PIERRE HERMÉ INSTRUCTS me to taste one of his macarons. I do, gladly, even though it's always awkward to eat during an interview. But it helps that he's in Paris, at La Maison Pierre Hermé, his atelier near Parc Monceau in a posh area of the 17th arrondissement, and I'm in Hong Kong.
We're speaking by video conference, and he and his Hong Kong team, established for the opening last Saturday of his shop in the IFC, watch as I taste one of his newest creations, the Celeste, a lovely, vivid combination of rhubarb, strawberry and passion fruit flavours sandwiched between two macaron shells have been coated with lustre dust, which gives them a beautiful, glowing shimmer. He describes the perfect macaron, as he sees it, and it is exactly what I am tasting.
"The outside must be a very thin, crisp layer with an inside that is moist and tender. The flavours are very precise. The texture [of my macarons] is very physical - sometimes I put small pieces [of an ingredient] into the filling so you can see, feel and taste. The macaron Celeste has two fillings."
It's safe to say that without Hermé, the macaron gerbet (to give it its full name, to differentiate it from the many other types of macarons) would not be nearly as famous as it is today. Even people from outside France who know nothing of other pastry shops have probably heard of at least two establishments renowned for their macarons: Ladurée (for whom Hermé worked as a consultant in the late 1990s) and Pierre Hermé Paris.
Hermé wasn't the first to make the macaron as we know it (precisely when it was invented, and by whom, is in dispute), but he re-invented and modernised it. At its most basic, the macaron is just a small "sandwich" of two smooth biscuits made with egg whites, ground almonds and sugar paired together with a flavoured filling. But Hermé makes it in innovative flavours such as olive oil and vanilla; green tea, chanterelle mushrooms and lemon; lime, raspberry and espelette pepper; rose and ambergris; mint, cucumber and arugula; and - probably his most famous - the Ispahan (raspberry, lychee and rose).
He's created about 250 macaron flavour combinations, which are constantly being introduced at his shops in themed "collections" such as the current "Les Jardins". This includes morello cherry, lemon and tonka bean; lemon and caramelised fennel; grapefruit, clove and nutmeg; chocolate and honey from the Maquis shrubland; and caramel and rose.
Some of the macaron flavours are available only for a limited time, with about 12 types sold in the shop at any one time. Often, the macaron flavour combinations morph into other products, such as the Ispahan cake, Ispahan granola, Ispahan Saint Honore and Ispahan sorbet.
"When I learned to make macarons [in 1976], there were only four flavours - vanilla, chocolate, coffee and raspberry," he explains. "We would stick these two biscuits together with a very little bit of ganache or buttercream. I thought it was too sweet at the time. In the 1980s, I decided to create more flavours, and worked on the textures in the filling, and sometimes I used different coloured biscuits," he adds.
Hermé was born in 1961 in Colmar, in the Alsace region of France, and is the fourth generation of his family to be a pastry chef. But it was his apprenticeship at the age of 14 with the renowned Gaston Lenôtre that Hermé credits for giving him the solid base in classic pastries that allowed him to be so creative.
"My father gave me the passion [for working with pastry] that has stayed with me. Gaston Lenôtre gave me the opportunity to work in a very professional environment, and I was able to see what it was like to work with a lot of attention to detail. He was already making many changes in the profession, lots of variety. He was very concerned and interested in making flavours and textures evolve.
"I've always had the desire and yearning to learn. I've always been curious, and this has allowed me to develop a lot in my art and my work. After the curiosity comes the desire to know more about the ingredients - it's important to know who makes them - and all the techniques that apply in developing more in the field [of pastry]."
Hermé went on to work as a pasty chef for Fauchon, one of the ultimate fine food emporiums, then as a consultant for Ladurée. But it wasn't until 1998 that he opened a shop under his own name, in Tokyo . This was followed by his first Paris branch in 2001. His company now has about 450 employees working at 31 shops in France, England, Japan, Dubai, and Hong Kong.
Hermé works with a team to create new desserts and macaron flavours, and to refine the classics such as the mille-feuille and tarte au citron.
"I imagine things in my head and then write them down and draw the product. I then ask my team to make tests, and through this, we sit down and taste and there are some adjustments made to finalise it. When I create a pastry or cake, I think first of the flavour, then I think of the textures and decoration that will create the final dessert.
"My creativity is based on my desires, what I like, inspiration that comes from products, ingredients, emotions, a conversation, an exchange with someone," he says. "This brings new ideas, and they get transferred into a bigger idea. Often, it can begin with one ingredient, for example olive oil is interesting and through a series of experiences - one being a trip to Italy where I tasted cookies made with olive oil - it made me think about how I can use it.
"Then I found an olive oil that had a slight flavour of vanilla. I had already started to use olive oil [in my desserts] but pushed it further, and this led me to create a macaron with olive oil and vanilla. With this, I had the idea to put three small pieces of olive inside, which is very different from mixing it in with the filling. The sharpness and texture created by the pieces, rather than being blended in, contrasts much greater with the sweetness and silkiness [of the filling] and there's a better balance of flavours," he says.
Another of his famous macarons is made with white truffle and hazelnut, and is available only in the winter, when the expensive fungus is in season. "White truffle is usually used as an ingredient that's grated on eggs or pasta or rice. It's a condiment, and in that sense can be used as a sweet or salty [flavour]. I decided to combine it with another famous ingredient from the Piedmont region, which is the hazelnut. It really was a long thorough process that pushed the limits of using certain products within a macaron."
Most of Hermé's shops - including, sadly for us, the one in Hong Kong - sell a limited range of products. These include the macarons, chocolates, biscuits and tea cakes, as well as the range of jams made specifically for the chef by his childhood friend, Christine Ferber, from Niedermorschwihr, in Alsace. "No fresh pastries," the chef says, which means none of his delicious ice creams are here. Some of these are made - in Paris and Tokyo - into the ultimate ice cream sandwich, the neatly titled Miss Gla'Gla.
"The macarons and chocolates are made at a manufacturing laboratory in Alsace, then they're shipped to the shops in France, the UK, Japan, Dubai and Hong Kong. Some pastry products are made in Japan, others are produced in Paris, but these are not shippable," he says.
The chef's creativity has inspired accolades such as "the Picasso of pastry" and "the Dior of desserts".
"The 'Picasso of pastry' was [given to me] in 1994 by Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue magazine. He's one of the gastronomic writers I appreciate the most. I was very honoured by his reference - I think his reference to Picasso was because he was so prolific and diverse. These are all nice qualifying words, and I take them as encouragement. They encourage me to be continuously more creative and to be different, but it's not necessarily the be all and end all."
Pierre Hermé Paris is at shop 1019C, Podium Level One, IFC Mall, Central, tel: 2833 5700
Pierre Hermé has a book signing on May 30 from 2.30pm-4.30pm at Palace Bookshop, shop 1058-1059, Podium Level One, IFC Mall, Central, tel: 2167 7337