(This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
By Phillip Ruskin
Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are,” but I would argue that one could also say, tell me what you bake, and I’ll tell you who you are. After spending an hour with Cheffe Claire Heitzler (‘Cheffe’ is her preferred title), one of France’s most celebrated women in pastry, I was struck by how Heitzler’s personality and values are reflected in her work. There’s the precise balance of flavors (most notably her signature hint of citrus and sweet) in her pastries. And there’s the fascinating dichotomy in her demeanor; soft-spoken yet driven, ambitious and considerate, serious yet occasionally revealing a delightful sense of whimsey (I’ll get to the pink rabbit timer that never leaves her sight.) The elegant simplicity of her pastries, like her refreshingly straightforward approach, does not reveal the balanced complexity of ingredients until you dig in. She is whip-smart, thoughtful, ambitious, and above all, a mindful chef.
Unlike many chefs I know, a life in food was not on her mind from a very early age. That is, until teenage Claire was looking for a summer job to make some pocket money, and her parents suggested she ask their friends who were restaurateurs. A passion was born. “I discovered the metiers bouche which I found that I really liked a lot.”
Heitzler enrolled for the next four years at the Lycée Hotelier de Strasbourg culinary technical school, where she focused on pastry. I’m curious what drew you to pastry in the first place? “I’m a gourmand, with a sweet tooth, and I was also attracted by the more organized nature of pastry, which better matches my own personality,” she told me. It seems that the aromas emanating from renowned chocolatier-confiseuse-pastry chef Christine Ferber’s Niedermorschwihr shop may have played no small part in her being seduced by sweets. Do you, like lots of pastry chefs I know, enjoy cooking at home? “I leave the savory cooking to my husband at home,” she confessed.
As her studies wound down, she took an apprenticeship in her native Alsace under Thierry Mulhaupt, for which, at just nineteen, she was awarded Best Apprentice of Alsace 1996. This was the first of many. She would go on to be named ‘Pastry Chef of the Year’ by Chef Magazine in 2012, and by Gault et Millau in 2013, as well as winning the Prix d’ Excellence Relais Desserts in 2014.
“After culinary school, where I focused on pastry, I wanted to work in pastry at restaurants rather than pastry shops.” Why is that? “For one thing, I’m not a morning person, and the workday in a pastry shop begins well before dawn.” She explains that in a restaurant kitchen there’s more of a dynamic interaction between people, “C’est plus speed – that’s the ambiance I love.” The vibrant camaraderie and team spirit in a restaurant kitchen really resonates with her.
What was your first job in a restaurant, and how did you land it? “I knew that I wanted to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant, so I sent my résumé to all the Michelin-starred restaurants in France.” Her star started rising from the get-go. One of those CVs landed on the desk of renowned three-Michelin starred Chef Michel Troisgros, who took Heitzler on as a commis (assistant cook), from which she worked her way up to pastry chef.
What were your biggest take-aways from that first job? “Appreciating and discerning the balance between acidity and sweet in desserts. Also, learning to judge and appreciate the aspects of quality fruit, which Chef would have us taste with the producers who he always received personally.” These exchanges laid the pillar of Heitzler’s life-long respect for, and partnership with, farmers and producers. In fact, her company is called, “Claire Heitzler et Producteurs (producers), to whom she is fiercely loyal and names at every opportunity, such as Matthieu Vermes for rhubarb; Pierre Baud for figs; and Étienne Schaller for citrus, among others.
After Troisgros, she no longer had to send her résumé out to every Michelin-starred restaurant, or to any for that matter. She went on to work for Michel Leblanc (two Michelin stars), and then Jean-Paul Abadie (three Michelin stars), when in 2004 Alain Ducasse’s people contacted her. They were looking for a pastry chef to head up his newest venture in Tokyo, Beige d’Alain Ducasse. Did you look forward to going so far away? “I didn’t want to go, but realized this was an opportunity I could not pass up [working for Ducasse].” What did you find was different in Japan? “The organization and hierarchy in the kitchen was much stricter. A starting pastry chef would never address the Chef de Cuisine or Executive Chef directly, he/she would go through their immediate report. The first year was difficult, adapting to the differences – tastes, protocols, customer and rituals.”
