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"Picasso of Pastry's" Edible Luxury - Interview with Pastry Chef Pierre Herme

Aired December 27, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tucked away in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris is a confectionery shop unlike any other. It's home to some of the most artistic, delectable and unusual sugary treats, straight from the imagination of Pierre Herme.

Dubbed "The Picasso of Pastry" by "French Vogue," he's known for his mastery of the macaron, using unusual flavors. He continues to transform this traditional French dessert into little drops of edible luxury.

Beyond his creativity, he also sets himself apart by approaching his craft with the mindset of a high-end fashion designer, releasing his product in seasons and creating haute couture delicacies for select customers.

Today, his multimillion dollar epicurean empire stretches across the globe from Paris to Tokyo and most recently to Hong Kong, where his macarons are being devoured despite costing almost $3 each.

This week on TALK ASIA, we take a culinary journey with Pierre Herme and discover how the son of an Alsatian baker became the first pastry chef to be awarded France's highest honor.


RAJPAL: Pierre Herme, welcome to TALK ASIA.


RAJPAL: I have to say, it's going to be very difficult to be unbiased because I am a huge dessert lover. That is my weakness. And it seems as though it is the guilty pleasure of many people, no more so than those in Asia.

What do you think it is about les macarons, or the French pastries, that Asians seem to love?

HERME: For the macaron, probably it's because it's just one or two bites. You feel -- you don't feel having a lot of food, just a little bite and in the macaron, you can have a lot of taste and taste combination and texture combination.

RAJPAL: It's just that one bite, isn't it? There's an explosion of flavor. And it seems as though you've also had a lot of inspiration from Asia when it comes to the kind of flavor combinations.

HERME: The inspiration is coming from everywhere. So could be a conversation between us, could be an (inaudible). Could be something I read. The inspiration, it's in the air.

RAJPAL: You opened your first store in Tokyo. Why Japan?

HERME: Yes, we opened the first store in Japan in New Otani Hotel. I go to Japan since a long time. And it's probably the country where the French pastry is most developed. So the French start to make pastry in Japan and at the end of the 1550s. And so it's now part of the -- not only Japanese culture but of Japanese habits.

So you have a lot of very nice pastries in pastry shop in Japan.

RAJPAL: And obviously also flavor combinations from there as well, cherry blossoms as well is part of the kind of inspiration that you have.

HERME: Cherry Blossom was interesting because I tried to imagine what is the taste of cherry blossom. And I did a combination with cherry pulp and tonka bean and lemon. And you have the same taste when you eat (inaudible), you feel you eat the cherry blossom.

RAJPAL: Is -- are there anything that's off limits? Is there any flavor that you will not explore? Or do you believe that everything is open for exploration?

HERME: A lot of things are open. It's just the way you treat it and I never -- I never made some macarons with meat or with fish. I made a macaron with caviar. So something from fish. But it's -- it was a combination between caviar and walnut water.

RAJPAL: It's interesting, because you are constantly, from what I understand, evolving the macaron. You're most perhaps -- it's been said that your most famous creation is the one with Ispahan. It's with the raspberry. It's with the Ispahan rose, raspberry, lychee.

Is that an evolution from the Paradis, which was in 1987 the first time you used rose as an ingredient?

HERME: Yes, I discovered the rose taste in a Bulgarian cuisine in '84-'85. And so that gave me the envy to use the rose. And I tried to find some combination. And the first one I find, it was with raspberry because the fruity taste of raspberry and also the strong acidity of the raspberry is a very nice combination with the weakness and the floral taste of the rose.

So it was the first cake. And 10 years later, I came up with the combination with rose, lychee and raspberry.


RAJPAL: So, Chef, we talked about you finding inspiration everywhere you go, even from a meal that you had here at this restaurant in Hong Kong. Tell me about that.

HERME: I had a meal here in May and I discovered Eight Treasures tea (ph). I never heard about Eight Treasures tea (ph). So I was surprised by the taste, because the taste was a little bit bitter.

RAJPAL: So all these ingredients that we see here, that's from the Eight Treasures tea that we see here. And that's where you came up with as a result.


RAJPAL: So then tell me, you go back then to your kitchen and you start to develop a macaron based on this.

HERME: I start first to sort the ingredients. It was difficult. I met somebody here who is specialist of tea, but he -- she gave me some indications.

RAJPAL: Yes. So would we, then, take a bite out of that; we'll get a sense of a little bit of everything in here.

