Turned loose penniless on the streets of Paris at the height of the French Revolution, scarcely more than a child, Careme apprenticed in 1800 to one of the great patisseurs of the day, Bailly, who recognized his talent and ambition and gave him time off from kitchen duties to study in the libraries of Paris. One of Bailly's premiere clients was the duc de Talleyrand. In 1804 Careme was set a test by Talleyrand: to create a whole year’s worth of menus, without repetition, and using only seasonal produce. Careme passed the test and completed his training in Talleyrand's kitchens. Talleyrand had been a young bishop under the Ancien Régime, rose during the French Revolution to serve Napoleon, and kept the finest table in Europe. After the fall of Napoleon, Careme went to London for a time and served as chef de cuisine to the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Returning to the continent he served Czar Alexander I in St. Petersburg, before returning to Paris, where he was chef to James de Rothschild.
Careme wrote several encyclopedic works on cookery, above all L’Art de la Cuisine Francaise (5 vols, 1833–34), which included— aside from hundreds of recipes— plans for menus and opulent table settings, a history of French cookery, and instructions for organizing kitchens. He died at the age of 48, and is remembered as the “chef of kings and the king of chefs.”