Word Origins & Francois Rene de Chateaubriand

About the history and biography of Francois Rene de Chateaubriand whose name would come to mean a steak tenderloin.



chateaubriand (sha-to-bre-an) n. A thick slice of tenderloin, broiled and served with potatoes and a sauce, often a bearnaise sauce.

One old story tells us that Brillat-Savarin dined in Paris with the Vicomte Francois Rene de Chateaubriand on the night that an anonymous restaurant proprietor invented "steak Chateaubriand" in his honor. The occasion, according to this version, was the publication of the French Romantic's Le Genie du Christianisme, and the succulent tenderloin was encased between two flank steaks, symbolizing Christ and the thieves. The outer steaks, seared black, were discarded, leaving the tenderloin rare and juicy. More likely, steak Chateaubriand was invented and named by the novelist's chef, Montmirel, and served for the first time at the French embassy in London.

The Vicomte de Chateaubriand advocated the return of France to Christianity after the French Revolution. Temperamentally opposed to all government-he once wrote a pamphlet so critical of Napoleon that he slept with it under his pillow and had his wife hide it under her dress during the day-he nevertheless turned his attention to politics in later years, becoming ambassador to Berlin and London under Louis XVIII. Chateaubriand had left France for America during the Revolution, "exploring" the wilderness along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and had also been wounded fighting with the Royalists against the Republican army during his seven-year exile. Few men of his time led more exciting, eventful lives. Vanity, of course, was not one of his weak points. "He thinks himself deaf," Talleyrand once said of him in his [Chateaubriand's] old age, "because he no longer hears himself talked of."

The steak commemorating Chateaubriand is often served with a bearnaise sauce, surrounded with potatoes, mushrooms, and other vegetables. The meat itself is a thick cut of tenderloin from the middle of the filet mignon.

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