GLOBALISATION. IT'S RESPONSIBLE for so many modern cuisine wonders: McDonald's on every high street in the world; Coca-Cola in vending machines from Africa to America; even fresh French-baked macaroons from the kitchens of Pierre Herme Paris dispatched daily to a boutique in Hong Kong.
The one thing globalisation hasn't delivered is good in-flight dining, which is something of an oddity, since aeroplanes are the very inventions that have brought world gastronomy closer to us. But that's a big concern for a man like Pierre Herme, the premier pastry chef whose job entails a fair bit of travel.
So while the rest of Hong Kong is going macaroon mad, Herme is dreaming about airline meals.
"When I take the plane I always have very bad desserts. So I always dreamed of creating desserts for an airline company. Good desserts," he says. That goal came to fruition earlier this year, with an ANA first-class“pop-up”. “The air hostesses have to assemble the desserts with the hot and cold elements, five different operations that end in a much better creation. Maybe the next step is breakfast. The desserts are never great, but breakfast is always a catastrophe,” he sighs.
The name over his boutiques may read Pierre Herme, but the patissier himself is very much occupied these days with collaborations – ones that particularly “correspond with a desire”, he says, whether it's a personal wish to upgrade the in-flight experience or more general inclinations to tweak the landscape of pastry consumption. Of late, that has meant porcelain with Puiforcat, flatware with Alessi and Christofle, and, earlier than that, leather handbags with his wife, designer Barbara Rihl, that dovetail with the colours of his macaroons; and candles that explore Herme's talent with flavour combinations.
Even putting aside these partnerships, the Pierre Herme brand itself is a collaborative effort – taking the relative capriciousness of natural flavours and channelling them into a constant product is “a daily occupation”.
“It's at the heart of my work as a patissier. I am occupied with creating the product, and afterwards I let the chefs that work in my maison help to maintain a consistent quality…but those who manage the workshop at Pierre Herme, they have between 10 and 23 years working with me, and they know how I work and my feelings about the product. Some of these people have been with me throughout my career at Fauchon and Laduree,” he says.
It's ironic that a man who descends from four generations of patissiers, and who has made such a name for himself globally in his trade, was once dissuaded from entering the industry – by his mother. But Herme knew from the age of nine, he says, that this was his calling. “I have an approach to tastes, and everything that I do, to really give the sensation of pleasure to people, so they enjoy eating it.” What he is best known for is his Le Fetish series, “some associations of flavours that I've created or reinterpreted in my own way,” he says – the preferred of which is Ispahan, named for one of the most fragrant of Damask roses, and that melds rose, lychee and raspberry. The Infiniment collection, too, ploughs shades of tastes in a sophisticated manner – vanillas from Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti, layered atop one another, make up the house's signature Infiniment Vanille.
This considered approach isn't as scientific as the making of wine, or as romantic as the creation of a work of art. “The capacity to create comes from the memory of tastes, and that is something that is built up through tasting all sorts of things.” A recent trip to Vietnam inspired a recipe tentatively titled Jardin sur la Baie Yalong – garden on Yalong Bay – that combines coriander, coconut, ginger, citronella and lime, which will launch in stores next year. And his more recent time in Hong Kong may bring further inspiration: “I found last night at a restaurant, a tea called Eight Treasures…” he divulges.
It's this journey of tastes and travel that continues to drive him, even though he was dubbed “the Picasso of pastry” years ago. “This ‘celebrity' is not a goal, but a consequence, really. When I set up the company with my partner Charles Znaty, I didn't want to be a famous pastry chef. I just wanted to create a luxury brand in the pastry field. For me, it's an outcome, but not the aim.” What, in that case, is the aim? “I met someone from ANA, and I said, ‘When are we going to work on breakfast?' Because that's what I'm interested in…”