Thin pancakes swimming in orange juice, orange zest, Curaçao or Grand Marnier, melted butter and sugar.
In 1895, so the legend goes, a young assistant chef named Henri Charpentier was working at Monte-Carlo’s Café de Paris. He had to prepare a dessert for England’s Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. While improvising a sauce for the crêpes, the liqueur caught fire. Devastated, the chef still tasted the sauce and thought it delicious so he took a chance. The Prince was delighted and named the dessert after a beautiful French girl with whom he happened to be dining – Suzette.
Charpentier himself told that story in his autobiography Life à la Henri, although later contradicted by the Larousse Gastronomique. A less fanciful version emerged in an interview with Charpentier in the 1950s, when the now elderly chef recalled that his inspiration was simply the dish of pancakes with fruit sauce his foster mother used to make on special occasions. The addition of liqueur was simply au courant among chefs in Paris at the time.
A different account says that the dish was named in honour of French actress Suzanne Reichenberg (1853–1924), who worked professionally under the name Suzette. In 1897, she appeared at the Comédie Française in the role of a maid, during which she served crêpes on stage. Monsieur Joseph, owner of Le Marivaux restaurant, provided the crêpes. He decided to flambé the thin pancakes to attract the audience’s attention and to make the food more palatable to the actors consuming them.
A third version states that crêpes Suzette were invented by the famous Auguste Escoffier, during his stint at London’s Savoy Hotel, where – yes – he too served the Prince of Wales crêpes cooked (but not flambéed) in Curaçao. (It was only later that Grand Marnier was used). The future king suggested naming the dish after Suzanne Reichenberg, whom he may well have seen in London in 1891 when she performed in L’ami Fritz and Les fourberies de Scapin.
After her debut on the Parisian stage, it was the French poet and dramatist Théophile Gautier who ecstatically reviewed the actress:
“Miss Reichenberg has a deliciously fine and guileless face in which wit shines through innocence. Her blond hair is harmonious with her rosy-white complexion, which owes nothing to pearls or makeup; she has blue eyes, full of light and gentleness, a childlike smile, and in her voice that silvery freshness of youth that so pleased Jean Jacques Rousseau. Her proportions are slight and delicate like those of Canova’s Psyche…”
The Prince of Wales, who had a roving eye for the ladies, undoubtedly would have agreed, although we don’t know what he thought of the fabled Crêpes Suzette.