PARIS (AFP) ― Some call him the king of cakes. Vogue dubbed him the “Picasso” of pastry. Whatever the moniker, Pierre Herme, who started as a humble apprentice at the venerable French patisserie Lenotre, is right at the top of his game.
In Japan, where the 50-year-old French chef opened his first own-name boutique, he is a red-carpet star, and his wildly popular delicacies are rolled out in themed collections, like fashion lines, in London or Paris.
Yet as he receives guests on the top floor of the Paris mansion that is both his office and research kitchen, Herme’s feet seem firmly planted on the ground, his manner calm and professional, and his culinary curiosity boundless.
Like a perfumer, Herme explains how he draws on an inner library of flavors ― hundreds of them stored over a 36-year career devoted to his craft ― to imagine each recipe, before having it tested out by his team.
Lemon, for instance, is much more than a single flavor.
“There is the zest, the flesh, and the mixture of the two, there is cooked lemon, raw lemon, and juice, which can be more or less acidic,” the patissier explained to AFP.
Following his instincts, he likes to play with novel combinations, like an olive oil and vanilla macaroon ― the meringue-based treat becoming the subject of copious foodie column inches ― or one with asparagus and cream of hazelnut.
“I know where I am going, I have the tastes in my head,” he explained, “at once the flavor, the texture and the sensations I want people to feel.”
For his latest macaroon, for instance, he wanted the taster to experience “first the zest of lime, then the raspberry, and then, right at the end, the note of mild chilli pepper, that rises ― but not too high ― and falls back quickly enough.”
“Since we’re not used to finding chilli in our sweet foods it catches people by surprise,” Herme explained. “Some people take to it well, others are a little more reluctant.”
At any one time, Herme will be juggling with up to 20 recipes, but his love of the art means that it “never feels like working.”
Starting with a drawing, which sets out instructions on the shape and style of his creations, three dedicated patissiers ― out of a company of 300 staff ― are in charge of testing them out.
Sometimes it works first time. Often, it will take several attempts.
“I always have a very clear idea,” he explained. “But sometimes we can be slightly out of sync, when it comes to assembling the piece, the technique, the thickness of layers, the architecture of the cake.”
Inspiration, he says, can come from “chance encounters, from discovering a new flavor, from ideas that I scribble down.”
Herme loves to “taste everything, discover ingredients, and their producers” ― and not just the good stuff, he says.
“I also need to sample things that are said to taste bad. It allows me to set a framework, a scale.”
For a chocolate cake dubbed “Ombre et lumiere” (Shadow and Light), he chose a chocolate from Madagascar from a long list of possible contenders.
Recently he received a shipment of fine chocolate from Venezuela: “I had
1.4 tonnes that I used in macaroons, in a galette, a Christmas cake, and a chocolate bonbon. It’s all gone!”
Herme offers up chunky pieces of each chocolate to taste.
The Venezuelan is “robust, with aromas of cooked passion fruit,” the Madagascan “more acidic, subtler, with aromas of cooked pineapple and less bitterness.”
The latter ― “long on the palate, with aromas coming in one after the other” ― he finds “exceptional.”
Right now the patissier is trying out a chocolate from Peru: “I deliberately taste it at different moments of the day, to see if I can perceive nuances” in its flavor.