There was a time when all of the necessary skill and enviable dexterities of accomplished chefs were learnt through the heat and the burns of a Parisian kitchen. Today you’re more likely to find trainee chefs in the kitchens of Tokyo, Melbourne, Copenhagen and Portland, completing stages under the guidance of a modern-day rock & roll chef with seven books and a Netflix series.
Paris is not the cauldron of restaurant achievement it once was. Yet it remains the birthplace of haute cuisine and hopelessly besotted romances and it was here where a young Pierre Hermé travelled to from his native Alsace to train under celebrated pastry chef Gaston Lenôtre.
The sweet, sugar coated aroma of morning pastry wafts up twitching nostrils
By the age of 24, Hermé was heading pastry production at upscale food merchant Fauchon, where he remained for over a decade. In 1997 he played a key role in turning France’s Ladurée pastry business into a global brand. A member of Comité Colbert, the name Pierre Hermé is now an empire of books and boutiques, with 15 boutiques (he prefers “boutiques” rather than “stores”) in Paris and Tokyo and in diverse locations such as Thailand and Azerbaijan.
Earlier this year at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards ceremony, he was named The World’s Best Pastry Chef, an enviable title for a man not short of honours; who Vogue once called the “Picasso of Pastry”.
I’m in Paris to visit the man himself, but first I must pay homage to the Hermé macaron. From Paris Gare Du Nord I make my way to Macarons & Chocolats Pierre Hermé on the rue Cambon, a short walk from Jardin des Tuileries. I enter to discover a rainbow counter of small circular discs: the famous multi-coloured, multi-flavoured lids of macarons. There’s a huddle around the counter. Tourists peek across the glass casing to inspect the grandeur of this brightly coloured emporium. The sweet, sugar coated aroma of morning pastry wafts up twitching nostrils.
In 2010 Hermé started to sell macarons in Selfridges, then two more London boutiques followed (Lowndes Street and Monmouth Street). Those who have tasted these coveted morsels develop a fierce addiction. It isn’t just the smooth meringue crunch or the subtlety of flavour, but an appreciation of his talent and the desire and dedication he has shown in sourcing the best ingredients.
“It’s an obsession,” he tells me, sitting in his office, a building dubbed Atelier de Création. “In Tahiti I thought that I’d discovered the best vanilla, but then I went to Madagascar. Then I tried vanilla in Mexico. Now I mix all three. That’s the vanilla used in the Infinite Vanille.” As he speaks, he leans across an A4 notepad, full of scribbles and sketches of cocoa and vanilla pods and notes and ideas collected from across the globe.
These are no ordinary macarons. A single Hermé macaron costs €2.10 (around £1.90). “I prefer to work with one ingredient and push it,” he tells me, before rolling off a list of ingredients as if recalling last week’s shopping list: “Lemons are from southern Italy and France; almonds are from Spain; cinnamon from Sri Lanka; butter from Charente; flour from Chartres.”
Hermé’s flavour combinations have caused controversy as much as they have excitement in France. And that’s what sets him apart.
Recently, he launched a white truffle hazelnut macaroon with lightly toasted Italian hazelnut in a thick white truffle ganache. At first, the flavour combo appears distressingly bizarre, but I try one (okay, three). It’s a gentle crunch through the meringue before a wash of hazelnut. Then the Alba truffle kicks in, lasting several seconds. You smell it before you taste it.
Perhaps the most French of all Hermé macarons is the macaron eglantine, figus foie gras. I hold one between my fingers. It’s a hot day in Paris and it quickly softens. Golden foie gras runs down my hand. I take a munificent bite. It’s velvety and smooth. Seductive even.
Hermé will hunt to the end of the earth for his ingredients; he is smart, dedicated, obsessive. It’s a very French process. It’s an expression of all that social decoration that the French do so well – the overwrought, pretentious guff of the mille-feuille and petit four. But it’s really all about the manipulation and application for Hermé. He applies his craft with a stalker’s obsession. The result is a spectacular array of unexpected flavour combinations, such as salted-butter caramel; green apple, lovage & pieces of sour apples; wild rose hip, fig & foie gras. “Every success is a surprise,” he admits.
The pursuit of ingredients and flavour is really the pursuit for perfection. For Hermé, it’s about the acquisition of something wonderful, of pushing flavour boundaries. “Many people, places and cultures inspire me in the creative process,” he says. “There’s so much to take in. I’m working on an idea at the moment using wild thyme from Corsica. The taste is exceptional.”
It’s a journey that’s taken him around the world and he isn’t showing any signs of tiring yet. C