Pâtissier-chocolatier Sébastien Bouillet’s global views

You were a pâtissier (pastry maker) before becoming a chocolatier (a chocolate maker)

Yes, I have always made both: pastries and chocolates.

Your family was a pâtissier.

Yes, my father was a pâtissier. Now he’s stopped working and I have taken over the business. He set up his shop here in 1977. I came back to Lyon in 2000 to change things a little, and things have evolved since. When I arrived, we were 8, and now we are around 40. Today we have 4 boutiques in Lyon plus a pastry school.

What do you think is the reason for your success?

We always strive to satisfy our customers, develop new products, and think of ways to please the customer. I think people are sensitive to that. We try to make products that are ​​modern. We try to give maximum amount of happiness to our customers, to be full of generosity. I think that’s what makes our pastries works well.

We also owe our success and expansion to specific circumstances. First there is a trend in Lyon for modern pastries. We are also located in Croix Rousse, an area that has experienced a tremendous boom. Before this area used to be rundown, but now the area has become “bobo” and trendy. The real estate prices have exploded.

There are significant activities in gastronomy in Croix Rousse. There is a big market in the square in front of us that sells cheese, meat, fish, bread … so consequently we are situated in the right place. Plus Lyon is a city of “bouffe”, we like to eat well.

Have you retained some family recipes?

No, I have changed almost everything. It was with the permission from my parents. We had two solutions: to continue with what we had or to change. I had the fortune to be trained in grandes maisons, in important establishments in Paris, in Aix en Provence, in Val d’Isère by good professionals. So I tried to incorporate everything I’ve learnt in my own way into our business.

When I came back to Lyon, I said to my father, “I am going to change a little.” We changed 80% to 90%, and it became 100% in the end. My father was very intelligent and said to me, “Ok, it works so no problem.” There is hardly anything left from the past. I was lucky that it worked out because it hadn’t, he might have slapped me on my wrist and said, “What I was doing was working well. Why did you have to change it?”

How did you study making chocolates?

I did a CAP and 2 years of apprenticeship afterwards. Then I went around everywhere to be trained. First I went to Patrick Chevallot in Val d’Isère,  a Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Then for the following 3 years, I trained in Aix en Provence at another Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Philippe Segond. And after, I went to Paris. I worked at a traiteur just outside of Paris, and for 2 years as a chef pâtissier at Gérard Mulot in St Germain des Prés. It’s a well-known maison that used to also maintain a boutique in Japan. Then I came back to Lyon.

What kind of chocolates do you like?

I like slightly bitter ones, like 75% Peruvian, ganache, praliné. When I taste the chocolates at other chocolatiers, I often take the praliné because I like them. Each chocolatier has his distinct characteristic in their praliné. How they cook these pastes, how they are caramelized, some more than others, with slightly different almonds and hazelnuts … this is what I like. Then the ganaches, plain, others that have hint of tea, coffee, flowers, things like that. Then the tablets. I also like certain milk chocolates. Right now, we have some milk chocolate from Switzerland made with Swiss cream that has a very pronounced taste of milk. I like that too.

Who are the chocolatiers you admire and love?

There are many! I like Fabrice Gillote in Dijon. I like him as a person too; he is a good friend. Then there is Patrick Roger who is completely crazy whom I adore. He has an inimitable style. He always has crazy sculptures in his boutiques; he has a true persona. People like Jean-Paul Hévin who is also a friend. Then there are plenty of chocolatiers everywhere. I have a friend in Nice, Pascal Lac who makes very good chocolates, Vincent Guerlais in Nantes, Edouard Hirsinger in Jura in Arbois who still makes chocolates with creams he picks up from the village. I like people who are slightly particular and who goes a bit out of their way to look for things than what is in front of them. That’s what I like in pastries and chocolates. A positive thing that is happening in our profession is that there is a lot of exchanges and sharing among the professionals.

I am good friends with Christophe Michalak. Have you seen his blog? He goes around to visit his patissier friends, and his blog allows the rest of us to discover things. Today, there is no longer the kind of boundaries that used to exist. Before patissiers used to be secretive of their recipes. We have become more open, due also to associations like Relais Desserts.

