At the end of October, Cédric Grolet, the photogenic Parisian pastry chef and medalist, posted a instantaneous on Instagram of himself holding a huge St. Honoré cake. I like: 76 522. On the same day, Cyril Lignac, an equally famous Parisian chef ready to photograph, published a close of a mille-feuille on Instagram. I like: 30 632. Meanwhile, on the official account by Pierre Hermé — at 60 the paterfamilias of French pastry making — bright macaroons with green pistachios. I like: 11,950 and over.
Paris has well over a thousand pastries, and the vast majority are good, if not excellent. But with each generation, a handful of pastry chefs rise to the top. Louis-Ernest Ladurée (1836-1904), Auguste Fauchon (1856-1939) and Gaston Lenôtre (1920-2009) are still familiar names today. Jostling each other today at the top of the pyramid, Grolet, Lignac and Hermé are joined by Philippe Conticini, Yann Roofer, Jean-Paul Hévin, Christophe Michalak, and Francois Perret. (Yes, they’re still men, though that changes.) Everyone has their own well-appointed shop. A few, like Hermé, president of small empires, with outposts in London and Tokyo. Some, like Michalak, star in hugely popular TV shows.
But while the styles and business approaches of these food stars vary, they’ve embraced social media with unanimous fervor. Their followers number in the millions, which has made an international competition that has long been intramural, and in the process – some complain – has transformed a centuries-old tradition.
In the stands: The Fans
Pastry chefs have always been celebrities in France. The two main newspapers in the country, The world and Le Figaro, pay particular attention to new cakes for each season, peel them with the same attention they give to new lines of clothing during fashion week. The chefs appear regularly on TV talk shows and, increasingly, on red carpets. It is not surprising that the famous Parisian palaces make every effort to hire them; François Perret recently opened a “boutique”, The counter, at the Ritz in Paris with great pomp. Grolet held the tribunal out of The hotel Meurice since 2011.
But social networks have earned Parisian pastry chefs international fame. Legions of new aficionados now come from all over the world for each creation, and the chefs have responded with amazing artistic and culinary energy. They also increased their production values, replacing blurry snapshots with professional-style photos and intricately composed videos.
The Main Event: La Bûche
At no time is the competition for attention more fierce than in the weeks leading up to Christmas. “The French are crazy about pastry,” said Jérémie Robert, consul general of France, during a recent phone call. “A good meal in France must end with a pastry, and a Christmas meal with ‘the log’. He was referring to the Yule Log, the log-shaped cake traditionally eaten for dessert on Christmas Eve. Knowing the public’s appetite for this essential, the chefs carefully orchestrate the deployments of the log from November. Just as Hollywood is staggering its releases ahead of Oscar season, secret deals are made to ensure two maestros don’t reveal their cakes on the same day. The cluster effect creates a frenzy, and for the last two months of the year Paris has been consumed by “a real pastry madness. ”
Just as the pastry shops are eponymous, their styles and specialties are distinct. Hermé is known for its generous use of rose water and the richness of its chocolate. Michalak is loved for its flavor combinations, such as whiskey, chestnut and chocolate, and for its boyish charisma. Grolet is revered for his artistic interpretations of buttercream of fruits and flowers. Everyone is quick to tell you that their relationships with others are collegial. “We are friends and enthusiasts,” says Michalak. “But it is undeniable that the competition is fueling the fire. And the competition is very strong in Paris.
At stake: Tradition
Some observers fear that the digital craze for French pastry will end up altering craftsmanship beyond recognition, but traditionalists rejoice that pastry remains deeply rooted in culture. The French adhere to celebratory rituals and some pastries are meant to be eaten at certain times. Thus, the logs are only made at Christmas.
Likewise, the feast of the Epiphany of January 6 invariably ends with a galette des rois, a round of buttered and puff pastry filled with frangipane, in which there is always a buried “treasure”. The first day of May is marked by the sudden appearance of candied lily of the valley cakes. Weddings and christenings aren’t complete without a croquembouche, a towering pyramid of pastry cabbages held together precariously by incredibly fine caramel threads.
The question, according to the pastry chefs I spoke to, is not whether they will stay true to the tradition, it is obvious. This is how they will simultaneously create something daring and utterly delicious. I asked Perret if making a new log is the same as a clothing designer reinventing the little black dress. “Exactly !he replied. “Working within established rules often requires the most ingenuity.”
Winner: The Regulars
When I lived in Paris as a child, our pastry shop was the large Maison Mulot, rue de Seine. I remember going there with my father one day in early November to order our Yule log. In the line in front of me, an elegant woman – a long cashmere coat, satchel bag held lightly in her hand – was ordering a chestnut log. “That,” said my father after we left the store, “was Catherine Deneuve. For Parisians, buying a pastry is not something you delegate.
I thought about such observations recently when I stopped by the Michalak store near St.-Germain-des-Prés. It’s shiny and modern but also familiar, a place where any Parisian would feel at home. Later, in a phone conversation, I asked Michalak about the new digital baking groupies. “They come from all over the world and often buy one of every pastry in the store,” he said. “They’re creating a buzz, but my loyal, local customer base represents less than 0.1% of my million Instagram followers. ”
This story appears in the December 2021 / January 2022 issue of City Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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