Christophe Michalak – returning to simplicity

The Chef Patissier of Plaza Athénée, Christophe Michalak is a celebrity in his own right.

Historically speaking, it was just a couple of decades ago that pastry makers working in hôtels had virtually no invisible to the outside world. They had very little say in the kitchen, and were dictated by the chef cuisinier everything from what to make to which ingredients they were allowed to procure. In light of this recent past, Michalak’s stardom represents an extraordinary step forward for pastry makers.

Michalak: It is important to say that there were great people before me who opened the door, including Gaston Lenôtre, Pierre Hermé, Philippe Conticini – there are many others that I could cite. They were fantastic people, and my success exists today because of their work. And all of our work will make it easier for the next generation of patissiers to establish themselves.

But it’s a daily struggle. It’s complicated. Because when you are payed by a boss, generally, the chef cook oversees everything in totality in the kitchen from cooking and pastries to bread making. Except, when I arrived here, there was no way I could function like that. I have a form of sensitivity that I express through my work, and I cannot make my pastries if I am being told what to do. It does not work. So little by little, I managed to impose my vision.

I came here in 2000; we are in 2012. Since just over a year, I have the same contract as Alain Ducasse, except he is responsible for the cooking, while I manage the sweets. We are “equals” in terms of the functions we perform within the same hotel here at the Plaza Athénée. And it works well. I am very happy.

So you are completely independent. You decide on what to make and which ingredients to use, which is not necessarily the case for patissiers in all hotels?

I have always done that. I notify my supervisor as a courtesy, but I have the complete freedom, even more so now that I am a consultant. I am an entrepreneur, I have a TV show on TF1. I work on my consulting business. I’m hyperactive and I like it.

Training a younger generation of patissiers has been an important part of your work.

When we are young, we dream of being the Champion du monde, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, to be recognized. Once you obtain a title or a recognition, it is important to go beyond that.

There are great people like Jerome de Oliveira, who is now in Cannes who was also a Champion du monde, and Lucien Gautier, who heads George V, Claire Damon, who owns a boutique, etc.. I have trained a lot of people. There may be a dozen people who have become leaders in their own right, with great talent. I am very proud of that, but now I want to do something else. It’s like pastry classes. There was a time when I gave a lot, then I stopped overnight.

I am someone who evolve every day. For the longest time, I made very technical desserts that are very aesthetically oriented, with strings of sugar. That was over 10 years ago. Today, I see that everyone does that, and I decided to stop this very artistic side. I was so deeply into the art that I can now come back to things that are more efficient, simpler and sober.

I compare my work a little to someone in the world of cooking named Alain Passard. He was a great technician, and in the end he returned to very simple food –  vegetables. When we taste his food, we are truly impressed. And for me that’s true maturity. A 25 year old, who starts doing what Alain Passard does, it will not work because there is 20, 25, 30 years of work behind what he does!

It’s a bit like martial arts. When I started karate when I was young, I was a kicking madman, fixed in the demonstration. When you watch a true sensei (master) with 5 or 10 dan, with one thumb or one gesture, he can kill you. When you have wisdom, you can neutralize the opponent with one strike. What is sad is that people do not understand that sometimes.

For the longest time, I brought something new, and everyone just copies everyone else. What I have done yesterday, I will not do again. It irritates me a little sometimes to have to explain things to patissiers when I do a demonstration. I return to simplicity, but it is something that took me 20 years to understand. And when I explain it to young pastry chefs or reporters, they do not understand what I am saying.

I went to Lyon to make an important meal. There was Eric Pras, the Chef at Lameloise, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the kitchen. He made something very MOF, too complicated for what it was for me. I made three desserts: yogurt with yuzu, a caramel popcorn sundae, and churros. People said, “This is not Michalak, it is too simple!” But it is in this simplicity that, taste-wise, people remember the three desserts, because when they ate them, there was something. There was a clean look, very elegant. Unfortunately, there are people who do not understand, but I don’t worry about that. I explain my philosophy, and I don’t care about those who don’t understand what I am saying.

What is important for me is not to copy my colleagues. I have too much respect for that. If there is someone who, in all his books, always puts a little story about the pastry, it’s me. If you have read the three books I wrote for Plon, for example, chocolate pizza, I was at Spoon one day and I saw Robert Frederick who had a chocolate pizza. I thought it was awesome and I wanted to do it my way. What is important is to credit the origin.

For example, with my caramel religieuse, all those who have come here and have gone to make it themselves is a signature. I am very happy with all of that, and everyone who worked here for me writes “ religieuse by Christophe Michalak,” and I think this is really classy. It’s important to maintain this elegance. Every time I make a new product, I talk a lot more about others before talking about me.

There are people like Christopher Adam and Christophe Felder, who were in their days the best pastry chefs in hotels. Overnight, they stopped what they were doing, published books of pastry for the general public, and they start doing something else, and people do not understand that. I understand, because I’ve lived through this path. I think it is a form of wisdom. Before, we did demonstrations. Christopher Adam, started a concept called Adam’s, a sweet and salty open-sandwich for fast food. I love it because the man is very talented. For a long time at Fauchon, he made desserts very focused on the decor, and now he’s moved on. And I’m sure in 5 years I’ll be moved on to something else. I think we are visionaries, and we must remain within this logic. I try to explain, but I do not waste my time with people who do not understand.