Thanks to people like Christophe Michalak, the patissier community started receiving the attentions from the media. He is to the pastry world what Paul Bocuse is to the culinary world. He got out of the kitchen and started appearing on TV. He became known to the entire community, and we all benefit from that. The public identifies when one person gets up and speaks. For instance, when Christophe speaks about macaron, someone might come to Lyon and say, “Well, at Bouillet, they also make macaron,” because they have seen the television program.

I know that you have a boutique in Japan.

I was lucky because the opportunity allowed me to discover Japan. I go there 3 to 4 times a year and I now have many friends who are cooks and patissiers in Tokyo and elsewhere. I love Japan. I love the culture in general. It allowed me to exchange many things with Japan. It’s great!

It seems there are a lot of chocolatiers in Japan.

Yes, actually there are too many! In my opinion, the market is already a bit saturated. Recently, I noticed that in Japan, there are less and less French pastry makers who are making French pastries. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but the Japanese pastry makers have reached an exceptional level. In the past, we used to say that the Japanese pastry makers knew how to make beautiful cakes, but not good cakes. Now, there are beautiful and good cakes. There are many examples, Aigre-Douce, Nori Terai, Paris s’éveille, … there are enormous amount of Japanese patissiers who are capable of the level that even we don’t possess in France.

A place like Pâtisserie Aigre-Douce. I don’t know if you know Terai-san in Shinjuku. He makes pastries of exceptional level, traditional French pastries that is slightly reworked. It’s really good.

When you are new to Japan, everyone is happy at first and says “Hey, a new French pastry shop!” And then after, we see yet another new one, and another. This is why I say in the future, it will become difficult for us. For the moment, we don’t complain. Things are ok. But economically, it has been difficult since 2 or 3 years. Of course it was already difficult before, but now ever more so.

I do not know how things will turn out economically speaking. Will they bounce back with everything that has happened to them? Is it going to return to normal with the strength they have, or is it going to be the opposite, an economic disaster? It is not clear.

Why did you decide to enter the Japanese market?

In the beginning, we started to ship chocolates to Isetan for Salon du chocolat. Then my partner, who has a number of companies in Japan said, “We can introduce the Bouillet brand in Japan.” We were lucky to have been invited to Isetan at first, and we opened a shop. Last September, we opened at Seibu. Now we have two points of sales, and a laboratory which is at the Aomori station.

You have a laboratory in Japan?

Yes, since the beginning. We’ve had it since May of 2008. We don’t send anything from France. Everything is made in Japan. It’s great for me. It was hard in the beginning because you have to put the team in place, make the recipes, and train the people. But now, it’s great because at least we got rid of the problem with the transport. There are 7 in the laboratory.

What is your sales volume in Japan?

This year, maybe a little over one million euros? With the new boutique, between 1 and 1 ½ million. You sell quickly in Japan. There are a lot of people in the department stores.

That’s a good figure.

It’s not bad. But it’s small in comparison to the others. For us, it’s very good because 3 or 4 years ago, no one knew us in Japan. We are becoming to be known. I also do demonstrations in schools and elsewhere. I am very happy because bringing things to Japan really helps us to evolve our products. There are enormous amounts of ideas in the areas of gifts, presentation …

Do you make different chocolates for Japan?

Yes, we adapt to the market. In the beginning, we were producing almost the same products, but we’ve changed slightly. When a chocolatier goes to Japan only once a year, the Japanese customers want to discover the French chocolate that comes from France. But if you are there all the time, they want French but with a little touch of Japan. So we have mixed the tastes. We make French pastries with a Japanese accent.

Aside from using ingredients like cherry, shiso, etc, do you alter the recipe because the Japanese usually prefer less sweet taste than the French.

Yes, we adapt. We already try to make things that are less sweet in France because I don’t like sugar too much either. We know very well that the Japanese eat less sugar, so we adapted all the recipes. Right now, we are working a lot on gifts cakes. The gifts make up a large turnover throughout the year. In Japan, the big seasons for patissiers are Valentine’s Day and White Day, and then after, there are two other occasions. We make great efforts to find new ideas for the gifts.

