Paris, 4:30 A.M. These cold, dark hours belong only to Metro conductors, street cleaners and the diligent bakers who prepare baguettes and croissants for sleepy Parisians. Only one thing got me out from under my blanket at such an ungodly hour: the lure of a visit to the laboratory of one of the most important culinary institutions in Paris, if not in the entire world — the elite Fauchon gourmet food chain.
Almost 130 years have passed since an ambitious young man arrived in Paris from Normandy and walked around the city peddling fresh fruits and vegetables, the finest produce from his home region, out of a wagon. In 1886 Auguste Felix Fauchon parked his cart in Place de la Madeleine, across from the Adier delicatessen (which still exists). None of the young greengrocer’s customers could have dreamed that 100 years later everyone in the city would know the name Fauchon, whose humble cart would grow into one of the most famous gourmet food shops in Paris and worldwide.
The circle of regular clients included presidents, the royal family of Monaco and the Shah of Iran (who reportedly bought over three tons of goods each month). Today Fauchon has dozens of branches the world over, but the store on Place de la Madeleine is still the most famous, a magnet for foodies everywhere, who come to buy or even just to look at the working culinary museum called Fauchon.
Fauchon has stepped up its international expansion in recent years, and this week the chain’s first branch in Israel is set to open, in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market. Fauchon’s marketing team estimates that by the end of 2017 there will be around 100 outlets around the world. Six stores are set to open in 2015 alone.
The Sarona venture won’t be the only Fauchon project in Israel: A “laboratory” is being built in Rishon Letzion, for the preparation of desserts and other items, and catering services and points of sale are already in the planning stages.
Fauchon’s flagship store in Paris’ Place de la Madeleine became famous thanks to the high quality of its goods, which came from all over the world. Customers made “pilgrimages” to buy exotic delicacies from distant lands which at the time were unavailable anywhere else in the city, such as avocados, kiwis and Chilean cherries. In 1895 Fauchon opened a patisserie, and since then the leading pastry chefs have worked there, some of whom later opened their own shops. Pierre Herme, Sebastien Godard and Christophe Adam are among the leading pastry chefs in Paris who got there start in the Fauchon bakery.
Visitors, especially those with cameras, are usually kept out of the bakery and chocolate workshop, which is rightfully called a “laboratory”: Ingredients are weighed out exactly, while precision instruments are used for cutting and shaping. Nearly every pot has a thermometer, and the beeping of oven timers is almost the only sound to interrupt the silence. Baking and chocolate-making is a world of chemistry, of precision and technology, and precision in this area is especially typical of France.
Patrick Pailler is only 30 and already presides over a staff of 22 workers who daily create hundreds of desserts for elite gourmet shops. At the age of 16 he began learning pastry making, and since coming to Fauchon at 18 he rose through the ranks until becoming the chief pastry chef about a year ago. There are many outstanding patisseries in Paris today, some of them considered more sophisticated than Fauchon, but many have pastry chefs who trained at Fauchon.
The work is carried out with exemplary quiet. Trainees and pastry chefs stand side by side, like an orchestra playing in perfect harmony. One fills a chocolate éclair and the second heats fondant for the icing. One dips the éclair and with endless patience cleans the edges so that the icing will be perfect, and another scatters gold-dyed cacao beans over the fondant and gently puts the chocolate square in place.
Pailler invites me to the baking room. There are items that require cold and dry conditions, and therefore the heavy baking ovens are in another room, where they are working on the croissants and other baked goods
“At the moment we’re putting the colored croissants into the oven,” he says. “This is a relatively new product that combines two types of dough, one of an ordinary croissant and the second with a specific flavor, for example pistachio in green dough.” Row upon row the croissants are placed on trays, waiting like soldiers for their turn to be baked.
While his workers are creating the familiar desserts, Pailler is developing two new desserts with his sous chef, which I get to taste before they go on sale for the first time. This is an exciting experience for me, one reason being that my opinion will be important to Pailler, who only now is beginning to gather reactions to his new creations. He treats them like his children.
With delicate but confident touches he and the sous chef assemble the new orange tart, from the base of cookie dough, rich orange cream, caramelized hazelnuts and a terrific vanilla and orange mousse. Occasionally a worker approaches with a question or a request, but nobody but Pailler and his sous chef touches the new desserts.
The second new item, which will makes its debut in the display window in three hours, is one of the tastiest desserts here: a baba au rhum éclair. Refreshing the dessert collection every few months is at the foundation of the Parisian pastry scene. Almost all the highly regarded pastry chefs in the City of Lights work by collections, like the fashion industry.
Pailler says the Tel Aviv branch will have an Israeli staff, trained by a Fauchon pastry chef. The idea is that 80 percent of the desserts created there will be identical to those made in Paris, and 20 percent will be local creations, suited to Israeli ingredients and the local palate. This combination is typical of Fauchon, which makes sure to preserve the Parisian tradition but also to make room to local ingredients, the public’s taste and the ideas of the local staff. For example, in Thailand they sell a coconut éclair and in Japan the chef invented a croissant that includes colored dough in different flavors. This croissant was adopted by the French lab and today is one of the most popular pastries in the Parisian store. It will be interesting to follow local developments in Israel.
A madeleine moment
Pailler leaves the new pastries and signals for me to join him in the oven room. The croissants are already baked, and next to them are madeleines, in a variety of flavors. The little cake is as central to French identity as the chocolate-chip cookie is to Americans, an important afternoon snack with tea or hot chocolate. Fauchon makes it in flavors that include caramel, chocolate and raspberry, in various colors and with fillings to match. They’re delicious and addictive when they emerge from the oven.
The preparation of the desserts is almost over. Soon they will be loaded onto company trucks, headed for the store on Place de la Madeleine. Thousands of tourists and locals will visit the store, and they won’t stop taking pictures. At the same time the staff will begin to prepare for the following day, when they will once again meet early in the morning, at the same ungodly hour, while most Parisians are still sound asleep.
Sharon Heinrich is a pastry chef who lives and works in Paris, and writes the blog Paris Chez Sharon
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