(This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Pierre Hermé is often referred to as the “Picasso of Pastry” and the “King of Modern Patisserie,” who is world renowned for his unique, refined creations. He was the youngest chef to be awarded France’s Pastry Chef of the Year in 1997 and since then has built an empire. After opening his first signature shop Maison Pierre Hermé in 1998 in Paris, he has expanded his reach throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His macarons, chocolates and other pastries have put him at the forefront in the food world, and he was voted the World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2016 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Recently, a lucky selection of Valrhona Cercle V members along with the semi-finalists in the North American Regional C3 Competition were invited to an intimate gathering with Hermé at L’Avenue at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Guests were offered a selection of his famous creations while Hermé discussed his first shop within the United States, how he stays creative, and his thoughts on current industry trends.
The Q&A with Pierre Hermé
Over the last 20 years, you’ve built an incredible company and brand. Was this the plan all along?
It wasn’t something that we predicted – that would have been pretentious on our part. Our ambition was to create a luxury brand in the pastry space. That’s what it was, and still is, and I think we’ve pulled something in that direction. We started with pastry shops, and now we’ve expanded to coffee shops and tea houses. This allows us to go beyond what you can do in just a pastry shop—either in France or abroad—and we’re continuing in that direction. [Someday], I would like to have some ice cream bars or parlors to work with ice cream or sorbet – I would really like that.
Can you share the background for the New York shop opening and any challenges faced?
The project was an idea by Jean-Louis Costes, who is the owner of the Hotel Costes and several restaurants in Paris. Jean-Louis Costes wanted to open the restaurant space within the store, and he wanted me in charge of the dessert menu. Jean-Louis Costes has been a friend for a long time, so this is why he allowed us to do this project.
There have been many [challenges] because it’s a collaboration between four entities: Saks, Costes, Restaurant Associates and Pierre Hermé. This of course generates a lot of dialogue, but at the same time, it was a strength, because Restaurant Associates knows the New York market in terms of how to operate a restaurant business.
The other challenges were recruiting the talent required to reproduce the quality we desired and sourcing the right ingredients. For chocolate, there was no problem, but for other ingredients, we struggled to find the quality that we were used to. In some cases, we had to import. So, it was very important to have a pastry chef—Stephanie Oliveira—on location who knows the New York market, because they would know how to locate and source ingredients.
Were there considerations for adjusting to local tastes?
Strictly speaking, no. However, for example, there was a situation in which Stephanie mentioned doing something with Concord grapes, and we did. She also brought up wanting to do something with pumpkin, and we already had a pumpkin recipe in our recipe books, so we reproduce that. There is some dialogue with the pastry chef on location about the local habits and traditions, and this leads us to do something creative with local ingredients.
What considerations do you have when designing pieces that will go into a variety of shops abroad?
With cakes, I try to make them as tasty as possible without artifice. I never add useless decoration. You will never find anything in my cakes that doesn’t add to the taste or overall balance. There are very rare exceptions, and that’s to add an element of poetry.
For example, when we came up with a concept for the Infiniment Vanille Cake, the idea was to see vanilla on the cake itself. Originally, we thought it could be a vanilla bean on top of the cake, but my immediate reaction was that it didn’t make sense. Eventually, we had a sprinkling of vanilla bean on the side of the cake, but not a vanilla bean itself. For me, it didn’t make sense to have the vanilla bean because it was a shame – a waste of the bean. And most people wouldn’t even know what a vanilla bean looked like anyway, so that’s what we ended up doing.
In a recent interview, you mentioned not following trends. Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?
Following trends, that’s a term I’ve never understood. I don’t follow trends, but I do look around. I think it’s important for people to look at what happens around them, and then build on that to create their own ideas. For me, I don’t look around to see what others are doing to do the same; I look around because I want to know how other people work. I do it to stay current, to know what works, and how that can be folded into something I want to do.
To give a specific example, Cédric Grolet makes wonderful fruit creations. People find it very interesting, it’s very successful, and I like looking at how they work their style. That’s extremely interesting. Does that mean I’m going to do sculpted fruit that way? No, that’s not my thing. But I do like how interesting it is.
To me, what’s interesting is listening to your own desires and your own style. Of course, your own style can change over time, because I myself don’t work the same way today compared to 10 or 20 years ago. But it’s important to start with what you desire and from your style rather than copying somebody else.
What is your process for creating new recipes or products?