At age18, I went to work at Louis XV in Monaco because I really wanted to get to know gastronomy. I had no experience. When I arrived there, I did not understand. I felt stressed by the servers, by everything, and my palate was not formed yet. I did not have a stance.  I couldn’t really judge what I ate. Often, young pastry makers who enter the profession judge only with the eye, by the look. Elegance is very important, but the taste, emotion, and balance. It took me 18 years of experience.

Now, I know I make good cakes. Before I was a very good technician, and when I was about 30 years old that I started developing my palette. Now that I’m 38, I know exactly what I want, and I know my cakes, it’s me. I do not need to talk about it, to discuss, to prove myself. Taste it, it’s me. There are incredible pastry chefs and I’m not trying to be better than them. I transpose what I am through a cake. That’s the signature cake. I created it more than 10 years, but it changes every day. I put a little less sugar, I put slightly more perfume, I change the decoration, etc. There is a new version every year.

It’s interesting because it means taste is something you can develop.

Yes, it develops. But before speaking of taste, there is balance. When you eat a good cake, the taste is one thing, but there is also the balance of textures, flavors and temperatures. And I am very precise on those elements. If you eat this religieuse at a slightly higher temperature, it’s too sugary. I work for my own business, and I love the religieuse. What I don’t like is the small choux because there is not enough cream, not enough softness.

I dream of making my cake for myself, with a precise balance. I don’t want to make cakes that are very pretty like I used to for 20 years. I want to make cakes that resemble me. I know that in five year’s time, they will be like me. For now, they are not ripe yet, so I’m not worried. For me, it is important to move forward and make the pastries that are more and more beautiful.

You are in a unique position in comparison to other patissiers because you travel a lot. You are exposed to the world. For instance, Frederic Cassel told me when he organized a trip for Relais Dessert to visit Japan, for many patissiers, it was the first time they got on a plane. Being exposed allow you to absorb what you see abroad. Do you think your taste reflects what is outside of France?

I always say that the best pastries in the world are French. I am firmly convinced. For a long period, the level of pastries in Tokyo was superior to that of Paris. Since 5 to 6 years ago, there has been a renewal in the world of pastries with new boutiques, with people like me, like Christophe Adam, who bring a lot of things. And now, Paris is the capital of pastries. There are things that are incredible. Besides that, the labor in France is different from that in Tokyo. It’s all relative.

There are two pastry maker in Tokyo that stand out, which I love above all else. And I know what I’m talking about because I am a true gourmand. The two people who can compete and be above me are Norihiko Terai of Aigre Douce in Tokyo, and Antoine Santos, at Ecole Criollo. These are the two people who make cakes that leave me “on the ass.” And it is very rare. In France, there is Pierre Hermé, Philippe Conticini, le Pain de Sucre, plenty of “top” pastries, but these two in Japan are exceptional. When I go to the United States, I love eating their local pastries. But in Japan there is no local typical pastry. I lived in Japan in Kobe, and it’s not really the baked goods that attract me. On the contrary, the French pastries in Tokyo, they are exceptional. But it’s the French know-how, there is always something tied to our heritage.

When I go to the United States, I love eating cookies, brownies, pecan pies. When I go to Italy, the pastry is not great, but I love panettone, the true heritage of each country – - I love that. When I go to Spain, I buy the nougat, which is very good. When you go to Belgium, Switzerland, or Japan, the finest pastries are the French pastries, which come from us. There are also many things in the Middle East that are very interesting. When I go to Brazil, Mexico, there are always things to learn and am always pleasantly surprised, and often by old recipes that we have forgotten and are recovered and placed up to date, c ‘is very interesting. The excitement of my first job is to create exceptional things.

I have to ask the inevitable question; do you plan to leave here one day to start your own boutique?

I am a consultant since one year ago. I have a 5 year contract. It’s been more or less 6 months that I am looking for something. If I find what I want, I will do it. For now, I haven’t found a place, so I leave it for now. Everything that I will do in terms of pastries will have nothing to do with what I do here. What’s interesting here is that we are in luxury. I make things that are consistent with the clientele. The day I have my own clientele, I will make things that I want to eat, and I will relay my message through my pastries. People may like it or not like it, but it will be me.

And it will be in Paris?

Absolutely. I can’t go anywhere else. I cannot open a “small” thing, there must be some elegance. When one does not have the proper funding with the crisis, everything is difficult.

What is very funny in France is all the reviews that I hear. For example, “Michalak is perhaps a very good patissier, but he doesn’t have a boutique.” Let’s say I open a shop, then it’ll be “Michalak has a boutique, but he only has one.” After I open the second one, they will say “Michalak has ​​two shops to make money.” There is always a problem. So I don’t listen to critics. I have great empathy, I love people, and I like to give pleasure. But I also have my character, I can be very nervous. Sometimes, France, it’s exhausting. Throughout your life, you are revered or criticized, loved or hated, it’s like that. Now I do not mind anything, so I just go on my own way.

Interview took place on April 9, 2012

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