You really have a good understanding of Japan.

Yes? That’s what they say …

You are the only chocolatier from Lyon who has a boutique there.

Yes. I go to the Salon du chocolat with Philippe Bernachon, a friend of mine, in January, but for the moment, I am the only one from Lyon in Japan. It feels good to represent Lyon. (laugh)

You know, sometimes in life, it’s like that. I was given an opportunity and I took it. And I hope it will last as long as possible because honestly I really like going to Japan and working there. Things are always well organized there. You see, I told you our appointment is at 2 pm and you are here at 2 pm. This morning I had another appointment with a French journalist who was scheduled to come at 11 am, and he arrived at 11:30 am. It’s not a big deal. I have things to do so it’s ok. But in Japan, everything is in order. There are no surprises. I don’t know if I can live there all the time, but to go there 3 or 4 times a year is great. It’s something else.

We have a feeling of being a lot freer, less stress. It’s funny because life in Tokyo is quite stressful. It’s noisy and crowded. But everything is calculated. There’s no room for improvisation. If we go to eat at 6 in the evening, the meeting is set in stone. I really like that about Japan. It might sound silly, but at the airport, when the plane arrives, all the customs are open. If you arrive at Roissy (Paris airport), there could be 1,000 people waiting, but only 2 customs agents will be working because all others are on a break or eating. There is a discipline, a sense of civic duty, which is enormous in Japan. The respect they have for others.

A part from Japan, have you visited many other countries?

Yes, I travel a lot because I do a good amount of consultancy. In the States, in New Jersey, I worked for a small company that was launched last year. They opened a small store in Brooklyn. They make macarons, cupcakes and cookies, a little bit like the French, but 100% kosher. We are undercover. The name Bouillet doesn’t appear anywhere. We just help the company, we teach them the recipes from A to Z, and we go there 3 times a year to help them improve. It’s just consulting. We also do the same in Kuwait near Dubai. Otherwise, I also train people in France an abroad, but not too much because I have a lot of work here in Lyon with my boutiques.

What do you think about the Americans?

I think that we don’t have the same culinary culture, actually. For me the Americans have less refined taste. It’s coarse because they didn’t have a culture for food to begin with. Although they produce exceptional meat. The best meat I’ve eaten was in the States. I ate some very good stakes at steakhouses in New York.

You know New York?

Yes, I like it a lot. My chocolates are inspired by New York because I really love the city. But it is true that in terms of taste, they have less finesse. Although now there are cooks like Thomas Keller who make great food. But it’s less compared with Japan. In Japan there is a real food culture as in France. In the U.S., it’s more basic.

Yet terroir (local food) exists. People often say the country has no food culture because it has no terroir. But in the States, there is terroir because there is meat, cream, fruits, and vegetables. Perhaps it’s not in their genes, I don’t know. Maybe things will change.

What works in the U.S. is Godiva. It’s incredible because there are Godiva stores all over the United States. Americans know only Godiva except in New York where there are people like Jacques Torres or Francois Payard who managed to do well. It’s complicated.

Why, in a city like New York, there is almost no French pastry? How come Pierre Hermé never managed to succeed in New York? Or Lenôtre or Fauchon? No one has made it. The only ones I know who managed to succeed are François Payard, a friend of mine, and Jacques Torres, who works well with chocolate.

New York, for me, is not the United States. It’s a bit different; it is extremely diverse, and there are many tourists from all over the world. It’s weird. There must be a reason! All the important pastry chefs in the US are in the hotels where there are lots of tourists, like Jean-Philippe Maury and Stéphane Treand. But there is no American city where there are French pastries with American clients, at least none that I know of. Even with Christopher and Paulette, the macarons are not doing well, maybe because Americans don’t understand why a macaron would cost $ 1.5 or $ 2, when they can have a much bigger cookie for the same price! That’s also in their mindset.

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