"This really feels like we're in a hospital!"
Janice and I are standing in the front area of the Pierre Hermé kitchen on rue Vaugirard. Head chef Colette Pétremant gives us thin plastic jackets, shoe covers and hair nets to put on before we can step further into the kitchen, lest we contaminate it with our mortal germs from the outside world of Parisian grime. And it's totally cool with me, as I am considerably sickly and mucus-filled and do not want to hurt the immaculate creations of Pierre Hermé.
(Yes, I did think that it may not have been the best idea to visit the kitchen while sick, but we didn't touch anything or stick our heads into any kiddie pool-sized vats of cream. Also, it took me a few months to secure the visit. But I shall talk about that laterz.)
I feel incredibly foolish to be standing in front of someone who must be bursting with culinary knowledge that I can't speak to because 1) I don't know French, nor does she know English and 2) I'm not a culinary student and thus know almost nothing about whatever is going on in the kitchen. Janice translates Colette's words for me and my softly spoken questions for Colette. My lack of journalistic ability shines through as I come unprepared and bearing no questions. Crap.
Instead, I try to soak in my surroundings. In the first room a few chefs rolls out lumps of dough into even logs and line them up on a sheet. A machine in the next room declares itself as a macaron machine. BEHOLD, IT IS A MACARON HATCHERY. I don't remember the exact words, but it definitely had the word "macaron" on it. Otherwise, I could've mistaken it as any other nondescript, blocky piece of kitchen equipment, since that's what it looked like. I suppose it's not practical to gold-plate a macaron-making machine, even if it's appropriate.
As we move out of the first room we pass a storage rack full of metal trays stacked with long triangular chunks of naked light yellow butter. I've seen stacks of butter before (hellooo, supermarket), but never unwrapped as though the slabs had come from a mother chunk large enough to have its own gravitational pull. You can't help but do a double-take when presented with that much butter. I may have done a quadruple-take.
We stop before the back room where about ten young chefs are quietly working around a stainless steel worktable. I can't see what any of them are doing except for one guy at a closer table who is troweling some kind of goopy nut and caramel-looking mass into a rectangular mold on a metal sheet. He effortlessly smooths down one sheet, takes off the mold, dumps more nutty goo on another sheet and gets cracking on the next one.
On the ground to our left sits a large spherical, steaming vat of lemon halves cooking in their own lemon-ness. To our back right is an ever larger vat/mixing bowl (large enough so that I could possibly crouch inside it) three-quarters filled with what I assume to be whipped butter and sugar. Oh. Baby. What is this madness? Just a regular day in the kitchen of a patisserie?
The Vaugirard kitchen employs 25 chefs who work in two shifts from 5:00 AM to 2:00 PM and 2:00 PM to midnight (or something to that effect; I wasn't taking notes). All the basic cake parts are made in this kitchen before being transported to the Bonaparte kitchen to be decorated. (The Bonaparte kitchen is also where the chocolates are made.)
Colette said a lot of things...most of which I'm pathetically blanking out on. Janice might need to help me remember. An important thing (for us macaron freaks) that I do remember is that their macarons last six days (before self-destructing so that no one can possibly experience the sub par qualities of an expired macaron), meaning that I can hoard as many boxes as I can stuff on my luggage on the ride home and have enough time to mail them to friends, who will then have to eat them IMMEDIATELY, not that they'll have any trouble doing that.
I feel intimidated standing in a kitchen where I probably have no place to be. Seriously, what am I doing here? My perfectly nice host is probably wondering the same thing. Janice explains to her what I'm studying and where I'm from, possibly giving Colette the idea that I'm a pseudo-competent journalist. (She will never know the horrible truth.) I understand what they're saying, but I can't interject with my non-existent French.
Colette lets us each pluck a vanilla macaron from the tiered shelves of macarons made the day before. Partially due to the environment I was eating in (standing in a kitchen, hearing two women discuss in French who this random American girl next to them is, blankly staring into a sea of hundreds of macarons) but mainly due to the macaron's awesomness, it is possibly the best macaron I had ever eaten. Ever.
...And I have no photos to show you since I didn't take any. (Don't worry; I'll go back and buy one for photography purposes.) The cookies and the filling don't shift at all when I take my first bite. My mouth fills with a vanilla flavor that I can only think to compare to the tone of a tuning fork...except in edible form. It's firm, yet soft. Dense, yet light. It leaves no material residue, just a clean, ethereal vanilla flavor balanced with the perfect amount of sweetness. Surprisingly, one small macaron is enough to satisfy my belly. (Of course, I could eat more, but then it would probably reach the point of "too much macaron". I know such a feeling exists because I have surpassed it before.)
