Chef extraordinaire, Urbain Dubois was born in Trets, Aix en Provence, France in 1818, the son of a master weaver. He began his culinary career working as a chef in his uncle’s hotel, and then, after a brief period in Paris, from 1840 to 1845, he left France to travel and work as a chef in several European countries, culminating in his appointment as chef to Prince Alexey Orlov, an ambassador of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, for whom he famously created the dish 'Veal Orloff.’
By 1860, he was in Berlin, where he was appointed as chef to the Prince regent, William of Prussia, who become the Kaiser the following year. In 1870, at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, he briefly returned to France, but after the peace treaty was signed, in March 1871, he resumed his position with Kaiser William's household, sharing head chef duties with a fellow Frenchman, Émile Bernard. Each man was responsible for the cooking on alternate months, an arrangement that gave Dubois time for writing. He remained in Berlin until 1880, and died in Nice in 1901, survived by his wife and five children.
Dubois was a royal chef at a time when elaborate, fantastical cakes were in vogue, which drew as much on architecture as they did from culinary history. In a review of his career in the July 1936 edition of the Architectural Review, the magazine's longest-serving editor, J. M. Richards, stated that “royal chefs, who occupied a respected, even exalted position, found themselves engaged in a creative art hardly less complicated and exacting than architecture itself.”
Dubois remains known to this day because of his writing. He published numerous cook books that became classics of French Cuisine, featuring not only detailed recipes, but also comprehensive accounts of all aspects of the cooking process, including the types of ovens used in the kitchens, and the array of utensils required to be a royal chef. Most significantly, from an artistic and architectural point of view, his books also featured extraordinary illustrations including a variety of architectural pièces montées (decorative confectionery centerpieces in an architectural or sculptural form that were part of formal banquets), which were created using sugar, nougat and marzipan.
It was during this period that the icing cone came into existence, which opened up new forms of expression for creative chefs. Dubois memorably noted, “How coquettish are those pieces proceeding from the point of a cornet, 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.”
In responding to a selection of his work as sculptural artifacts, Dot Young has been drawn to consider the similarities in the sculpting, moulding and casting methods used to the culinary practices of Dubois' era. Reproducing some of his culinary creations as sculptural artefacts has enabled the architectural influences of his work to become apparent, as well as bringing something of Dubois' extravagant culinary art back to life to a contemporary audience..