HERME: Not everything, because some of the ingredients you cannot put the name on top. But I know you have to --


HERME: -- (inaudible) the macaron.

RAJPAL: You know, it's hard work. But I have to do it.


HERME: It's a little bit different than the pure tea, but it's --

RAJPAL: But there's that link to it.


RAJPAL: First I have to have another one. I'm sorry.


HERME: Here we are at (inaudible) Pierre Herme, the creating lab of Pierre Herme.



HERME: When we started to work in the pastry, there was in the late '70s I learned to make macarons which was only (inaudible) and chocolate. And it was just two biscuits with a little bit filling inside.

So I didn't like the macaron very much. I understand that what gives the taste to the macaron is the filling. So I decided to have more filling. Since 30 years, I create a lot of flavor -- lemon, rose, almond (ph), pistachio and different texture, different sensation when you eat the macaron.

Macaron was really an empty field. This is so when I started to work on macarons, I felt that I have a lot of possibility to create macarons because it was just (inaudible).

(Inaudible) coming from a conversation with somebody, comes to me from something I read. So the inspiration is coming from everywhere. And after I always imagine the taste, the texture and the song in my brain. And after I write the precise recipe, I made the drawing, give to the pastry chef, who makes the test. It gives him some indication of the size, the proportion.

And after, now we have decide where we launch it. We don't make marketing and say, oh, we should make this type of product, no. We wait; we make marketing when the product is ready.

RAJPAL: What's interesting also about your products, they're treated like jewels. You also present them like collections every season.

HERME: Yes. When we started a company with Charles Znaty, who is my partner, we didn't want to create a pastry shop. We had ambition to create a luxury brand in the pastry field. So for (inaudible), you take care also of the product first, because the product is central and after also, we take care on the packaging.

We take care on the boutique (ph), the how the boutique (ph) looks. And we are very concerned about the service. For me, it's very -- it's part also of what is a luxury brand.

RAJPAL: It's the everything about a luxury brand is the kind of care, the history, the dedication to every single element of a product.

HERME: It's something that we call attention to detail.

RAJPAL: Yes, of course.

HERME: I hate perfection, but I am very interesting about attention to details.

RAJPAL: Really? You hate perfection?

HERME: Yes. And so it's something boring, perfection.

RAJPAL: But (inaudible) --


HERME: -- the detail, it's more -- it's more interesting.

RAJPAL: Aren't you constantly striving for perfection whenever you're creating a new combination of (inaudible)?

HERME: No. Perfection is never my main goal. It's always attention to detail.

RAJPAL: What I find also quite revolutionary, if you will, is that you don't consider sugar to be an integral part of a recipe. It is seasoning.

HERME: Yes. In the past, sugar was very important because sugar was something that keeps the product also fresh and now we have other way to do with the fridge, with freezer and so and so. We have the ability to use sugar only as a seasoning and also what makes the sugar on a highlight is the salt.

So I (inaudible) with the salt some -- when you have a macaron, chocolate macaron, you have inside some small pieces of chocolate with a little bit fleur de sel, and that's brings you the -- you don't feel but it brings the chocolate taste to the maximum of the taste.

RAJPAL: It seems as though creating, baking, making desserts is in your blood. It's part of who you are. You come from a family, generations -- I think I read somewhere baking goes back in your family all the way to 1870 in the Alsace region in France.

Tell me about growing up with your father as this baker in the family.

HERME: First I have to say for us, from comfitures, he said choose a work that you like and you never have to feel you work. I find it very true because I never feel to work. So --

RAJPAL: It's just fun, isn't it?


HERME: And as I was a child at 9 year, I know -- I knew that I wanted to be a pastry chef. To see my father, I had to go with him in the kitchen. So I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. So I find his passion was very interesting and he gave me the passion and the envy to do pastry.

RAJPAL: What was the first thing you learned in the kitchen? Do you remember?

HERME: Yes, I remember. It was the -- as a dishwasher for (inaudible).


HERME: Because when I was little, I was not allowed to touch the pastries. After with 9, 10, 11, 12. So I was allowed to touch the (inaudible). But when I was a child, I always was as a dishwasher.

RAJPAL: But you were watching?

And then, at the age of 14, you go to Gaston Lenotre.

HERME: I went to Paris to learn at Gaston Lenotre. And this time, I think also I have learned a little bit pastry. I know (inaudible) when I came there. And I discover it was a lot of work. So I learned what it's (inaudible) quality, I learned what it's importance of details, what is the importance of organization and be very strict to the method, to (inaudible) to make every day the same quality.


