Did you ever consider doing something completely different?
I am heir to four generations of Alsatian bakery and pastry-making tradition – I was born into it, and it has always been a major part of my life. When I was a child, I spent lots of time observing my father working; he was the one who gave me this passion. Then I left Alsace and became an apprentice to Gaston Lenôtre at 14 years old. He gave me the base, the deep knowledge and the values that I have built on ever since. I have always wanted to be a pastry chef, but if I really had to choose, perhaps I may have wanted to become an architect – but in a way I am an architect of taste now!
How do you come up with each season's new flavour combinations?
Inspiration can come from many different sources – a book, a conversation, an art exhibition – but a lot of the time it comes from experimentation with an ingredient. Sometimes a new creation can take a couple of weeks or sometimes I will work on a new flavour for years. I sketch my ideas down first, in diagram form, and write the recipe underneath. I always envisage what I call the architecture of taste – the sequence as you bite into the macaron, cake or chocolate – what happens first, what happens second, what may provide a surprise in the middle. My team of R&D pastry chefs then prepare the tests and present them for me to taste. At this point, the only question in my mind is, Does it taste good?
Planning any flavours unique to Hong Kong?
I often travel to Hong Kong. I am curious, so I like to taste local ingredients and discover new tastes and sensations. I am always open to inspiration for new creations, whether for a macaron, a chocolate bonbon or a pastry. After one trip to Hong Kong a few years ago, I came up with the macaron Jardin des 8 trésors, inspired by eight treasures tea. I really appreciated the complexity of the composition of this tea; it was my emotions that guided me in creating the macaron.
What are some of your favourite Hong Kong restaurants, Cantonese dishes and desserts?
I have had the opportunity to dine at a number of great restaurants in Hong Kong. Some of my favourites are Bo Innovation, Mott 32, Seasons by Olivier Elzer and China Tang. We recently opened up our second boutique in Macau, and so during my visits for the openings, I also had the chance to discover the Chinese cuisine at Jade Dragon and Pearl Dragon, two restaurants overseen by Tam Kwok Fung. When it comes to Cantonese cuisine, I love char siu, pork ribs, wonton noodles, steamed chicken with ginger. And in terms of dessert, a simple dessert of milk with tapioca and grapefruit and, of course, the eight treasures tea!
How do you think your version of mooncakes translates from the traditional festival dessert?
The mooncakes at Pierre Hermé Paris are my own personal reinterpretation of this traditional dessert. There are four flavours, each representing a different moon phase. Crunchy almond praline celebrates the full moon, almond praline with lemon zest represents the new moon, hazelnut praline – one of the iconic flavours of the Maison – and sesame nougatine evoke the first and waning crescents of the moon. The mooncakes are all dipped in pure origin dark chocolate from Mexico, creating a luscious and balanced harmony of flavours.
Have you had to adapt any of your recipes to cater to Asian tastes?
We do not adapt our flavours for the different markets, to local taste, culture or habits, and this is probably the greatest challenge we have had to face since starting the company. Tastes and preferences may vary, but our aim is to introduce new flavour associations and experiences and provide people with something different. My priority will always be taste. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t be inspired by local ingredients or cultures. I don’t use a lot of sugar in my creations. I use sugar like salt – in other words, as a seasoning to heighten other shades of flavour. I have not found this a problem in the Asian markets.
You've previously worked at Ladurée. Can you tell us what is the defining difference between the two macaron brands?
I don’t tend to focus on what other brands or chefs are doing. I prefer to let only my pleasure guide me. The two brands are very different, both in terms of experience and image. I created Maison Pierre Hermé Paris in 1997 with Charles Znaty with the aim of creating a luxury brand within the pastry industry and created the concept of haute patisserie. Pierre Hermé Paris is a luxury, contemporary pastry brand introducing a unique universe of tastes, sensations and pleasures. My style is taste – everything else comes second.
Fashion seems to be a particularly natural union for Pierre Hermé. How do you choose your partnerships?
Macarons and pastry in general at Maison Pierre Hermé Paris have been associated with fashion, due to the seasonality. We don’t eat the same in winter and summer and we don’t wear the same either, so there are easy parallels drawn between the two. In terms of partnerships or collaborations, this is a tradition and part of the brand DNA – having Pierre Hermé’s work dialogue with those of other artists. It almost always kicks off from an encounter, and then we see where it goes.