Consuming Pierre Hermé
Pierre Hermé is a big bear of a man with a thick shock of black hair, a delicious, infectious laugh and a shy charm. Described in the international press as the "Picasso of Pastries," it's his attention to fine detail and consummate professionalism that sets him apart in this age of celebrity chefs and media created sensation. His passion for technical precision has redefined the art of pastry.
"Some chefs base all their research on the ingredients," said Chef Hermé, "They don't talk about the transformation, the savoir faire of the chef. Where is the spirit, the technique, the inspiration? Ingredients are inspiring but it doesn't give you a finished food."
We were sitting in his office talking about his kitchen philosophy when Chef Hermé asked a deceptively simple question. "Would you like to taste a macaroon?" Placed in front of me was a simple white plate, ringed with silver dollar sized macaroons ranging from rose pink to pistachio green and luminescent bronze. I bit into his white truffle cream, toasted hazelnut macaroon. It was extraordinary.
"It's a matter of knowing your ingredients, not just that they are good quality," Chef Hermé explained. "Ingredients are just one part of the work. You set your standards with the ingredients but taste is a permanent research. The white truffle is never cooked; it's shaved raw over other things as an enhancer. I love this flavor combined with Piemonte hazelnut."
Twice a year in September and March, with a side wink to haute-couture, Chef Hermé presents his new three-part menu Collection. The themed Collection features his latest inspirations; the Classics are finely reworked versions of traditional French pastries and the Signatures highlight the favorites from past Collections. Ispahan, his top selling cake, developed for Spring-Summer 1997, is an inspired combination of rose petal cream, fresh raspberries and litchi nuts neatly cushioned between two rose flavored macaroons.
Kawaii, the 2003 Autumn-Winter Collection theme, means cute or lovely in Japanese. Cute reflects the humor in his round, individually wrapped, pH3 line, a trio of desserts with a playful, fruity acidity and in his whimsical rub-off tattoos which are sold by the sheet.
Lovely is the chestnut and Japanese Matcha green tea flavors featured in different incarnations. The chestnut macaroon filled with cream of candied chestnuts and smooth cream with Matcha green tea melts in your mouth. Émotion Velours, a striped parfait, has the added acidity of passion fruit. The presentation is clean and clever, not super-structured or fussy.
"I hate perfection," said Chef Hermé. "I prefer the sense of detail better than perfection. Perfection is something you do just for perfection, it's alienating. With little details, there is more freedom and surprise." A single rose petal adds movement to the top of the Ispahan while a bright red candied cherry accents a cartoon high chocolate cake slice. Instead of working on decoration, he prefers working on taste. His desserts are designed to be eaten in full bites for the flavor impact. The eye is amused while the palate sings.
Yan D. Pennor designed the Pierre Herme Boutique, 72, rue Bonaparte, to resemble a jewelry box filled with pastry gems. The effect when the electric door glides open is dazzling. Discreetly facing the pastries are Pierre Herme's chocolates, ranked four bars out of five in the Parisian Guide des Croqueurs de Chocolat. This season's feature is the Barbade, a simple square of Tonka bean and vanilla flavored ganache enrobed in dark chocolate and dusted with gold leaf. A pinch of salt is added to waken the nuances in the chocolate. In one small bite, you can taste what Pierre Herme is all about.
Below the jewel box façade, in the three split-level kitchens he calls the laboratory is where Chef Herme melds art and science. The entry doorway is low and if you're over 5'7 and don't duck, the yellow Styrofoam bumpers will cushion the blow. The chocolate kitchen is the coolest room, located on the bottom level under the finishing kitchen where the cakes and pastries are assembled and decorated. A few steps up is the baking kitchen where the morning pastries, Mille Feuilles and his signature 2000 Feuilles are baked off in one very efficient, compact, Arpin oven.
In a second kitchen located nearby on rue de Vaugirard, his team of chefs make the base components - the cream fillings, cakes, glazes and ice creams - that are assembled into the pastries and cakes at rue Bonaparte. Tucked into the rue de Vaugirard location is a specially equipped kitchen where Pierre Hermé and his assistant work year round experimenting with flavors, textures, temperatures and techniques to create the next collection for his Paris and two Japanese locations.
Pierre Hermé believes that the only way to work is with heart and passion and with that, everything is possible. He teaches this philosophy to his staff through technique, spirit and approach.
"My chef in Japan, he knows the spirit as well as myself," Chef Hermé begins to laugh, "In Paris, my chef team knows my spirit better than myself."
72, rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris
Phone: +33 1 43 54 47 77
Fax: +33 1 43 54 94 90
B lack & white "Jean-Louis Bloch-Lainé"
Color Shot "Grant Symon"
Written By: Mari Coyne
Mari Coyne wanders the culinary alleys and fields looking for curious people and stuff to photograph and write about. After a nearly 5 year run, she sold her interest in Three Tarts Bakery, to pursue her original interests in journalism, agriculture, documentary photography, culinary history and FBI Most Wanted posters. She's single, cute (occasionally, but rarely, cranky), willing to move and refuses to work retail again. Ever.