After Japan she was lured to continue her creations in iconic kitchens and brands, including The Ritz and Ladurée (as head of Sweets Creation), which she left in 2018 to launch Claire Heitzler et Producteurs in collaboration with a network of producers, with whom her relationships are legendary. “I love interacting directly with my suppliers and adapting my desserts based on their feedback and growing season,” she shared. For example, a producer who supplied restaurants told her he had a surplus of yuzu due to the lack of demand during lockdown, so Heitzler purchased his entire harvest, both to help him out and because she loves yuzu (a taste she acquired working in Japan for Ducasse). What did she do with this embarrassment of riches? Heitzler and her team got creative making everything they could with yuzu, from desserts to jams and preserves. Her signature dessert, in fact, is called Gateau de l’Amiter a Yuzu (Yuzu friendship cake), a dessert-plate-sized sponge cake encircling a bright yellow yuzu confection center, like a bright sun. The ‘friendship’ in the dessert’s name refers to the role it played in helping out her friends in the farming community. As she puts it, “Just creating isn’t enough – we have to do something to help, make a difference, it has to be part of something bigger.”
Her outsized yen for Yuzu, and other citrus she discovered in Japan, is evidence of how the three years she spent working in Japan changed her life, and her pastry. For another thing, she noticed Japanese ate more fruit (already her sweet spot) and less sugar, so her desserts “became less sweet and more subtle,” as she puts it. “Japan is in my heart. I love it enormously.”
Her online business was perfectly positioned to prosper when the pandemic struck. And this January she launched the first of her Claire Heitlzer et Producteurs store-fronts.
You chose to pursue pastry in restaurant kitchens rather than pastry shops, so how do you explain your new business? “Here it is a mix of both: part restaurant process (creating pastries throughout the day) and part pastry shop model. We bake fresh throughout the day, “en commande.” Can you give me an example? “When a customer orders a Mont Blanc, we “dresse” a Mont Blanc a-la-minute, like in a restaurant. Here it’s a mix of both worlds.”
Heitzler decided on a click-and-collect-only business model. She didn’t want the typical pastry shop with windows filled with pastries, with refrigerated vitrines lined with desserts. Besides keeping down overhead and waste, it’s more environment-friendly, without refrigerated vitrines. The sparse retail space, with bottles and jars of yuzu preserves and whole fruits in backlit display niches is minimal, yet warm and inviting. As the end of the pandemic seems to be in sight, Heitzler’s customer base – corporate, events, walk-ins, the growing number of hotels and restaurants she supplies – have made it abundantly clear that they are ready for her delicious desserts.
Is there a non-kitchen object she can’t live without? With a wry smile, she says, “Absolutely. It’s the pink rabbit timer I bought in Japan. I have it everywhere – it’s never far from me.”
In the citrus-chocolate balance, you seem to tip in the direction of citrus, is that accurate? Without hesitation she answers, “Ah, oui, completement,” with the guilty laugh of a fruit fancying chef.
What would you say is the kitchen object you most value? “My knives.”
Aren’t knives usually on the savory chef’s ‘best of’ list? “Yes, but I worked in kitchens with savory chefs, and since I’ve always worked so much with fruit, the knife is the most useful tool for cutting and slicing fruit.” And there’s no denying that Cheffe Claire Heitzler is one of the sharpest knives in the pastry chef drawer.
Online Boutique: https://www.patisserie-claire.com/
Philip Ruskin is a food and hospitality marketing consultant, Graduate School lecturer (and drummer) living in Paris, France where continues to discover the city’s pastry shops by bike (a deliciously never-ending task.)