HERME: Here we are at (inaudible), the creating lab for Pierre Herme, for doing macarons, we have two parts, a biscuit made with almonds, sugar and egg white and chocolate, (inaudible).


HERME: Another part is the filling. In this case, it's a ganache made with cream, chocolate and butter.

So we would fill the macaron with this ganache and let them in the fridge until 48 hours. That ganache would soften a little bit the biscuit and that keeps the crust of the biscuit. And just all is very moist and the same texture than the ganache.

You cannot sell the macaron today, you make it. You have to wait 24 to 84 (sic) hours to have the osmose between the cream and the filling and the biscuit. And you have the perfect macaron.

RAJPAL: How important is it for you to be in Hong Kong, for you to have such a presence in Hong Kong?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He explores new directions (inaudible). (Inaudible). His existence is very good news for patisserie (inaudible) French pastry that's nice pastry, kind of art.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In a way, there's a lot of invention and that's it. It's (inaudible). That's it.


RAJPAL: How do you constantly stay on top?

Or is that even something that you concern yourself about?

HERME: I'm not concerned by this competitive -- competition you speak about. But what is interesting to us is always to develop idea and not copying anybody else. So just bringing idea, very different. It's part of the culture of our company.

RAJPAL: What is it, do you think, you would want people to know about Pierre Herme, not the brand, but about the person behind it?

What do you want people to feel and to know about who you are?

HERME: That I make good cakes.

That's the only thing important.

RAJPAL: That's an understatement.

HERME: A few days ago I was in a street and somebody was in a car, and said, oh, can I make a picture with you?

So they come out of the car. They say, "We love your cakes."

And that's very -- that's for me, the best recognitions, that the people love the cake. He was a taxi driver with (inaudible) family. So they're probably not come and buy the cake every day, but when we want something special, we come to buy your pastries.

RAJPAL: That's, again, the -- you're in the business of creating happiness.

We talked about the fashion collections, for example, when you present your seasonal collection. You also do haute couture in that you have these specific request kind of cakes from some pretty high-profile people. I think Christine Lagarde was one of your clients.

HERME: She's one of our big supporters. And she asked us to create some macarons for the G20 with all the flags from the different countries in a box of 20 and with the flag on the box or so. And she offered this to all the participants, all the ministries of economy.


RAJPAL: Well, Mr. Herme, we're here in the ayasimon (ph), where your beautiful store (inaudible).


HERME: (Inaudible) first shop, Pierre Herme Paris in Hong Kong.

RAJPAL: It's so vibrant, all the colors.

HERME: Where the box for the products.

RAJPAL: Well, it's like over here, they're like displays of jewelry, so beautifully --


HERME: (Inaudible) pretty jewelry, but just the product is key. The product is what is important.

RAJPAL: How important is it for you to be in Hong Kong, for you to have such a presence in Hong Kong?

HERME: In Hong Kong, there is a lot of food lovers and so it was important for us to be in Hong Kong and to bring to this food lover the taste of some pleasure and some taste from (inaudible) Paris.

RAJPAL: I know this right now is at the current collection or these are also the standard collections that you also have.

HERME: Well, all products, you have a permanent collection and you have some new, seasonal products, some creation or some products that are coming back.

RAJPAL: So we can always expect something new from you?



RAJPAL: When you look forward, where do you see it growing?

How do you see it growing and expanding?

HERME: I create this business with a friend, Charles Znaty, and Charles is concentrated on development of our business. I know that we are going to open in Korea and in other countries. But I don't create products for one specific customer or for one specific region.

When we do the Eight Treasures Tea macaron, we will create it for France, Japan and England or in Qatar, because we will share this experience to with all the -- all customers.

RAJPAL: Do you have a favorite, your own favorite?

HERME: My favorite is always the next one, the next macaron, the next cake I will create.

RAJPAL: What do you eat to make yourself feel better? You're having a bad day.

HERME: I prefer to drink (inaudible) --


HERME: -- (inaudible), because I am not (inaudible) very interesting about --

RAJPAL: Well, Alsace region is very known for its wine as well, isn't it?

HERME: (Inaudible). It's a good region for wine.

RAJPAL: Yes. Mr. Herme --

HERME: Thank you very much.

RAJPAL: -- it was such a pleasure. Thank you so much.