This time, it was personal. Experts across the world had voted on the world’s best pastry chef for two years running, and neither time did the accolade go to a Frenchman. For this proud nation of dessert-makers, this is tantamount to a national disgrace. This year Pierre Hermé, the man variously called the Picasso of pastry and the Dior of dessert, righted the wrong.
Not only did Hermé prise the award away from the Spanish (the previous winners were Jordi Roca and Albert Adrià), he was also the first non restaurant-based chef to win. “I’m touched,” he says. “The French have a love-affair with pastry, it’s very important to us. In most areas of cooking we’ve seen the rise of all kinds of different styles – amazing Japanese and Mexican and Spanish food – but in pastry, French techniques still dominate. Our pastry chefs are very active, very willing to share our knowledge.”
In many ways, however, Hermé is far from the archetypal French pastry chef. While many of his compatriots have traditionally occupied themselves with crafting ever more extravagant creations, Hermé says he’s driven by taste alone. Maybe it stems from his first job running a kitchen, as pastry chef to the French defence minister during his obligatory military service. “It was the first time I really cooked by myself, where I learned to manage my time and how to be a chef, even though it was for just one client.”
Hermé says that as he rose through the ranks, chefs working under him would be “concerned with making a big decoration” – he would look them in the eye and say: “What are you trying to make, a dessert or a sculpture?” History seems to be on his side. The average customer today is far more discerning than they were 20 years ago, less likely to be fooled by aesthetics. They want “better food and to be surprised.” They’re also more health conscious, which suits Hermé’s style. “I use sugar like salt,” he says. “Only when I need it. When I started cooking everyone would use far more sugar, but you can make great desserts with hardly any.”
Hermé says the rise of the foodie will continue, that people will demand ever more from their chefs, and that the French will be up to the challenge. “I see young chefs with passion in their eyes. They want to learn everything, to know about all of the ingredients. This is what you need. Pastry is science with a flash of art.”