Philippe Bel – a Meillieur Ouvrier de France in search of truth and new products

I am staying with a host family in Lyon. The other day, the matron of the house said Philippe Bel is the best chocolatier in Lyon.

It’s a real pleasure to have a compliment like that. Wherever I go, Japan and elsewhere, when I hear that, it’s great. It’s been 2 years since we opened our boutique in Lyon. What I miss is that I can’t be in Lyon all the time. Here in Montbrison, I can come out of the laboratory and meet the clients in 5 minutes. I can’t do that with the clients who come to the boutique in Lyon. For Easter, I was at the store in Lyon, and people were really happy to see me. That was so nice.

We opened this boutique in June 2006. Before I was working for 8 years at chocolatier Weiss in St Etienne. I arrived in 1997 there to work in confisery, then after I was given the responsibility of chocolaterie because I worked with coco beans. So I worked with coco beans, and then bonbon de chocolat. While I was at Weiss, I entered the competition for Meilleur Ouvriers de France (MOF) and I received the distinction in 2004. Before I worked in a chocolatier at Lenôtre in Paris for 7 – 8 years between 1990 and 1997. I was responsible for about 20 persons. Before I was working in a small artisanal chocolatier called Les Frères on Champs-Elysées. And prior to that I was working in a boutique in Cannes for 8 years. Me I’ve always worked in chocolatiers. I worked a little with pastries during my apprenticeship, but I worked immediately after with chocolateries. Because before I started my apprenticeship. I had a chance to be introduced to Cacao Barry and I had a chance to work there for 1 month before my apprenticeship.

How old were you when you started at Cacao Barry?

Around 15 years old.

That’s young.

Yes, it’s young. And during my apprenticeship, I did 5 rotations, patisserie, viennoise, hot food, ice cream, chocolate. And I did well in ice cream and chocolate. So I found a job immediately with a chocolatier and I continued. I’m lucky because it’s a material I work well with.

Apprenticeship really doesn’t exist in the US.

At the time, it wasn’t like the way things are today. You were in school two days a week, one for general purpose, and the second day you went to the pastry school. The rest of the time, you were always at the patron’s. Everyday, Saturday, Sunday, you worked.

How many hours did you work?

It was a lot (lol). I started at 6 am and finished in the evening. I worked from Wednesday until Sunday. Tuesday and Monday afternoon I didn’t work, but Tuesdays I was in school. Sundays I worked from 1 am or 2 am till noon, and Saturdays from 5 am until 4 pm.

1 am?

Yes. And the rest of the days you start at 6 am and finish at 6 pm. Today apprenticeship is not like that. Things have changed in France.

You have a 35 hour week regulation.

It’s catastrophic. It’s in the head. People don’t want to work. They want to work only half the time and have money. It doesn’t exist.

So you opened this boutique after you won the MOF.

Yes, about one year after. I wanted to stay with Weiss because there were lots of things to do. But at the time, the director was a bit of a problematic person, and I preferred to leave. So I opened my boutique here.

This is the sculpture I made for MOF.


Can you speak a bit more about MOF, what you have to do, how long it takes.

From the time you apply, between the selection and the final, it takes about one year.

For application, do you need some recommendation letters, specific qualifications?

No, but you have to be aware of what you don’t know and what you haven’t mastered yet. It’s not something you go into lightly. Usually you are being advised by other professionals. You have to go find the advice from different people, but you can’t ask just anybody because you don’t necessarily get along with everyone. People want to help you. In the end you have to have your own personality and your own experiences with the products because every chocolatier has different palette, different visual perception, esthetics. So you have to maintain your own personality, while mastering the maximum of the basics, whether it’s praline, almond paste, ganache, … all the products.

What is the procedure after one is selected?

You have a program to present the products, also an artistic piece. It lasts for one day where you work in front of people. You make all the products for the people and for the juries.

Where does it take place, in Paris?

It depends. It can be in Paris, in the provinces, different workshop, professional schools, places like that. The finals are 3 days of work in front of the juries. And that is a bit tough because you have to do all the preparations on the spot. There is the artistic piece that you have to do on the spot. So it’s 3 days of work truly stressful, because there are the juries next to you. You have to be organized, neat and clean, always smiling and likable because if you don’t have control, it shows you haven’t mastered the work. So you have to master everything. Master that, and you’ve mastered your work.

How does it work if you have to do, for instance confiserie?

You have to bring all the ingredients. Before the competition, there is a document to say everything that you are bringing. And you transform all that on the spot. You bring all the material, everything. So if you forget something, it’s catastrophic. So you have to think, organize. You also have to prepare a book with a recipe. You have to explain how you will prepare, how you came to the idea of the piece, why you chose to do things certain ways, explain one’s impression, the technique to be applied.

Normally how many people are there?

It depends. I entered the competition twice. There are about 20 people who enter the competition. The first year, there were 5 finalists and one MOF recipient. The second time, there were 8 finalists and 3 winners.

