Sweet surrender: The growing trend of patisseries in Hong Kong
Increasingly sophisticated Hong Kong palates are now being sated as more pâtissiers open shop in the city, writes Annabel Jackson
Line up for your Magador, your Makassar and your Ouvre-toi. Pierre Hermé Paris has opened in IFC, joining a growing line of world-class pâtissiers in the city that includes Ladurée and Jean-Paul Hévin.
"Sweet wasn't in the local culture before," Hévin says. "There are now more and more competitors, which means enjoying chocolates, cakes and macarons has become part of Hong Kong people's lives." It has been a long time coming, at least compared with Japan, where Pierre Hermé set up shop almost before he opened in Paris, 15 years ago.
"Japan has always been a huge source of inspiration," says Hermé, who has been dubbed the Picasso of Pastries. "Since launching in Japan, we've been exposed to a variety of ingredients and flavours that have inspired creations, such as the Jardin Japonais macaron.
"Sold only during the month of April, the Jardin Japonais consists of morello cherry, lemon and tonka beans - to evoke the sakura season. I'm excited to see how trends in Hong Kong will inspire me for future creations."
Both Hévin and Hermé cite developing demands of Hong Kong consumers as inspiration.
"I think Hong Kong people have really developed a sophisticated palate and a genuine understanding of taste," Hermé says. "They are very well-travelled. When I visited Hong Kong, I was amazed at how knowledgeable Hong Kong people were about French desserts." Hévin echoes this sentiment.
"Hong Kong is definitely catching up. Hong Kong people travel extensively and are knowledgeable about refined products."
What was once only available in five-star hotels can now be bought at top shopping malls around the city. But rents are a huge concern.
Gregoire Michaud, former pastry chef at the Four Seasons, has just opened Bread Elements in Chai Wan, a wholesale bakery catering to food and beverage outlets in Hong Kong.
He believes that while things are moving with regard to chocolate appreciation, the market is undeveloped when it comes to bread and pastry. "Four or five good bakeries - for 7 million people?" he quips.
Michaud also notes that foreign companies that bring macarons and chocolate into town have capital behind them. "I would like to see more local talent opening shops," he says. "But it is hard, because of rent."
He singles out local chef Tony Wong, who left the cocoon of hotel operations to open Pâtisserie Tony Wong in Kowloon; and Thomas Lui, who two years ago set up Thomas Trillion in Tin Hau.
Lui is somewhat envious of the fancy Central addresses of certain stores, but is taking his time to learn how to run a business without huge rental pressures. "I'm an artist, not a businessman," he laughs. His award-winning book simply entitled Thomas Trillion, after the trillion new ideas to be found in the pastry kitchen, attests to this.
Lui rose rapidly to fame at the JW Marriott, where he started in 1989, as one of the earliest talented local pastry chefs. He notes that it took the hotel 20 years to open a good cake shop and, in his day, cakes had to be ordered through the coffee shop.
Although he has to do everything himself (outside of the comforts of working at an international hotel), he says very little has changed. "I always have to think about the customer, and how to do my best. I enjoy what I do: the timing, nice things, high quality things."
Lui has noticed big changes in the market over the past two decades, especially how consumers want to spend money on "good" things. "People don't mind paying for quality," he says.
In spite of his somewhat lowly location, his shop has become a "destination" for many customers, including his former clients from the Marriott. He also notes how young people enjoy working in the pastry industry, and how he is surrounded by talent in his own kitchen.
There is surely something deeply rewarding about creating things of great beauty, every day. Order a coffee in Passion and watch the team of young chefs painstakingly creating the most gorgeous little cakes and desserts in the most divinely appetising palettes. The atmosphere in the open kitchen is calm and convivial, indicating that these chefs take nothing but pleasure from delivering such refined creations to the clientele lined up in a queue that stretches to the door.
"You've got to have passion for what you do," says Passion owner Gerard Dubois, a veteran pastry chef who, in 1988, was based at the long-gone Hong Kong Hilton hotel as regional pastry chef. Dubois opened Passion last year in what appears to be a less than attractive location in Wan Chai's Amoy Street, but which nevertheless attracts about 650 customers a day - double what Dubois anticipated.
With plans to open more branches, Passion is the icing on the cake of what should be regarded as no less than a baking empire. From its three factories in Hong Kong, Dongguan and the Philippines, Dubois exports to 41 countries, including much of Europe. He is a Hong Kong-based Swiss chef sending macarons to Paris.
How did he do it? When he went on his first sales trip to Paris he brought his samples with him. A potential client asked, "Where's your factory?"
"Let's talk about that later," he recalls. "For now please try the product".