Frédéric Cassel: the president of Relais Desserts and the father of the maison in Fontainbleau

I spent an afternoon at Frédéric Cassel’s Salon du the in Fonatainbleau in January 2012. He is the president of Relais Desserts, an association of the best pastry makers that meets regularly to taste and exchange recipes. Having trained under Pierre Hermé at Fauchon, he is also the president for the Coup du monde France for pastries.  M. Cassel’s enterprise consists of 2 boutiques in France and and foreign ventures in Tokyo, Casablanca and Berlin.

Fontainbleau

The young man who brought me to your chocolaterie here from your other boutique down the street told me you’ve changed his life.

I am a little bit like a father for him. He doesn’t spend much time with his own parents, so he needs to be managed. I have to tell him, “You can’t go out tonight because you are working tomorrow.” I’ve already kicked him out the door twice, saying “You get on my nerves, get lost.” But I always take him back because he is a nice boy. He called me from the other boutique when you arrived and brought you here. I didn’t ask him to do that. I thought you were still at the other boutique waiting for me. When he first came here, he didn’t know anything. We taught him everything, and it’s good. That’s the goal of a parent.

At our boutique in Fontainebleau, people have the feeling that we are their parents. We look after their taxes, everything. It’s tiring at times because I have other things to take care of, but they need us to take care of them, to guide their work. I always say to them they would never manage to find a job in another company by themselves. But if they work hard, I will help them find something. It only take for me to pick up the phone and say, “Here, he’s good. Take him.” It’s an opportunity for them to never have to create a CV in their lives.

Frédéric Cassel ~ © Parisetc.com

I helped my chef I’ve had since 10 years ago set up his own shop near his home 25 km from here. I went to the bank with him. I play the role of a father who says, “Pay attention to what you do.” They love that.

Everyone I train always comes back to the boutique, and I always know what is going on in their lives. They keep me up to date. I have one who calls me papa. He said, “My little one is born, and we named him Frédéric.” I didn’t ask for it. It’s recognition because we are with them. This is the goal of the maison. We are a family and a large company at the same.

You are how many here?

We are 28 all together, 5 here [interviewer's note: in the chocolaterie / salon du thé] and 23 in the other boutique.

Before Fauchon, you were working with Paul Manu?

I wanted to become a couturier. I wanted to work for Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent. But I was living in the north of France. At school, when you are 16, you have to do an internship. But up there in the north, Dior doesn’t exist. My father was a butcher, so I did my internship at a pastry shop next door. Then I said to myself perhaps I could do something one day in pastries. I liked it, so I did 2 years of apprenticeship. Then I went to Paris where I did only sugar pieces for 2 years for Paul Manu. I worked for Lenôtre, Dalloyau, Fauchon; we made all the flowers.

What does it mean sugar?

It’s the decorations made with sugar, like roses. We were servicing all of these people, and one day Pierre Hermé came to learn how to do sugar pieces because he didn’t know how to make sugar pieces. It was me who gave him the lessons. When we were talking one day, I asked him if I could to do an internship during my vacation at Fauchon. He said yes, and I did an internship for 8 days. At the end of the 8 days, he told me there is a place for me if I wanted to take it.  I said why no.

What is Pierre Hermé like as a person?

He is not a professor, he is a master. With him, I learnt everything because we developed the pastries ourselves. Before him, there were no grand pastry makers in Paris. We looked at everything in other boutiques, like Pelletier and Dalloyau, and we did everything to be the best in Paris. At Fauchon, we developed the most beautiful pastries that ever existed until then. We owe it all to Pierre Hermé.

I stayed at Fauchon for years. Then I served in the army in the Ministry of Defense. And after I started my boutique here. Our first boutique was located on rue Legrand, and we opend the chocolaterie 9 years ago. Chocolatier Daniel was interested in the business. Today he is my right hand in chocolates. I wanted to motivate him, so I said, “Me too, I want to open a chocolatier, but I am not going to set my foot in it.” He was interested by the proposition, and it’s he who manages the chocolaterie.

Pierre Hermé,

I want to come back to Pierre Hermé, who has really transformed the world of pastries as Lenôtre did before him.

There was Gaston Lenôtre, and now there is Pierre Hermé. He is the second revolution of the gastronomy pastries. For me, they are two different periods. Lenôtre was the precursor to the pastries. Pierre Hermé brought about an evolution in a different sense. It’s different. Macaron is Pierre Hermé. He has pushed macaron all over the world. Before, macarons used to exist only in Paris. Today we see macarons in south of France, and there is even a macaron competition in Tokyo. It’s the pulse of people like Pierre Hermé that pushes things forward.

