The man known as the “Picasso of Pastry” has enlisted his friend Jean-Michel Duriez, master perfumer at the house of Jean Patou, to help him pull off the challenge. “It’s a smell but I think it’s also a flavor,” Hermé says in an interview at his bijou pastry shop on Paris’ arty Left Bank. “I don’t know if I will end up using it, but intellectually, I find it interesting to explore this kind of idea.”
Thinking outside the box seems to come naturally to Hermé, considered by many the finest pastry chef in the world for his daring use of savory ingredients in avant-garde desserts.
It is not uncommon to find traces of balsamic vinegar, parmesan or olives in his expertly constructed cakes and layered dessert creams. This season, he has sprinkled grilled corn into his favourite new creation, a pistachio cake christened “Dune.”
“In Spain, they serve it as an appetizer and that’s where I got the idea,” he matter-of-factly explains.
Hermé, who is descended from four generations of bakers from eastern France, started training with legendary chef Gaston Lenôtre when he was just 14. Ten years later, he was running the pastry division of luxury caterer Fauchon.
There he earned a reputation for cutting-edge creations with a twist, such as the “Cherry on the Cake,” a chocolate cake in a gleaming chocolate casing topped with a single maraschino cherry.
Since striking out on his own in 1998, Hermé has produced twice-yearly collections elaborated with a team of in-house marketing specialists who tap into the latest trends in fashion and design.
Breaking with stuffy French gastronomic traditions, he hired a gaggle of showgirls to present his spring-summer collection, Desire, to journalists at the legendary Crazy Horse cabaret.
When he is working on new recipes, however, Hermé prefers to rely on instincts rather than market studies. “Value judgments are always a bit subjective, so it’s up to me to decide,” he says without pretense.
That approach seems to work just fine, judging from the queue of locals and tourists that often stretches out on the pavement in front of his store on rue Bonaparte.
Though he has no outlets in the United States, Hermé also has legions of fans stateside thanks to two recipe books written with veteran food author Dorie Greenspan, Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé and Desserts by Pierre Hermé, which won an IACP Cookbook Award in 1999.
The portly chef, who favors dressing in black when he is not wearing his monogrammed uniform jacket, says he finds inspiration everywhere—from a conversation to a striking image.
He professes particular admiration, however, for the work of French product designers Philippe Starck and Matali Crasset, whose influence can be felt in the clean lines and hip packaging of his desserts.
“We live in the 21st century and I prefer a pastry that looks like a 21st century pastry,” he explains. “I try to be in my time and of my time.”
His tastes in art also lean towards the contemporary—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko or Joan Miro and the sculptures of Spanish artist Pablo Gargallo.
Hermé likes to relax by spending time with his girlfriend, seeing exhibitions, traveling and reading—he is ploughing his way through the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. But even eating with friends sometimes turns into work.
“When I’m invited to dinner, I often bring the cake,” he admits.