Who are the juries?

They are comprised of MOF chocolatiers, patissiers, glaciers. There are also professionals who are not MOF, but well known in their profession. And sometimes there are professors from pastry schools. It’s the President who selects the juries.

How many MOF chocolatiers are there?

There are 18 now. [editor's note: The interview took place before the MOF 2011. Currently there are 19 MOF chocolatiers.] Here is a photo with all the MOF chocolatiers.

This here is Thierry Altlan. He used to work under me at Le Notre, and I assisted him when he was doing the competition. The evening the decision was made, he was with me, and Saturday or Sunday, I went to help him to prepare. He was my witness at my wedding, so he is a real friend. My friend. Thierry, when he won the title said to me, “next time, it’s your turn. You can, you are capable of doing it.” Now he works as a consultant. He was working also as a consultant at Lenôtre.

This is Jean-Pierre Richard, here is Frank Kestner, Fabrice Gillot, Nicolas Cloiseau, Olivier Vidal, … Here is Eduard Hirsinger, in Arbois in Jura. He is a really nice boy. He comes from 4 generations of chocolatiers. I like him very much. And here in the back is Philippe Bel, a little hidden. (lol)

What are the specialties at Philippe Bel?

Everything is special here – (lol) no, I don’t know. I don’t have any specialties to speak of. In comparison to the other chocolatiers, I partially make my own courverture. Also, I only sell what I make. Almond paste, orangette, everything that is sold, there is no sweetners. I don’t buy praline, almond paste, things like that. Hot chocolate, everything is made here.

How many types of bonbon de chocolate do you offer?

Between 25 and 30. After that I have about 20 different products, pate de fruits, marshmallows, a little selection of pastries, caramels with sel de fleur, chocolat, vanilla … I always make my caramel very soft because it melts in the mouth right away.

Did you taste my bonbon with yuzu and caramel? The yuzu comes from Japan. I get if from a supplier is in Paris. I never make something with 100% yuzu because it’s too acidic. It’s too strong. I like yuzu very much. Actually it’s my favorite creation at the moment. Really, I adore yuzu. The milk chocolate and the caramel hide the acidity a little.

How many new products do you introduce normally?

Last year there was the ginger, yuzu, and several others.

Do you like to mix a lot of ingredients?

I want to say I am a little traditional. I don’t make my chocolates only for myself. I make them for people who buy them to enjoy. So I make 2 or 3 items that are a little original. I did a study, when I was at Weiss, I was in R&D. People like original products, but in the end they like a good ganache. Good taste of cacao. There are patissier who mix several tastes, but it’s too complicated. People don’t like to think about what they eat. They eat what they like. There are those who do only the degustation (tasting), and there are those who eat for pleasure. When you have a good glass of whisky, you like it because it’s good. Same with wine. You don’t want to think about what you are enjoying.

In your opinion, how come there are better chocolates than others?

I don’t know. Why are there restaurant than another? It depends on the person who makes it, it depends on the spirit, the palette, the way in which you put the ingredients together, I don’t know. I like certain things better than others. It’s the clients who decide what they like, what is better or not.

But you won the MOF.

Yes, but that’s not why I am better.

What I want to say is you have certain gift. What is your talent?

I don’t know, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know if I am talented. I don’t know. I can’t say, I’m not someone with an ego who says, “I’m good, I’m good.” I don’t say that. I don’t know, I don’t know. I like working, I like what I’m doing. It gives me pleasure, when I do something, when I come up with a recipe, I think about it for a week. It’s an inspiration with an ingredients. For instance yuzu, I make it, why? Because last year I was in Japan and knew about this product. I had no idea how to work with it. But last year when I was in Japan I asked for typical Japanese ingredients. There were a lot of things, ginger, sake, matcha (green tea). But everyone is already using matcha. I received 6 or 7 bottle of sake. But I found sake to be too sweet for my taste. With yuzu, immediately I thought of caramel. It came very easily. I think it’s that, when I have an idea in my head, and find an ingredient, it’s what I like to do. More than talent, it is more the pleasure I have with the ingredients.

How do you characterize yourself?

I don’t know. I want, for sure, I want to be pleasant and kind. That is for sure. That is the only thing that I am sure of. That I really like. Otherwise, I’m passionate maybe. But not too excessive in my passion either because with everything else, when it is too much, it becomes spoiled. You have to pay attention. I like my wife Cecile very much, but I have to pay attention. (lol)

I also like the truth. There are people who do things that bother me. Like the chocolatier there who buys half of the products already made. He covers them (enrobe) with chocolate, and calls himself chocolatier.  That – that bothers me. Truth, sincerity. Voila. If you eat my product, you will be able to tell. It’s mine.

33 rue Tupinerie, Montbrison, Tel: 04 77 586 690

27 rue Tupin, Lyon, Tel: 04 78 428 794 © All rights reserved

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