How the Top Pastry Chef in the World Is Modernizing the Form
2015: Pasty Chef of the Year, Le Chef. 2016: Best Pastry Chef, Relais Desserts. Also 2016: Pastry Chef of the Year, Omnivore World Tour. By the time Parisian pâtissier Cédric Grolet, executive pastry chef of Le Meurice, and I meet, he's been recognized as 2017’s Best Pastry Chef in the Worldby Les Grands Tables du Monde. 2018 has barely even begun and the much-decorated sugar sculptor has added Gault Millau's Pâtissier of The Year recognition as the icing atop a very rich cake of accolades. Yes, his honors are numerous, but Grolet’s art is anything but baking by numbers.
The late Paul Bocuse once said, “Without butter, without eggs, there is no reason to come to France.” Grolet’s visually arresting renderings in butter, eggs and sugar are, in and of themselves, reason enough to venture forth into the Ville Lumière. The French magazine L’Expresse described him as having “revolutionized the world of sweetness.” Google the man and you’d be hard-pressed to miss the word “trompe-l'oeil,” as he's become synonymous with his hyper-realistic sculptural confections: a lemon dessert that looks, well, just like a lemon, down to the dimples in its canary citrus skin. The same is true of his scarlet cherry doppelgänger that glistens like a Christmas tree ornament, and his iconic Rubik’s Cube cake, which swivels. Grolet is grounded by the backbone of a classicist, yet is propelled by the wings of an avant-gardist. It is no wonder, then, that he has achieved what can only be described as the apotheosis of confectionary creation.
“It is important to master the classics," he says. "French pâtisserie is a classic pâtisserie—the Saint-Honoré, Paris-Brest, eclairs, mille-feuilles. But like a fashion designer, if you master only the classics, you won’t find any innovative edge in the creations. The same applies to me. I respect my French classics. I keep the French style except I modernize it. I refresh it.”
Inspiration, then, must come from everywhere. “I am inspired by everything that surrounds me, by everything that I smell, all I that I taste, all that I see,” he says. “I love fashion, museums, perfume, smells. I love colors, architecture…”
When I arrive at Le Meurice, that shining rue de Rivolibastion, I'm ushered to its tables d’hôtes: a golden lucite table that could easily be mistaken for one of Grolet’s creations, with its gleaming surface and deliciously exact elliptical form. Grolet has been the executive pastry chef of Le Meurice since 2013, but his trajectory begins when he started making desserts at 15 in his hometown, Auvergne, France. At 20, he moved to Paris, where he worked under the tutelage of Christophe Adam at the gourmet food company Fauchon for six years. “When I was at ease and wanted a new challenge, I joined Le Meurice as an adjunct, working with with Yannick Alléno and Camille Lesecq," Grolet says. "After a year, at 26, I became the pastry chef.”
His rise may seem meteoric, but his process is a slow, painstaking one. An equal measure of madness and method seem to be the recipe for Grolet, who is as meticulous as he is freewheeling. Devising a bûche de Noël can take up to a year of experimentation, and the pastries for Le Meurice's popular tea time take about a week of research with his team. And once the experimentation is done, each pastry is built with a precision that I observe during his surgical assemblage of the Rubik’s cake.
Asked about his process, Grolet rushes excitedly out of the room and returns carrying a blue portefeuille, out of which spill several etchings. “I start by drawing,” he says. “I have a database of all my drawings of what I'm thinking of creating in the days and years to come.” He then gives the completed sketches to his sous-chef, who is tasked with transmuting the two-dimensional ideations into lifelike comestibles. This distance allows him to be more objectively critical of the work in progress. “Of course, the first drawing is never the same as the finished product,” he admits. “But step by step, it evolves. I find it pleasant to start with a drawing because, physically, it goes much faster. It takes a long time to make a desert— two to three days. A drawing takes me five minutes.”