He has trained many people.

Yes, we just celebrated 50 years of Pierre Hermé. I saw all of his old students next to him. People came from all over the world just for the evening.  When he calls to sends me good wishes, he tells me, “I always remember that evening.”

Pierre Hermé always has this thing of saying, “I’m going to call you.” For instance, he called to see if everything went well for Christmas. He doesn’t have to do that. I’m over 40 years old. I know what I’m doing. So I said to myself, I’m going to put on the hat of Pierre Hermé. Now it’s me who will call my boys to see if Christmas went well. We are a bit of a sect.

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt from him?

The rigor to ensure that everything is perfectly regulated and to pay attention to everything. We served luxury items. Everything had to always be perfect. The clients pay the price, so we are not allowed to make mistakes. The rigor. It’s important.

He is someone who has helped us to succeed. He is a master. There is the personality, the talent, the level of taste … and if something is not good, he will tell you. He always has something to say. Then it’s up to us to accept it or not.

Pastries are very trendy these days.

Before there was no pâtissier on rive gauche. When Pierre Hermé opened his shop, he was the only one. Before, one could do a tour of all the pâtissiers in Paris in one afternoon. Today, it takes 2 days. Now a days, everyone copies everyone else, and I have problems especially with “design” boutiques. I find that they are really not “gourmand”. You see the products displayed with the lightings on the wall, you don’t know what’s in it, and you don’t want to buy them. It serves no purpose.

Relais Desserts

You are the President of Relais Dessert.

It’s been 8 years now.

Do you think the standards for pastries have become higher?

It’s the standard of luxury that has become higher. People have come to understand that there are luxury pastry shops and boulangeries where you buy your everyday éclair, and that good pastries cost money. Good pastry is a conclusion of a good meal, and people have started to buy them more regularly.

Do you think there are strong competitions among pâtissiers today?

No, not at all. Everyone is different. When the journalists come to Relais Dessert, they are surprised that we exchange our recipes. For instance, I can have the recipe of Pierre Hermé’s macaron. If I call him and say, “I want your recipe,” he is obligated to give it to me. I am in Fontainebleau, he is in Paris, what does it matter? In any case, I would never make Pierre Hermé’s macarons. My name is not Pierre Hermé.

When we see each other twice a year at Relais Desserts, Pierre Hermé hosts an afternoon for the macarons. He puts some ganache, but I don’t because I don’t like them. For me it’s too fatty, so I put some almond paste and butter instead. He has his and I have mine. People don’t come to my boutique to buy Pierre Hermé’s cakes. We can exchange the recipes. There is no competition.

How does one become the president of Relais Desserts?

An election is held every five years. The people vote.

And what are the criteria?

You have to present a list of projects intend to do. I said I want to create a magazine, to develop the image for high-end patisserie for our clients.

Why did you decide to take this position? I imagine it takes a lot of your time.

It takes 2 days of my time a week. I don’t need to do that. It’s my “small piece of stone” to speak about the pastries in the world. It’s my contribution to the “haute” pastry, like the “haute couture”. In fact, I’ve come back to my initial dream. There is couture and there is haute couture. It is the same with cakes.

So you are constantly in contact with the world?

Twice a year, there are 2 seminars, in April and in September. And then I am in contact with the offices, with all the “Ministers”.

I organize the national seminars. My last seminar was on the 25 years of Relais Dessert. To mark the occasion, I said “Why not take all the pâtissiers to Japan?” They said, “You are crazy. They would never go.” I said to them, “We already bought 40 airline tickets.” So we set off with 120 people. It was an enormous undertaking. I bet on the venture without knowing anything about Japan. I had never set foot in it.

For a pâtissier, Japan is a dedication. There are renowned French patisseries in Japan that we don’t know about. When we visited for the first time, we said, “It’s luxury here.” They don’t buy cakes, they send them as gifts. They gift chocolates. They are like jewels. The boutiques are like jewels. When we sent all the pâtissiers down there, it was a real discovery. Some of them had never even flown in an airplane before.

And the members normally attend the seminars?

Attendance is obligatory. If you don’t come, you are thrown out of the family. It’s tough, but it’s like this.