One thing that has not changed for me over the past 30-40 years is my way of working. That is, I start off with an idea, ingredient, or emotion, and I compose something in my head. Then I transpose that on paper, and by that, I mean a recipe. And that is turned into a sketch, because I want to see the proportions and what the architecture of the flavors can be. I’ve been doing that since 1983; that has never changed.
At Maison Pierre Hermé, the creative workshop is a completely different business compared to the rest of the business. We have three talented people working full time on the elaboration of new concepts and recipes—with their own interpretations—based on ideas I give them. [For example], say I’m working with a ganache, and I want to replace some ingredients. Well, I bounce ideas off them, they give me their point of view, and based on that, they’re able to build on my initial suggestion.
What is very important in this kind of creative work is that we don’t pose any limits at the start. Because if one approaches this process in a rational way, then one ends up needing to resort to compromises, and compromises are never good. In the creation stage, we need to keep all of our options open. After that is done, then we include all of the rational elements in a workable system. If we started the other way around, that is, if we took into consideration all the rational components first, then we would be cutting out options and possibilities.
Then, when I have gotten to the stage where I validated a recipe, there’s the writing stage. When the recipe is written, it’s written down gesture-by-gesture in a very precise way. We even include the weight for each ingredient in the recipe. After that is done, the recipe has to face reality. The pastry chefs that work in the Atelier de Création then work side-by-side with the production department. I have a person, Michael, who goes into the field and acquires all the information on the practical components of the recipes and notes changes that are required. He updates the recipe and then shares it with everybody. [After that], we have a database, which is shared with all the chefs, and there are figures for labor costs and ingredient costs that are points of reference to be adapted locally.
When you are creating something with chocolate, what is your process? Is it more about the flavor, or perhaps the location of origin?
For a few years, I’ve been working closely with Valrhona, and I have the privilege of having a point of contact that I bounce ideas off of. There are agronomists that work at Valrhona, and we talk about the cocoa beans in terms of quality. So, we work with cocoa beans originally identified by Valrhona and discussed with us, and then, we define the percentage of cocoa and sugar that is added in a specific way. We’ve come up with a number of single-origin lines from [places like] Brazil, Belize, Madagascar and Peru. We also have a milk chocolate variety that we haven’t been able to import yet, but we shouldn’t be far from it now. [This process], allows us to work with chocolates that have a very specific and clearly identifiable taste, which helps us differentiate from others.
You’ve talked about using less fat and less sugar in your products in the future. Are there other ingredients you tend to shy away from or eliminate from your products?
In terms of a sugar reduction, that’s something I’ve been working on for a long time. For less fat, I want to make products that are less calorie-filled.
Eliminating – not quite. However, I do like substituting ingredients. In some cases, I like working with an ingredient until the very end and exploring all of its possibilities. I can’t say that I wouldn’t use a specific ingredient, but there are some ingredients—thyme or rosemary—that I don’t particularly like, and therefore tend not to use. Having said that, I did do a macaron recently with wild thyme from Corsica that I paired with lemon, and it did work quite well. Sage is another herb that I don’t particularly like, but I used it for a Christmas Buche log with other components, and together, the elements worked extremely well.
Do you have gluten-free or vegan offerings?
Sixty percent of the products that we sell are gluten-free, and that’s macarons. Many of our cakes are gluten-free, but we don’t sell them that way. If people ask if we have gluten-free things, we are able to provide some items. In terms of vegan products, I’m working on something specific – a new line. It’s definitely a topic that must be taken into consideration and investigated. It provides a great opportunity to come up with new flavors, new ways of doing and approaching things. It’s very interesting to study these vegan options.
Changing gears, what do you think of social media?
Only positive. It’s a tool for our work that we have now in the same way we used radio or television in the past to promote our work. It’s up to us to know how to use it in a smart way, and to make it work to our advantage. So, it’s definitely just a tool. Having said that, we really don’t have any choice; it’s here to stay. It’s up to us to use it in a way that is useful. What I do wonder is how communication will evolve in our field. What will we have in 2025 or even 2030? That’s the true question. In terms of communicating about our work, we see that traditional media has evolved, and therefore, our way of communicating about our business needs to adapt, as well.
Final question, what are your thoughts on sustainability in the world of pastry?
It is our responsibility to adapt our production methods to make them more and more sustainable. We are using less plastic; that is indeed part of our responsibility. These are all things that are at the heart of the work that we’re doing at our Maison in terms of our packaging, and reducing the use of plastic and water waste. It’s all things that we do put in the center of our business, even though we’re not capable of assessing the exact impact yet.
Photo credits: Grant Symon, Benoit Florencon, Paul Goirand, Patrick Rougereau, Laurent Fau