We're told that they rarely let visitors go into the kitchen, which makes me feel even more unworthy for being there. There isn't a big story behind how I got to cross the line separating "magical workshop of beautiful dessert-like goods" and "place where they sell beautiful dessert-like goods". During the summer Charles, partner of Pierre Hermé, came across upon my website, noticed my enthusiasm for PH, saw that I was going to Paris and offered me a visit to a PH kitchen. I replied with something along the lines of, "HELL YES ZOMGO!@# I LUFF YOU," but less crazy sounding. When I got to Paris I called up his assistant, Anne, explained who I was and prayed that it wasn't all a big joke. I was afraid it might have been when a few months passed and I heard nothing, until BOOM, I got a confirmation...and then proceeded to dance a little happy jig. I owe Charles and Anne about a million thanks times a gazillion macaron-induced smiles for being so kind to this lil' food blogger. I must also thank Janice for being my bakery partner/translator for the day; she's one of the sweetest people I know.
Oh, and that's why I didn't visit right away, in response to all the people who asked me way back when if I was planning to/had gone to Pierre Hermé. :)
You must be tired of all this text. Please accept my apologies. Here are some shots of the Vaugirard shop:
Janice bought a box of macarons for her daughter. What a nice mum!
I went on a more indulgent route by buying..er, a few things. First I crunched through my uber flaky, gazillion layered pain au chocolat (gianduja). In addition to this being one of the best pain au chocolats that I've eaten here, it may also be the largest one. I greedily consumed it's soft, light, rolled-up buttery-ness while standing over my plate (hey, no one was looking...that I know of), only leaving behind small flakes of golden skin.
And then I ate a salad. Really! I do eat those. Somewhat. The ripped up lettuce leaves are just something that I can eat with a can of sardines. Fish is one of the few canned foods that I find acceptable.
What do you polish off a salad of lettuce and sardines with? MORE PASTRIES. PH's current limited line of desserts (titled "Fetish") all feature vanilla. I wouldn't have pinned vanilla as an, "Ooh, so awesome" flavor...until I had that vanilla macaron and realized that vanilla is actually better than everything else in the world. Ever. Except hugs, maybe. I'll think about it.
Oh sweet creamy circular mother of god. Here's the description of the "Tarte Infinitement Vanille":
pâte sablée, ganache au chocolat blanc et à la vanille, biscuit imbibé au jus de vanille, crème de mascarpone à la vanille
Like most things I've eaten from PH so far, everything was...perfect. Firm cookie crust, vanilla biscuit something or other (soaked in vanilla, apparently), smooth white chocolate ganache cream, light-as-air vanilla bean-specked marscapone puck covered in a microthin layer of creamy vanilla sauce. (My description isn't as poetic as the one in their catalog, but it's not like I'm getting paid to write fluffy words. Not that you could pay me to actually do that anyway.)
Perfect. Told ya so.
If you live in Paris, you must must must go to PH and try their vanilla creations before the vanilla line is over this Sunday, November 26th (the vanilla macarons are available until January 14th though, methinks). The short window of availability time probably inflates the desirability level, but I'd still push you to go even if it were available all the time. Because of the limited nature, you'll have to hoard everything at once. Il est terrible...not. [If you've seen the Borat movie, this is where you laugh. Maybe.]
The Other Pierre Hermé
Even though both of PH's shops carry the same things, you may as well go to both. I mean, you are obsessed; you may as well do it right.
While the Vaugirard shop feels bright and playful due to the spaciousness and candy-color scheme, the Bonaparte location is smaller and darker, giving it a more sophisticated air. You enter the narrow shop through a sliding glass door, for god's sake (so you don't have to struggle if you're carry a sack of goodies, I suppose). However, sophistication doesn't displace friendliness; once our lack of comprehension shines through our blank faces, Valerie and I are attended to in English by the helpful, smiling PH cake attendants (probably not their official title, but it fits).
Oh shizz, there are so many macarons. However will I choose?
...By buying five and assuming that I would go back later to try the rest. Starting with the pink macaron and going clockwise, the flavors are:
Rose: biscuit macaron rose, crème aux pétales de rose
Chocolat & Yuzu, "Azur": biscuit macaron chocolat, ganache au chocolat et au yuzu
Caramel à la Fleur de Sel: biscuit macaron caramel et grains de fleur de sel, crème au caramel au beurre demi-sel
Truffe Blanche & Noisette: biscuit macaron, éclats de noisettes du Piémont grillées, crème de truffe blanche
Fruit de la Passion & Chocolat au Lait, "Mogador": biscuit macaron, ganache au fruit de la passion et chocolat au lait
If you need to translate those descriptions, you do have...the Internet. I think you should be able to figure it out though.