We spend 3 days together in September and 3 days in April. There is one regional and one national. For the public, it is in April and the regional one invites its customers. There is a buffet where everyone has to bring new products. We’ll do that in the automobile museum in Mulhouse. We will have a theme, like Christmas, Easter, etc. We will be announce it next week. We try to show our customers what can be done, and we also observe what others are doing.

There is a contest for best buffet. Last year it was in Nice, and my guys all drove down there by car. They drove 800 km round trip. But they were really happy. The association requires people to make a new cake that’s not in their shop. Last year it was the colors. Each color had to be respected. Once we chose gold and silver, and we had to make cakes with these color. It was not easy.

Then there are meetings in Paris. Next week, for example, we will have the tasting of 20 galettes. Each member will bring their traditional galette and an original creation. We will taste 20 all together because we are 10 just in Paris.

So what happens? Each member brings 2 galettes, everyone tastes them, and then what?

Each one tastes, each gives his opinion. It’s important to discuss. It allows us to rediscover the taste. You can do it with 10 or 15 people in a salon. You have to say if you like it or not, and say whatever you think. Above all, you must accept criticisms from the others. Without criticism, you never make progress.

But for me, it’s not only about the recipes. It’s also the packaging. It’s more about the little things, like “I do things like this, etc.” When I come back with two ideas, I am happy.

Last year, I learned that you cannot roast pistachios over 120 ° C. Professionally, it’s great to understand this. If we had not brought an Italian who has been testing the roasting of pistachios, we would never have have found out. We would always be roasting pistachios to 180 ° C.

Each meeting has a theme. In September in Paris, for example, we had a breakfast. Each pâtissier brought an innovative viennoiserie. The previous time, for Christmas, each member brought a bûche. In May, I will bring them all to Casablance. It will be organized by the region of Paris.

Who created the association of Relais Desserts?

It was Lucien Pelletier, who was a pâtissier in Paris on rue de Sèvres. At first, we were just 10, a little club of pâtissiers who exchanged recipes. Today we have become one of the largest associations. There are still those who don’t want to join because they don’t want to share their recipes. I say to them, “We are not a school. If you want to learn, you go do an internship. If you want to take something from us, you have to bring something to us.” It’s a relationship of exchange and friendship.

And how does one become a member?

You have to be sponsored by 2 members of Relais Desserts. To ask to be admitted, you already have to know 2 members of Relais Desserts, the one closest to where you are and the person in charge of the region. For instance, if you live in St Germain-en-Laye, the member in St Germain-en-Laye has to sponsor you, because he has to be ok with it.

Do you think there are a lot of politics in the selection?

Ah, no, I hope not …

I imagine everyone wants to become a member …

We have a lot of applicants because people in the profession talk a lot about Relais Desserts. When you are all alone, it’s not easy.

Relais Desserts is something that the general public is not very aware of.

We don’t have much to communicate to the public except that we are the best pâtissiers in the world. That’s not very interesting for anyone. On the other hand, if we produce a mission macaron and bring everyone to Paris to select the best amateur macaron maker in France, the press will pick up on it because it’s like a competition on television. Aside from that, there is nothing to tell. This is why the magazine is important.

In your opinion, has Relais Desserts changed the profession of patissiers?

It has made contributions. We try to be the precursor for the latest in pastries. All the new trends are pushed by Relais Desserts. For instance, the Macaron Day is Relais Desserts’ initiative. Fifteen years ago, there was the trend to put cakes inside little glasses, and that was us.

In September, we worked around the theme of American cakes because a lot of customers who have seen pictures of American cakes ask us about it. But we didn’t know how to make them. So we did a seminar on these big, artificial American cakes. We asked a French patissier who has worked in the United States to do a demonstration because no one had ever done it before. It’s completely different; it’s not at all what we know how to do. So I learnt, at age 44, how to make an American cake.

And did you like it?

No, but now I know how to make them. I’ve made it for one or two clients, but it’s not my personality. But if a client wants a cake for 200 people, we are not going to say no because if we don’t do it, they will go somewhere else.

So what do the French do for weddings?

Pièces montées with choux, and now they make it with macarons, which is new. In the boutique, we don’t have photos of pièce montée we make because I want to design a personalized pièce montée for each client. I take the time to design them individually, like a grand couturier who designs a dress for each customer. It’s your dress, your pièce montée. I’ve adapted the work as a creator to pastries. That’s what’s beautiful in this work, to create a new cake.

Abroad …

Do you regularly change your product lines?

