It's a classic French dessert that's been wowing diners for decades, but finding out which chef first set fire to his pancakes isn't easy. Jassy Davis explores crêpes Suzette's history.
At one time a night in a fancy restaurant wouldn’t have been complete without the roar of burning brandy and batter. Crêpes Suzette, loved by theatrical waiters and pyromaniacs across the world, was shorthand for sophistication. They were a splash of Gallic extravagance that lit up dining rooms in 1960s Britain. Crêpes Suzette may have fallen out of fashion now, but in the early part of the 20th century chefs were very keen attach themselves to the dish and earn their culinary immortality.
A tribute to royalty
The first chef to stake his claim was Henri Charpentier who said he invented them while fumbling a dish of pancakes in front of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. In his memoires Life A La Henri, Charpentier writes:
“It was quite by accident as I worked in front of a chafing dish that the cordials caught fire. I thought it was ruined. The Prince and his friends were waiting. How could I begin all over? I tasted it. It was, I thought, the most delicious medley of sweet flavors I had ever tasted. “(The Prince) asked me the name of that which he had eaten with so much relish. I told him it was to be called Crêpes Princesse. He recognized…this was a compliment designed for him; but he protested with mock ferocity that there was a lady present. “'Will you,' said His Majesty, 'change Crêpes Princesse to Crêpes Suzette?' Thus was born and baptized this confection, one taste of which, I really believe, would reform a cannibal into a civilized gentleman.”
This was supposed to have taken place in the Monte Carlo Café de Paris in 1896, when Charpentier was 16. The Larousse Gastronomique stiffly insists Charpentier couldn’t have invented crêpes Suzette because he “was not old enough to be the head waiter serving the prince.”
A Parisian speciality
The Larousse does credit Charpentier with introducing the fashion for flamed crêpes Suzette to America. The Larousse’s recipe doesn’t involve anything as vulgar as flambéing. As for inventors, they favour a restaurant called Marie’s in Paris.The French journalist Léon Daudet wrote in 1929 that crêpes Suzette were a specialty of Marie’s in 1898, where they were filled with jam and flavoured with brandy “which improved them greatly”.
In honour of an actress
Another restaurant owner, Monsieur Joseph, has also been credited with their invention. Joseph owned the Restaurant Marivaux and in 1897 he provided crêpes for a play being performed at the Comédie-Française.
In the play the actress Suzanne Reichenberg served crêpes on stage. Joseph suggested flambéing them to keep them warm for the actors who had to eat them night after night and to give the audience a bit of spectacle.
America enters the fray
The USA also has a claim on crêpes Suzette thanks to Oscar Tschirky, the Swiss-born maitre d’ of the Waldorf Astoria. In 1896 he published a cookbook that features “Pancakes, Casino Style”. It’s a dish of pancakes soaked in a warm sauce made from sugar, butter, orange zest, Curaçao and brandy – but no flambéing.
The earliest chef who can claim crêpes Suzette for his own, however, is Jean Redoux. He’s said to have invented them in 1667 for King Louis XV at the request of Suzette, Princess of Carignan. Proving Redoux’s claim is as impossible as proving Charpentier’s. The dish has taken on a life of its own, surpassing its inventor. If you want to set fire to your crêpes this Pancake Day, click here for my recipe.
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