I cut the macarons in half to share with Valerie. She doesn't especially like macarons, but I was hoping I could change her mind. Starting with weird flavors was probably the wrong way to go. In other words, I totally failed.
"The rose one tastes like...baby smell."
I could see her point, but I still thought it was tasty. Tasty enough to eat once.
Caramel was my favorite flavor. Instead of being filled with actual gooey caramel like the Laduree version, it's filled with a light caramel flavored creme specked with grains of salt. It's definitely an "eat again" flavor. Chocolate and yuzu combined chocolate with just a whisper of citrus. I liked the passion fruit and chocolate combination more.
And what about that white truffle?
Although I've never had white truffle flavored "anything" before, the taste did not surprise me. Big bold, flashing words in my head immediately spelled "EARTHY" and "FUNGUSY". The macaron tasted like earth in a way that eating dirt wouldn't even measure up to (assuming that dirt is the most earth-like substance you can eat...not that you would eat it...). It's freakin' weird. I'm sure Valerie was more dumbstruck (or horrified) than I was since she didn't even know what white truffle was.
"It's a fungus."
"...ROBYN, why did you make me eat that?"
She'll never trust me again.
The white truffle macaron is too head-screwy for me to think about eating again, unless I just want to confuse my tastebuds. It doesn't really fit in the sweet or savoury categories. It's...[throws palms up, makes a "Hell if I know" kind of face]. Don't get me wrong; I did find it enjoyable. But I don't crave earthy fungusy macarons on a regular basis. Or even an irregular basis.
I didn't go deep into describing the cookie and cream components independent of flavor since they were...the best. The best I've had in Paris yet, I mean. One macaron may be a little drier than the other, but overall the cookies have that crispy crust-soft innards action and an optimal cream-to-cookie ratio. Laduree also has a good ratio, but their creme isn't as shockingly [cue salivation] as PH's. And I say "shockingly" as someone who has eaten way too many macarons before trying PH's. If you START with PH's, then I doubt it would be as big of a deal.
We ate other things. Oh yes, how we ate.
Valerie's favorite was the Kouign amann, which is Breton for "butter cake". Imagine the best croissant ever, and then tastify it by 1000% by putting in more dough and injecting it with generous amounts of butter and caramelized sugar. That's kind of what a kouign amann tastes like.
Val was also taken by the bostock, "brioche imbibée au sirop d'amande et à la fleur d'oranger, crème d'amande". Without using a translator, I'm going to guess that it means brioche soaked in almond syrup and orange flower something-or-other with almond cream. It tastes like the description. Which means it's good. It was also a little sweeter than I expected.
This chocolate cake that Val pretty much wanted as soon as she saw it didn't travel well, hence the crappy photo. And I forgot what it was called. You can trust that it's awesome though. Sorry I can't come up with anything better; I kind of snarfed it down and wasn't really thinking of what I'd write about it while masticating the chocolaty layers.
Tony (who I interview at the end of this entry) told me that PH's cannelé was the best he ever had. Wellll. Time to test that baby out.
Yup, it was the best cannelé I ever had. I haven't eaten enough to feel like any cannelé connoisseur, but I can tell you how this stood out compared to all the previous cannelés I've had. The difference between the crust and the innards was astronomical; instead of the outer layer being a chewy skin that just smooshed into the not-so-chewy-but-not-so-different innards, it was a seriously crispy, multiple layered crust protecting a dense, creamy, hole-filled custard that FOR THE LIFE OF ME I CANNOT DESCRIBE because it's kinda like jello, but it certainly isn't jello, so maybe it's kind of like a marshmallow, but it definitely is not marshmallow-y, and hell, you'll have to just eat this yourself to see what I'm talking about.
So yes, it is really awesome. I was disappointed by what I found to be a weak vanilla flavor (at least compared to their special vanilla-tastic desserts), but everything else was spot on. I'd eat it again. Multiple times.
And that's the end of my Pierre Hermé overload. But this entry isn't done yet.
How did you get that awesome job?
