Caught between the image-first expectations of social media, and consumer ideas about healthy eating, pâtissiers struggle to find a new recipe for success.
PARIS — How to reconcile the irreconcilable? That, in a nutshell, is the conundrum facing today's top pâtissiers. In this era of Instagram, image is everything. And so there's a demand, on the one hand, to make ever more beautiful cakes. But consumers are also increasingly health conscious, and new rules have banned the use of certain artificial dyes, forcing pastry chefs to tone things down, especially when it comes to colors.
One thing is for certain, it is necessary to be present on Instagram today. "It's a showcase for the world and it's free," says Yann Couvreur, a Parisian pâtissier. He sees it simply as a means of communication that can keep clients up-to-date on what's happening in the boutique. "It's not a megalomaniacal thing to submit your work to the eyes of the people," Couvreur insists.
As indispensable as it may be, many pastry chefs are also critical of social media for emphasizing image over taste. "What's scary about Instagram is that we often see very pretty cakes, but a cake should primarily be good," says star pastry chef Pierre Hermé, aka the king of the macaron.
Claire Damon, founder of a pair of boutiques called Des Gateaux et du Pain, thinks that because of social media, the new generation of pâtissiers will only focus on "dressing things up" to attract customers. She says that Instagram tends to deform reality.
"The price of a cake corresponds to the cost of the initial material and the time spent after," Damon explains. "A piece by Cedric Grolet (the Instagram-famous star pastry chef of Meurice) costs around 17 euros and is made by a palace brigade. A neighborhood bakery with 5-euro cakes and 35-hour-a-week employees can't reproduce his work."
But the general public, focused just on colors and visuals, can't always tell the difference, she argues. Media people fall into the same trap. Damon's latest creation, Vert Absinthe, is an outwardly simple cake inspired by the fragrance at the edge of a stream where she was walking one morning in Auvergne. The cake is all green, with lemon cream, tomato jelly, and candied angelica.
"For me, pastry is like fashion, like quality tailoring," she says. "It's complex to achieve but of sober and excellent workmanship. When a jacket is shiny, tight and full of details, it's cheap."
Pastry chef Sébastien Dégardin, who runs a pretty shop near the Pantheon in Paris, agrees that the key is craftsmanship." The piping bag, the blow of the spatula... These are techniques that not everyone can master," he says. "Leaving a trace of manual work, in these times when more and more pastry chefs use thermoformed molds that just fill, it makes the difference."
Celebrating the craft
This is the logic behind the so-called "instagrammable" desserts offered at Pierre Hermé"s tea rooms. This dessert is created under the eyes of the client, by a pastry chef who explains the tastes, textures, and temperatures of the ingredients he uses to make a cake live — for the client to film and post on social media if she so wishes. It's not the aesthetic, but the craft of the pâtissier that becomes instagrammable," Hermé explains.
According to him, the appearance of a cake should strongly announce what it contains. So to decorate his best-seller, the Isaphan, Hermé only uses strawberries and one rose petal. And, unsurprisingly, a square of chocolate decorates his Carrement chocolate dessert.
Yann Couvreur tends to keep things simple as well. He doesn't even put his name on the box. His trademark style — he doesn't use food coloring or preservatives, and strictly respects the rhythm of the seasons (citrus fruits in winter, red fruits in spring, etc.) — speaks for itself. "I would never use gold leaf, that useless kind of decoration that drives up the price of the cake," he says.
A Pierre Hermé macaron Easter basket — Photo: thepineapplechef via Instagram
That doesn't, of course, mean that Couvreur's cakes are austere. Quite the opposite, in fact. His rum babas are gleaming and generous in cream. The Paris-Brest are plump and saturated with hazelnuts.
"Making the materials speak"
Not all pastry chefs have such fixed ideas. Others might be tempted to use coloring, but have turned away from them due to the vagueness of French and European rules regarding dyes. Instead, they're turning to natural products, whose hues are both less varied and less resistant than chemical dyes.
"We must change the hard drive, review our entire way of thinking," admits Pierre Hermé, whose success was built largely on the chromatic declensions of his macaroons. The new colorings, tinted with things like beet powder, turmeric or chlorophyll, are duller. Customers don't tend to complain, the pastry chef explains. But sellers aren't entirely convinced.
"They have trouble distinguishing the different flavors," Hermé explains. "It's up to us to find new tricks, for example by putting pieces of almonds, pine nuts or sesame on them."
Frédéric Bau, creative director at the premium chocolate manufacturer Valrhona, sees the bans on dyes as a "wonderful" opportunity. "We can stop focusing on color," he says. "It'll force pastry chefs and chocolatiers to release their imagination, to relearn technical craft, to make the materials speak. For chocolate, for example, it can be crumbled, cracked, struck, scratched, powdered."
Striking a balance
But are consumers ready to go from everything — color-wise — to (almost) nothing? It's unclear. Sébastien Dégardin has stopped using titanium dioxide to whiten the topping of his vanilla cake (he uses cream instead). But he only sells half as much now.
As for historic pastry makers with solid traditions, the revolution won't happen overnight. At Fauchon, for example, the new executive pastry chef, François Daubinet (who arrived in 2018), must continue to offer cakes with the company's emblematic color: magenta. "I haven't yet found satisfactory natural dyes to reproduce it," he says. "That's one of my goals for 2020."
With other creations, though, Daubinet isn't afraid to experiment. He recently concocted a limited edition cake for Easter in the form of a vegetable leaf and using apple, quinoa, lemon, and shiso — more in tune with the times.
"We really live in a world of paradoxes," says Frédéric Bau, known alongside Cyril Lignac as one of the "kings of the cake." The two star in a television show on the M6 network that has been offering fans a chance to submit their pastries to be judged. This season they tried more than 450!
"Candidates are careful to use organic ingredients of good quality. But they can ruin the taste of their pastry by applying a hyper-sugary and fat frosting so that it shines," Bau explains. "In the end, it looks like hubcaps: it's beautiful and inedible!"