Twice a year, we change 4 to 5 cakes, and we bring out new chocolates each year. It’s Japan that pushes us to always come up with new products. They are a real pain. In Japan, we have to introduce a new cake every month. The customers know that this is the offering for the month. In France it’s not like that. Developing a new cake every 6 month is already a lot of work.

The mille-feuilles is our spéciality. We’ve won the best mille-feuilles prize in France, with the mille-feuilles made with Tahitian vanilla.

You made a new bonbon with Japanese cherries this year.

I made it because of Fukushima. For me cherry symbolizes rebirth, spring, freshness, etc. What happened in Fukushima was really hard. So I thought of creating a new chocolate to restart the new year. The Japanese love stories, and with Fukushima, it’s a little bit what I wanted to recount. It also happens to be the first white chocolate I’ve made.

Frédéric Cassel ~ Sakura 2011

And how are you packaging them?

It’s going to be sold in a box of 4 pieces with “je t’aime (I love you)” written. There is one with one petal, two petals, three petals and four petals.

Children in France play with flowers; when they like someone, they peel off a petal at a time from a flower, saying, “He likes me – -  a little, a lot, passionately, madly.” And when there is no more petal left, it’s either he likes me a little, a lot, etc. And I wanted to say that I love chocolate  - a little, a lot, passionately, madly. And madly is the last, so I love chocolate madly. (And I also love my wife madly.)

In Japan, if you sell a box of 20 chocolates, it doesn’t work. It’s too big. The merchant who does the sugar said to me, “Your box is too big. If you do a box with 8 pieces, you will sell them.” At first, when I arrived there, I sold boxes with 15 chocolates. It was too big. But that, you don’t know when you’re not there. So we learn. We are just pâtissiers.

And in Berlin ?

In Berlin, we work with Galeries Lafayette. We only do macarons. Everything is shipped from here. We also opened a boutique in Casablance 2 years ago, which had started initially as a technical advisory job.

And you visit them from time to time?

I visit twice a year.

And you have a chef in each boutique.

We have a chef in Casablanca, and another in Tokyo, who worked here, and who makes exactly the same cakes as here. For instance in Japan, we have “moelleux au chocolat” that is quite large, but there, we make the mini version. But it’s the same recipe. Aside from that, though, we didn’t change the sizes. Our portions are generous.

Pâtisserie is French!

Speaking of Germany, how are cakes in Germany different from France?

Cooking is worldwide. Everybody eats food in every country. But the pastries, it’s French. German pastries are cakes that are 15 cm high, very copious. French pastries don’t work well there. Macarons work well because there are a number of us who have launched the products. French chocolates don’t work in Germany because they want big chocolates.

The pastries are indeed French. There is a little French and a little German also, but it’s a bit of a mix. This summer, we did a seminar in Italy to see what they sell over there. There was an array of petits fours (mini cakes), but that’s all they have. But that’s allowed us to develop a range of petits fours that we didn’t have before. With chocolates, in Italie, it’s the big eggs, with nothing inside. In France, everything is garnished with little eggs, and fritures. In Italy, it’s just a toy for the children, a Kinder surprise. They’ve always sold that, and they will not change. Each country has its personality.

M. Cassel, I learnt something very important today.  Pâtisserie as we know it is atually French!

Cooking is global, and pâtisserie is French. Look for it in other countries, it doesn’t exist. Go to China, there is no dessert, full stop. Think about it, you will see that there are no desserts in other countries. When I go to a restaurant in Japan, you eat the sushi, and it stops there. They don’t ask if you want a dessert. In Vienna, the salons du thé works, but they don’t eat desserts after meals. We in France have the culture of eating “the main course, cheese, dessert”.  There is always a dessert at the end of the meal, but not in other countries. All the pastries you see in other countries are those created by the French who were there in important restaurants and hotels.

So is it’s your goal to promote French pastries in the world.

Yes, of course. We do demonstrations left and right. It’s important. At the Coupe du monde for pastries in Lyon, they asked me to become the president of France. I am going to represent French pastries to the rest of the world. We opened a boutique in Casablanca. We were the fourth to arrive. We are on the same street as Paul, Lenôtre, and Fauchon. We are 100 meters from each other, and it works. And it’s the French once again.

Is there a message you would like to pass on to the public?

Eat cakes and be happy. We talk about the crisis, but there is none during Christmas. People eat, they celebrate. Crisis or no crisis, the stomach is faithful.

(Interview by Eri Ikezi, 6 January 2012, Fontainbleau)

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