They call him the “Picasso of patisserie,” the man who has made his melt-in-the-mouth macarons an international object of desire.
Pierre Herme, who the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” classification crowned best pastry chef Monday, has elevated the simple but delicate French specialty into an artform.
But the larger than life creator, the fourth generation of a family of master bakers from the Alsace region of eastern France, started out not liking macarons at all.
“I found them too sweet,” Herme — who dreamed of being a cake maker since he was nine — told AFP.
That’s why he dedicated himself to making the soft little meringue-like biscuits made of almond flour, egg whites and sugar, a great deal more exciting.
“What prompted me to work on macarons was that before there were just coffee, chocolate and vanilla flavours,” he added. “So it gave me great latitude for creativity.”
Astonishing inventiveness quickly became Herme’s trademark.
He married unlikely ingredients and fillings such as olive oil and vanilla, or wild rose hip, fig and foie gras to exquisite effect, insisting that sugar should be used as a “seasoning and not a principal ingredient.”
Instead, his famous laboratory near Parc Monceau in central Paris works on the intensity of taste, turning out such classics as the “Ispahan” — made with raspberries, lychee and rosewater — and the “Mogador,” a sublime combination of passion fruit and milk chocolate.
– ‘Dior of desserts’ –
Despite his mother’s protestations, Herme apprenticed himself to the great Parisian patissier Gaston Lenotre at the age 14 before leaving to join the rival house Fauchon a few years later.
Having spent the 1980s developing his art — during which time he also worked for Laduree, famous for its pastel-coloured macarons — he went out on his own in 1997.
The following year, he opened his first shop in Japan, and soon his creations were becoming objects of conspicuous consumption, often given as presents in beautifully designed boxes.
Herme insisted constant experimentation is the root of his success.
He begins each new creation with a drawing and by writing out the recipe, often inspired by “something I have tasted, something I have read or maybe an image,” he told AFP.
He then calls in his team of patisserie chefs who work in his laboratory, which is housed in the 19th-century Parisian mansion where he has his office.
But not all of his ideas are successful.
“For example, we worked on a pear and chestnut macaron. But after three attempts, we had to admit that we were never going to make one that had both the true taste of pear and of chestnut at the same time,” he said.
“So I decided to make a chestnut one and a pear one and sell them together.”
Herme, 54, who keeps all the notes from his experiments in his archive, is also a longtime collaborator with artists and perfumiers, including Jean-Michel Duriez, the “nose” of the Rochas brand of perfume.
The French artist Nicolas Buffe has decorated his new chocolate boxes with drawings in his “fairytale Manga” style.
Although Herme long ago expanded into tarts, cakes, chocolates and jams, the core of his business remains macarons, which cost 2.10 euros ($2.36) each in his Paris boutiques.
“I consider the creation of pastries as an Art with a capital ‘A’… just like music, painting or sculpture,” Herme proclaims on his website.
And the “Dior of desserts” also rejoices in the revival of high-end patisserie in France, which he has to some degree inspired.
“There are more and more talented patissiers out there opening shops and doing great things in hotels and restaurants. The profession is very much alive and there are lots of people eager to learn, which is wonderful,” he said.
“Twenty years ago when you said that you wanted to be a patissier, people would say, ‘Really?'” Herme added.
“From the age of nine I wanted to be a patissier. My mother tried to talk me out of it, but it didn’t work.”