matters of confectionery. Around 1840, there was a eureka moment when French chefs discovered the technique of piping icing through a paper cone, creating an entirely new way to decorate pastry. ‘How coquettish are those pieces proceeding from the point of a cornet’, eulogised Urbain Dubois. ‘How elegant those gum-paste ornaments with their light and slender forms, their correct lines, their delicate columns, their indented walls. He who is a stranger to the secret resources of this art has little conception of the wonderful results that a skilful practitioner can produce from a sugar-loaf.’ 

Dubois’s fame spread through his widely disseminated culinary manuals, featuring an immense repertoire of designs with precise instructions for their manufacture. He was familiar with every style of architectural ornament down to its smallest detail and insistent on the correct application of various styles, scrupulously categorising them according to the demands of particular materials. ‘It is the unquestionable truth that ornaments in icing sugar are best compatible with the Gothic style of architecture’, he writes, while ‘designs in fat’ are recommended for Classical subjects. He provided detailed drawings of the various architectural orders which could be formed into porticoes ‘used for monuments and fancy buildings and applied indifferently to ornament cold meats or pastry’. 

‘The minutely planned staging of objects and corresponding theatrical acts was necessary to concretise social structures and to remind the regime’s subjects of the deity-like majesty of their ruler’

Dubois urbain da cuisine artistique 41

Dubois urbain da cuisine artistique 41

Two creations from Cuisine Artistique designed for Prussian court banquets, the art of spectacle intended to reinforce power

Although he lived to 82, there are scant details about his life, but it is characterised by a cosmopolitan drifting through European capitals and being in the right place at the right time. Like Carême, his origins are inauspicious. He began life by toiling in the kitchen of his uncle’s hotel, but by 1860 was chef to Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia in Berlin, remaining in court employment for 20 years with a short hiatus during the Franco-Prussian War. He shared the position of head chef with his compatriot, Émile Bernard, each being responsible for cooking duties on alternate months, an arrangement that gave Dubois plenty of time for writing. Fortunately, his books record and preserve for posterity his otherwise evanescent creations, the 19th-century equivalent of today’s cookery porn that regularly clogs up bestseller lists and Instagram feeds.

Given comforting impetus by national televisual treasures such as The Great British Bake Off, cake-making now seems a harmless and cosily democratised pursuit, but food and the rituals of eating and service have always been emblematic of deeper currents of power and control. Throughout history, ruling elites have used ceremonials to express political goals and sustain hierarchies. These highly structured bacchanales featured the consumption of luxury goods and played a critical role in asserting social and political status.

Dubois urbain e emile bernard da cuisine classique ananas au riz a la creole

Dubois urbain e emile bernard da cuisine classique ananas au riz a la creole

A range of Dubois desserts from Cuisine Classique emphasising display and consumption

At European royal courts, the minutely planned staging of objects and corresponding theatrical acts, especially for dining ceremonials, was necessary to concretise social structures and to remind the regime’s subjects of the deity-like majesty of their ruler. Elaborate confectionery sculptures and pièces montées were designed to please the eye as well as the palate, but had another, more subtly insidious role. Made from sugar, a luxury commodity with a wretched and exploitative history of colonialism, these manifestations of regal magnificence served to establish and reinforce power relations. In this, Konditormeisters such as Urbain Dubois usefully served their masters, much as architects have always served their clients.

But gluttony has its consequences. The popularity of refined sugar in connection with ceremonial aesthetics brought with it the ravages of tooth disease throughout the aristocratic echelons of Europe. Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil, patron of the marzipan vagina, had to have all his teeth painfully extracted due to sugar-induced decay. In doing so, his jaw was broken twice and an associated infection had to be cauterised with a red-hot iron rod. Which must have been fairly excruciating. And of course, the final fatal fall of the French nobility is forever associated with an inopportune remark about cake.  

This piece is featured in the AR October issue on Food – click here to purchase your copy today