A few weeks ago Tony Cook, a friend of my homestay family, stayed in our apartment for a few days while on a job assignment. ...As a pastry chef from Barcelona-based pastry shop of mega-greatness, Bubo. Uh. Awesome? YES. His "work" over the weekend that he stayed here entailed going to a bunch of patisseries and chocolatiers and paying attention in particular to their packaging. Oh, and eating the food, I suppose. Lucky bastard!
We chatted (or perhaps I gleefully shouted) about his patisserie-hunting and I seemed to be doing pretty well with my...ahem, name dropping, until he found out that I hadn't been to Pierre Hermé.
"I have lost all respect for you."
Damn, this guy means business. His response was spot-on as well as his praise for PH. (He was kidding about losing all respect for me, by the way—he didn't have any to begin with! HAR HAR! Oh, I kid. Maybe. Nevermind.)
I did an impromptu interview with him in the kitchen the night before he left to find out more about his journey into the world of pastry chef-ing and to see whether I would have any chance becoming a part of it. First, a quickie bio that may help put things into context: Tony is originally from Hawaii, eventually moved to Spain to teach English for seven years, went to École Supérieure de Cuisine Française for pastry and baking and returned to Spain where he serendipitously came into his job at Bubo. Here's the interview, pseudo-transcribed, abridged and cleaned up for your reading enjoyment:
How did you get started with baking?
One of the things I always wanted to do was go to culinary school, but I knew I didn't want to be a typical chef. One summer when I was in Hawaii I broke my arm and all I could do was stay home and cook, so I started baking with one arm. And I loved it! That's what inspired me to go to culinary school. I became so interested in baking that I bought this book, The Bread Baker's Apprentice. That's when I decided to study pastry and baking.
I had been living in Barcelona for seven years and I knew I wasn't ready to move back to the states, so I searched on the Internet and found a program for English speakers in Paris (ESCF). found out it was a great program, good price, and very competitive, so I came to Paris for a year. Going to Paris to study something like baking sets you apart from the competition.
How did you start working at Bubo?
I was sadly walking through Barcelona [sad because he had just moved back from Paris, aka "wonderland of patisseries"] just after having bought a new scale to weigh ingredients with at home when I came across Bubo, run by Carles Mampel, one of the best pastry chefs in Spain. I was blown away by the quality of the products; I had no idea there was anything like this in Barcelona. It hadn't even been open for a year when I walked in.
I said I wanted to work for them, so after working like a slave for free in their kitchen for a month I was given a job. Carles is a great man and a great teacher. I learned so much from him and polished my skills.
[I didn't have a real question, but here's something noteworthy that Tony said while we blabbed about..ye know, stuff.]
Carles is really incredible when it comes to combining flavors and textures. There are a lot of pastry chefs who can prepare all the elements of pastry very well, but the ones that are set apart, like Pierre Hermé or, in my opinion, Carles, have the ability to combine flavors and textures into original, new forms that are really pleasing to the palette.
What are your favorite things to prepare?
There are very few things I don't like preparing. I like making different creams, mousses and gels. I don't enjoy making croissants. Rolling croissants is a bit tedious. Making the dough and rolling out isn't actually difficult though, especially if you have a sheeter (a machine that has conveyor belts that go back and forth between two rollers and roll the dough out).
I don't make this stuff at home anymore since I'm working 6 days a week, 60 to 70 hours a week. At home I make salads and things like that. I enjoy work; the day flies by. I don't ever get sick of it, but sometimes you reach the point where you can't eat anything sweet.
What would you like to do after working at Bubo?
After this I think I would like to have my own little pastry school and shop in Hawaii where I could teach local kids. There are lots of people entering the vocational job market and most of the pastry chefs and cooks come from the mainland or elsewhere. Why not have these kids trained to do it?
[And for a quick timeline of Tony's working life...]
I was 39 when I got into baking. First I wanted to work in radio as a writer, so I did that. Then I wanted to work in agriculture, so I did that. I had always wanted to teach English in Europe, so I sold everything, moved to Europe and taught English. Then I realized I wanted to do the culinary school thing, did that, and now I'm a pastry chef.
Last words of advice?
Anybody can start cooking. Get your degree first, then decide.
Many thanks to Tony for being an awesome first interview subject for my blog (probably the last as well, unless I come across more pastry chef house guests!)...and for being awesome in general. :) He's a very friendly, knowledgeable and approachable guy. If you see him at Bubo, say hi for me!
If you made it to the end of this entry, I'm really impressed. ...And grateful that you took the time to read something that took a bit too long to write. Now I can go to bed! :]
Carrer de les Caputxes, 10
08003, Barcelona, Spain
[Obviously I haven't been there. If you can go, let me know how it is!]