After several decades of culinary creation, some might think that a successful chef would be looking for an easier life. Think again. The pastry chef Pierre Hermé is a tireless creator of flavour combinations, balancing traditional French pastry with Japanese inspirations.
This summer, the chef has sought culinary inspiration in herbs, plants and flowers for his “Par Nature” collection. And while still delighting the gourmets of this world, the chef is also responding to new demands by cutting calories without compromising pleasure. We caught up with the pastry chef at his Beaupassage café in Paris’s 7th arrondissement.
This summer, you’ve launched a new “Par Nature” collection with new flavours such as açai and blackcurrant bud — surprising choices for sweet treats. What led you to choose these flavours?
Initially, I started getting interested in superfoods. There’s açai, but also pecan and blackcurrant. Then I said to myself that I would try to go a little further by working with both herbs and flowers. Some real workaround plants have gone into the cakes, with pine needles and buds, sage, lovage, mint and coriander.
How about bergamot? Are you thinking about using that in one of your future creations?
I already do! A combination of rose and bergamot in a macaron. This approach around the use of herbs and bringing out of the taste of them — like with sweet vernal grass, for example, in “Par Nature” — works really well!
Sweet vernal grass? What is that?
It’s hay! We also used it in macarons. I worked a lot with lovage and tarragon. It’s so good! I’m thinking about it precisely because I tasted it yesterday. I also tasted the blackcurrant and blackcurrant pepper macaron, it’s very subtle.
These are dried blackcurrant buds that we’re using as a kind of seasoning. The blackcurrant isn’t subtle, it’s quite sharp and tannic. There is a side to this fruit that we don’t manage to perceive, which is its aromatic quality. But when we use blackcurrant pepper, we have all the facets of its tastes, in 360°. It seasons, it enhances. It is an incredible aroma. In these cases, the work of a pastry chef is really akin to the work of a perfume designer. Intellectually, it’s the same process.
At a time when people are sounding the alarm on sugar and fat consumption, how do you balance pleasure and indulgence?
With Frédéric Bau, we have worked on a more rational approach to indulgence. On certain pastries, such as the “Infiniment” vanilla or lemon tarts, we have succeeded in reducing the calorie content by at least 30%. Sugar is demonized, but when it’s reduced, other parameters are automatically increased notably fats. What we’ve done with this more rational approach to indulgence, is to think about the nutritional contribution of each ingredient and to use each one of them for the taste, while being careful about the caloric contribution.
What do you think of the rise of healthy eating trends?
As a professional in the food industry — just like bakers, pastry chefs, cooks, ice-cream makers and makers of cured meats and sausages — I find it interesting. We have to take it into account. This means that we must have an offer that corresponds to this expectation, without transforming the entirety of the desserts. For me, this is a creative axis like any other, just like working on vegan or gluten-free pastries. These are really creative opportunities.
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When you launch a new line of macarons, what does it tell us about your story?
It is a sequence in a long stream of creation. Because I don’t work specifically on a macaron. At a given moment, a product is created and it is a macaron, but it can become a cake, a chocolate candy, a pastry, and ice cream. I am used to reinterpreting the combinations of flavours. That’s how I work.
How do you go about making a new flavour?
In macarons, I work a lot with the “Infiniment” flavours: vanilla, pistachio, sesame. I try to enhance a single, unique flavour. In the “Par Nature” collection, for example, there is the basil flower macaron. There, I try to highlight the strawberry/basil. I use an infusion of basil flowers, but, above all, I add a little touch of orange zest to bring out all the facets of the flower.
Tell us about the “Japonisme” collection you have out this summer.
I’ve actually been interested in Japan for a long time! The house’s first store was opened there. So for me, it’s a significant source of inspiration. As I go forward, I realize that I use more and more ingredients from that country. I’m inspired by the tastes of Japan or by culinary traditions. Next week, we are launching shortcakes and roll cakes, which Japanese people love. When we first came to Japan, I was told “if you don’t make them, you will never succeed in Japan.” We never did that. I thought it was interesting, more than 20 years later, to bring these cakes back within my flavour landscape.
After being crowned the best pastry chef in the world, what advice would you give to anyone starting out as a pastry influencer?
On Instagram, you can show pretty things, but above all they have to be really good. That’s the most important thing. Instagram allows people to dream. I think it’s a great communication tool. But you have to keep in mind that a cake has to be good before being Instagrammable. And if it’s both of those things, well…
At your level, you can’t really afford to make ugly cakes…
No, we don’t make ugly cakes. There’s no point. Here you see [he shows his cell phone], it’s a cake called “carré blanc” [white square]. It has pear, maple syrup, cranberry.
Do you find it flattering when someone posts your desserts on Instagram?
I’m glad that people who have tasted and appreciated the desserts are posting pictures on Instagram. You’ll notice that I emphasize the “tasting” part.
What kind of relationship do you have with social media?
I’ve never tweeted. I go on Facebook once in a blue moon. The only two networks I use are Instagram and a little bit of LinkedIn.
Do you network?
No. We post ads when we’re looking to recruit.
So are you going to share this interview on social media and tag us?
Yes, of course!
This interview has been translated from French.