In the weeks leading up to Christmas in Paris, all is fair in love and pastry.
In late October, Cédric Grolet—the photogenic and bemedaled Paris pastry chef—posted a snapshot on Instagram of himself holding an enormous St. Honoré cake. Likes: 76,522. On the same day, Cyril Lignac—an equally camera-ready and celebrated Paris chef—posted a closeup of a mille-feuille on Instagram. Likes: 30,632. Meanwhile, over on the official account of Pierre Hermé—at 60 years old the paterfamilias of French pastry—vivid green pistachio macarons. Likes: 11,950 and counting.
Paris has well over a thousand pâtisseries, and the vast majority are good, if not excellent. But in every generation, a handful of pâtissiers rise to the top.
Louis-Ernest Ladurée (1836–1904), Auguste Fauchon (1856–1939), and Gaston Lenôtre (1920–2009) remain, even now, household names. Jostling at the pinnacle of the pyramid today, Grolet, Lignac, and Hermé are joined by Philippe Conticini, Yann Couvreur, Jean-Paul Hévin, Christophe Michalak, and François Perret. (Yes, they’re still all men, though that’s changing.) Each has his own well-appointed shop. A few, such as Hermé, preside over small empires—with outposts in London and Tokyo. Some, such as Michalak, star in exceedingly popular television shows.
But while the styles and business approaches of these culinary stars vary, they have embraced social media with a unanimous fervor. Their followers number in the millions, which has made a competition international that was long intramural, and in the process—some complain—transformed a centuries-old tradition.
Pierre Hermé’s La Cerise sur le Gâteau Pâtissiers have always been celebrities in France. The country’s two major newspapers, Le Monde and Le Figaro, lavish attention on each season’s new cakes, dissecting them with the same attention they give new clothing lines during fashion week. The chefs appear regularly on television talk shows and, increasingly, on red carpets. It’s no wonder that Paris’s famed palace hotels make every effort to hire them; François Perret recently opened a “boutique,” Le Comptoir, at the Paris Ritz to much fanfare. Grolet has held court out of Le Meurice since 2011. But social media has brought Paris’s pastry chefs international celebrity. Legions of new aficionados now chime in from around the world about each creation, and the chefs have responded with astonishing artistic and culinary energy. They have also upped their production values, replacing blurry snapshots with professionally styled photos and intricately composed videos. At no time is the competition for attention more fierce than in the weeks leading up to Christmas. “The French are crazy about pastry,” Jérémie Robert, consul général de France, explained in a recent phone call. “A good meal in France must end with a pastry, and a Christmas meal with ‘la bûche.’ ” He was referring to la bûche de Noël, the log-shaped cake traditionally eaten for dessert on Christmas Eve. Knowing the public’s appetite for this staple, the chefs carefully orchestrate the bûche rollouts starting in November. Much as Hollywood staggers its pre–Oscar season releases, secret deals are made to guarantee that no two maestros unveil their cakes on the same day. The clustering effect creates a frenzy, and for the last two months of the year Paris is consumed by “une vraie folie de pâtisserie.” Just as the pâtissiers’ shops are eponymous, so are their styles and specialties distinct. Hermé is known for his generous use of rosewater and the richness of his chocolate. Michalak is adored for his flavor combinations, such as whiskey, chestnut, and chocolate, and for his boyish charisma. Grolet is revered for his artistic buttercream renditions of fruit and flowers. Each is quick to tell you that his relationships with the others are collegial. “We are friends and passionate people,” Michalak says. “But it is undeniable that competition adds fuel to the fire. And the competition is very strong in Paris.” Some observers worry that the digital craze for French pastry may end up altering the craft beyond recognition, but traditionalists take heart in the fact that pâtisserie remains deeply rooted in culture. The French famously adhere to the rituals of celebration, and certain pastries are meant to be eaten at certain times. Therefore, les bûches are made only at Christmastime. Similarly, the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 invariably comes to a close with a galette des rois, a round of buttery, flaky layers of puff pastry with a frangipane filling, in which there is always a buried “treasure.” The first day of May is marked by the sudden appearance of cakes with candied lilies of the valley. Weddings and baptisms are not complete without a croquembouche, a towering pyramid of pastry puffs held precariously together by impossibly thin threads of caramel. The question, according to the pâtissiers I spoke to, is not whether they will stay true to tradition—that’s a given. It’s how they will simultaneously create something daring and altogether delicious. I asked Perret if making new bûche is the same as a clothing designer reinventing the little black dress. “Exactement!” he replied. “Working within set rules often requires the most ingenuity.”
Christophe Michalak’s Mangue When I lived in Paris as a child, our pâtisserie was the great Maison Mulot, on Rue de Seine. I remember going there with my father one early November day to place an order for our bûche de Noël. In line in front of me, an elegant woman—long cashmere coat, a satchel purse held lightly in her hand—was placing an order for a chestnut bûche. “That,” said my father after we’d left the shop, “was Catherine Deneuve.” For Parisians, shopping for a pâtisserie is not something one delegates. I thought about such sightings recently when I stopped by Michalak’s boutique near St.-Germain-des-Prés. It is gleaming and modern but also familiar, a place where any Parisian would feel at home. Later, in a phone conversation, I asked Michalak about the new digital pastry groupies. “They come from all over the world and often buy one of each pastry in the shop,” he said. “They create buzz, but my loyal and local clientele is less than 0.1 percent of my million Instagram followers.” This story appears in the December 2021/ January 2022 issue of Town & Country.