I go to Paris every month, and on every trip I usually have dinner with Pierre Hermé, my friend and collaborator on two cookbooks. But last spring we barely got the chance to talk. Each time we did, he was débordé, which literally translates to “flooded,” but rarely describes a situation that includes water. Pierre was débordé with work. He was in the midst of the semi-annual work-a-thon attached to creating desserts—from concept to taste to look to package—for “the collection.”
Like haute couture houses, Pierre Hermé Paris presents Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections, and they’re presented with almost as much drama and just as much anticipation, post-presentation analysis, and press as when Tom Ford rolls out the new designs for Gucci.
According to Pierre, the idea of presenting dessert collections is relatively new. For years, most of the great pastry “houses” (meaning the Paris pastry-shop legends like Lenôtre, Ladurée, Dalloyau, and Fauchon) did something new for the major holidays and would often launch new desserts to celebrate the arrival of strawberry season or the beginning of les temps de cerises, cherry season.
It was always exciting to create a great cake for Christmas and another for Valentine’s Day, but it wasn’t the way Hermé wanted to work. He wanted to develop comprehensive collections, which, like fashion, would follow the seasons, and six years ago, when he opened his first shop on his own, in Japan, he was able to put his idea into practice.
The early Japanese collections were created around food themes. For example, there were spice, caramel, chocolate, and coffee collections. “The pastries we created on these themes were wonderful,” Pierre said, “but again, I wanted something more. This time I wanted to work on bigger ideas, to have more freedom to stretch my imagination.” So, in 2001, when the Paris boutique opened, the themes became abstract. Gone was a literal food reference and in its place for the first collection was transparence. The second collection’s theme was “White” (this collection featured a hazelnut and white-truffle macaroon that earned Hermé the title “The Karl Lagerfeld of Macaroons”); and the third revolved around métissage, which might be considered fusion (and which explains the origin of the tart that includes sweet strawberries and tangy Parmesan cream).
The Fall/Winter 2003–2004 collection, the one that was “débordé-ing” Hermé, was called “Kawaii.” Pronounced “ka-wa-ee,” the word is Japanese for pretty, cute, adorable and lovely—all at once. As Charles Znaty, a long-time friend and associate of the chef, explained it, “Kawaii is everything that is totally irresistible, that makes your heart melt. It is a naïve beauty for which one is willing to abandon all reason and give oneself up to yearnings.”
So the task Pierre Hermé faced was to create ten desserts that would cause people to abandon all reason.
Some of the ideas for what I can’t help thinking of as “the desserts of abandonment” came out of a brainstorming session during which, Pierre explains, “we reject nothing and open the door to as many ideas as possible.” And a lot of ideas came through the door—Kawaii was one and pH3 was another.
It was Patrick Mikanowski, Pierre Hermé Paris’s creative director, who thought it would be great to have something bite-sized in the collection. Pierre thought it would be better to have three bite-sized things. Then Charles came up with the idea of pH3—both a name and a concept that played on Pierre’s initials, the number of goodies in the as-yet-to-be-designed package, and the chemical symbol for acidity. In an instant, Pierre saw “a declination of acidity” and a game of textures. He didn’t know what the bite-sized treats would be, but almost immediately he knew he wanted something crunchy on the outside, then something soft, followed by something a little crispy.
Once the kernel of the idea was formed in the meeting, Pierre worked as he always works—alone and away from the kitchen. Most of Pierre’s ideas are developed in his head, then designed on paper. “I can taste in my mind,” is what Pierre has often told me and, in fact, he works “in his head” until he thinks all the facets of the dessert are fashioned. At the point at which Pierre goes into the kitchen to actually prepare the recipe, it is usually close to perfect. “In some ways,” Pierre says, “tasting the ‘real’ dessert is a little anticlimactic, since I’ve already tasted it for so long in my brain.”
What Pierre tasted in his brain became three little balls, each sporting the pH3 logo in a different color and all packed together in a small, transparent box. All of the balls are coated with tempered white chocolate and have a crispy hazelnut or pistachio praline at their centers. In the first, the in-between filling is lemon compote; in the second, it’s tangy apricot; and the third has caramelized baked apple.
The creative process was similar with the new macaroon. Every season there is a new macaroon—or macaron, as it is written in French—a meringue-based sandwich cookie that is a cult pastry in Paris. “I was thinking about chestnut and Matcha green tea,” explained Pierre. “Actually, I’d had the idea of combining chestnut and green tea in my head for two years. I knew the flavors would be good together and I knew they would be good in a macaroon. The challenge was to find a way to put two cream fillings in one macaroon. I had to figure out a technique, then figure out a way to put the technique into production.”
Hermé nailed the technique, and what he finally produced was a macaroon in which the cookie part was chestnut-meringue and the two cream fillings were marron glacé and Matcha. Pierre was so sure of the deliciousness of this marriage that he created three desserts playing on the combination (the macaroon, a cake called “Sarah,” and a multi-layered dessert composed and sold in a glass).
Once the pastries are perfected, the look of the dessert is designed and, if needed (as was true with pH3), its packaging. The process, from brainstorming to ready-to-roll, stretches over six months and culminates in the show. In the case of Kawaii, it was the “big” show, the biggest presentation Pierre Hermé Paris had ever mounted.
The Kawaii collection was presented like a full-fledged high-fashion show. There were T-shirts and buttons and press-on decals with manga-type drawings of the desserts and the chef for every guest. There was a fabulous invitation and an even more fabulous venue: The show was held in the dining room of Le Palais du Tokyo, an exhibition space for the hippest, hottest, and most avant-garde in art. The press arrived in full force, as did friends and fans, all of whom had their eyes on the runway as mannequins, dressed in black pants and Kawaii T-shirts, strutted the runway balancing the collection’s sweets. As each dessert was shown, the mannequin gave its name and described its composition, just as it’s done at the haute couture shows. The last person down the aisle was “the designer,” Pierre Hermé, walking hand-in-hand with a little girl who, as Pierre explains with glee, “had a pastry name—Madeleine.” Madeleine held the final pastry, the chestnut and green tea macaroon.
Was it a success? You only had to read the papers for three weeks after the event to judge the excitement it created. (Le Point, a magazine like Business Week, gave the chef and his show three glossy pages.) Was Pierre happy? “I was very happy,” he said, “and I thought it was fun to see people applauding for desserts.” Can he take a breath? No! There’s the Spring/Summer collection to create, and he’s got to get those ideas out of his head, onto paper, and into the shop, so that pastry lovers will abandon all reason again.