It’s understandable that Grolet starts with the path of least resistance in his creative process, as he seems eager to get his ideas out into the open. He speaks of his craft with the speed and alacrity of a child elucidating the features of his tricked-out couch fortress. “I am trying to talk slowly; I am trying,” he says. “I am crazy when I talk about pastries." It is perhaps this eagerness to share that drives Grolet to teach as many master classes as he does around the world.
Grolet takes his charge to modernize incredibly seriously. For Christmas 2015, he created a yule log plumped with preserved cherries and suffused with Espelette pepper: not exactly your standard-issue chocolate or vanilla holiday cake. “Christmas is once a year. Christmas is the time of presents; it is the time to surprise,” he says. “To me the taste of Espelette pepper with the cherries and the tarragon inside is particular. When better to offer to offer this cake than at Christmas? I am the pastry chef at Le Meurice: If I do not offer it, who will?”
Still, even in doing so, he reaches into his “database” of classic techniques. “Many people told me cherries were not seasonal,” he explains. “I did what my grandmother used to. We took the cherries and preserved them in jars. Of course they are not like fresh ones, but a bûche needs to be structured. For that structure, they were perfect."
We’ve now moved from the host table into Grolet’s antiseptic kitchen where his affability simmers as if in reaction to the oven’s heat. He teases a member of his team who is in the process of building the base of the Rubik’s cake, before adding the finishing touches. (The cake must be ordered at least 48 hours in advance, as it is not on the menu.) He gives it a second and final glance to ensure its symmetry as he walks away.
Fixated though he may be on form, presentation and flavor take priority. Grolet's motto, “le beau fait venir, et le bon fait revenir,” means, “Beauty brings them in, and taste brings them back.”
He moves on to filling his Paris-Brest. He is enhancing this French staple with the flavor of praline but not just any old praline. “My praline is bold with pepper and salt," he says. "Each time it brings an explosion of flavor." The doughnut-shaped choux is sliced against a ruler with extreme exactitude, then filled with praline cream. The base choux is covered in freshly roasted hazelnuts, and with the flick of the wrist, he pipes arabesques of pastry cream onto the choux. Time for more praline, which he injects into the cream before crowning his handiwork with the other half of the choux. He slices off a sliver for me to taste. The choux is crunchy, the cloud-soft cream lightly sweet, the entire Brest bursting with (but not overpowered by) the nutty notes of hazelnut. He can tell I want more. He offers me another slice.
Like mandala art, his process of creation is one of liturgical devotion that takes eons from conception to that brief moment of dissolution of sugar on the tongue. But Grolet is unperturbed by the ephemerality of his art form. “My goal is to provoke a memory,” he says. “No one can take an emotion, a memory from you. You will keep it for life.” Indeed, his are the sort of disappearing souvenirs that live with a person forever.
Grolet does, however, care about his legacy. He finds it déclassé to coronate himself an artist or a star—both of which he undoubtedly is. He prefers to think of himself as simply a pastry chef, but one with lofty ambitions. He dreams of staying at Le Meurice while growing his worldwide presence, opening a string of Cédric Grolet concept stores and establishing a pastry academy.
For now, the inedible incarnation of his art lives in his first book, the simply-titled Fruits. When asked by chef Alain Ducasse why he wanted to do a book, he replied, “Because everyone is doing a book.” Grolet has since come to realize that the book, which took a year to produce, is his new “database,” a certain kaleidoscopic compendium of what he has dedicated the last 17 years of his life to. “A book means to look back over what I have done. It is my structure,” he says.
If there is any doubt that Grolet is inhabited by the spirit of an artist, his next words shatter those doubts like the crunch of his pâte sucrée: “A book is a form of communication; through it, people can understand what I do.” Is it not the desire to be understood that, as Khalil Gibran put it, “gives birth to art and all artists?”
I ask him what creation, out of his entire oeuvre, is his favorite. He loves them all, he says, but adds, “What I love is what I have yet to do.”
Fruits, available for purchase here.
Le Meurice, Hôtel Le Meurice, 228, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris. Tel. : +33 (0)1 44 58 10 55