Meeting the World's Best Pastry Chef
What does it take to be the world’s best pastry chef? Jonny Ensall travels to Paris to find out and get his five a day
“Please sir, this way,” says Jeremy the waiter, who’s expecting me. The dining room of the Restaurant Le Dalí, at the five-star Hotel Le Meurice, is so blinging I wouldn’t be surprised to see liquid gold condensing on the window panes. Jeremy seats me in a chair the size of a throne. Other diners – who, by the size of their sunglasses, I’m guessing are celebrities – eye me suspiciously, wondering a) why I’m not wearing sunglasses and b) why they don’t recognise me from anything.
Before long, Jeremy returns with a brilliant white china platter, and heads turn for another reason – to admire the two small but perfectly-formed desserts that sit at either end of it. One is a dimpled, glossy lemon, leaf still attached. The other is an apple of fairytale shininess. I touch the edge of my knife to the apple and – crack – it splits in two, revealing a core of apple puree. It turns out the exterior is a miracle of sugar and gelatine. Onto the lemon – it breaks open to reveal a centre of yuzu gel, tiny balls of lemon ‘caviar’ and specks of mint. It tastes… like a lemon. But one picked from the Garden of Eden. Not like one you’d buy from Tesco. I’ll never look at citrus fruit the same way again.
Jeremy knows the score. “Usually, sir, it’s advisable to make your reservation a month in advance. Otherwise people get distressed when they can’t try the fruits. Very distressed.”
I count myself lucky, then, that I’ve just eaten two creations by the World’s Best Pasty Chef, Cédric Grolet, who I’ve come to Paris to meet. That’s not any old bit of journalistic hyperbole, the title was handed to Grolet by a panel including legendary chocolatier and patissier Pierre Hermé at the Grandes Tables competition in New York last month. And it’s just one of a slew of awards the 32-year-old Frenchman has already picked up in his short career. Factor in his 600,000 followers on Instagram – who seem as hungry for pics of the dashing young chef as his impossibly photogenic pastries – and Cédric Grolet is, indisputably, the most popular maker of puddings in the known universe.
Suddenly, he’s here, strolling into the dining room in white Adidas sneakers and tailored chefs’ whites. There’s no mistaking it this time, he’s a genuine celebrity, and a bevy of female admirers run up to have their photos taken with him. What do people usually want from you? I ask later, when we’re introduced. “To get free cakes,” he quips. “And my autograph”.
Cedric whisks me behind-the-scenes, through kitchens packed with earnest stagiaires (culinary interns) carrying trays of madeleines and meringues, to a private dining room, where the restaurant’s most valued guests can watch their meals being prepared through a large window, before they’re served up by the chef himself. “Do you like chocolate?” asks Cédric. Yes, I nod, trying to play it cool. He clicks his fingers and a stagiaire appears with a tart, topped with an elegant chocolate swirl. Then he watches, unmoved, as I bite into it. Soft, nutty praline combines with pastry crunch and darker chocolate. Of course, it’s pant-wettingly delicious.
“Alors,” I say, in my best (read: worst) French accent. “What does it take to be the world’s best pastry chef?” “Sacrifice,” he shoots back. “With my family, my friends – always sacrifice.” Grolet has worked in kitchens since he was 12. He started out at his grandparents’ restaurant in Andrézieux-Bouthéon, a small French town in the Rhône-Alps region of the Loire. By 14 he knew he wanted to specialise in pâtisserie. In 2011, aged 26, he joined three Michelin-star chef Alain Ducasse’s team at Le Meurice as sous chef pâtissier, and began testing his perfectionism to its limit.
It's with the fruit that he's made his biggest breakthroughs. ___ years ago [I'm checking], Grolet had the idea to make a cherry that looked exactly like the real thing, but tasted even better. Nature made pure perfection. “Always purity, purity, purity…” he repeats. “It took… well, forever. To get the sourness, the juiciness. Years!”
All that hard work set Grolet up to make more fruits. Orchards-worth, in fact, of lemons, apples, pears, plums – whatever’s in season. He published a book in France in October, describing how to make many of them, but the chef's artfulness is impossible to imitate.
He's not offering to reveal his trade secrets, today, though we do take a tour of the development kitchen. If anything, Grolet is even more famous down here. The stagiaires run up to shake his hand. “When you come back tomorrow, don’t be so dirty,” he scoffs, pointing at their grubby apron fronts. They scarper, happy to have been chastised by their idol. Cédric shows me rubix cube make of tiny cakes, mounted on a stand that allows the layers to spin around. “This is so everyone can have a piece of their favourite,” he explains. Down the line, a chef ices a tart spinning at 33rpm atop a record player. In this kitchen, innovation takes many different forms.
What’s next for Grolet? I ask. “I want to travel the world, teaching people. To have shops in every big city,” he explains. I wonder whether, perhaps, having some vestige of a normal life features in his planning. He shakes his head. Not a girlfriend of any kind? "That ended a month ago," he mumbles, then shrugs. C’est la vie. I point out a small tattoo on his left wrist. What does that mean to him? “It’s a nut,” he explains. “Because I’m a nut”.
At which point we’re interrupted. Cedric’s needed upstairs, to meet some more guests. He stifles a yawn, shakes my hand, runs his fingers through his hair, then disappears along one of the kitchen corridors he knows so well.