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Christophe Michalak, atomic pastry chef

December 15 2017

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Until the 23 December the Cartier boutique of Geneva hosts an ephemeral Tea Room where you can, on reservation, taste the cakes of Christophe Michalak. A furiously cathodic pastry chef, fan of U2 and superheroes. - Isabelle Cerboneschi.

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hristophe Michalak, it sounds like Goldorak. We can do everything when we wear a name that slams like that. Even pastry. Even TV. Even beautiful cakes like slices of Kandinsky's picture. He could have even done the Fine Arts if he had not missed the registration deadline. But good, pastry is an art form that, in addition to sight and touch, solicits two additional senses: smell and taste. Precisely in this order because before putting in the mouth a piece of his rum baba by the meter, it is inhaled.

During 15 years, Christophe Michalak signed the pastry of the Plaza Athénée trying to dare sometimes creations more dazzling than others, who had to blow dry before being served to the customers. A palace has written rules and unwritten, and even if the rock client has the right to break a suite with baseball bat, for compensation, the pastry chef, he has no time to break the rules to crazy Christmas log shot. It's like that.

And then one day he left. After 15 years, we went around an institution. We even turned around several times. Christophe Michalak chose the Freedom Party and created his own brand with his wife, actress and photographer Delphine McCarty. Today the company has 30 employees and four shops. He will open a franchise in Japan in 2018. Which is hardly surprising: the Japanese who love sweet poems, have a selective affinity with the beautiful cakes like mini sculptures of Christophe Michalak.

The chef is cathodic: his fans could see it in "The Cake of my dreams" on Teva, in "Who will be the next great pastry chef" on France 2, and in the show "In the skin of a chef", produced by Nagui Air Production, on France 2.

The meeting took place in an unlikely place, on the top floor of the Cartier boutique in Geneva transformed into ephemeral Tea Room (reservations required).

For this place overlooking the water jet, the pastry chef created a Pavlova Royale: meringue with lime, compote of red fruits and whipped cream with red fruit tea.

IC You spent fifteen years at the Plaza Athénée in Paris. For a year and a half you are self-employed. When you leave an institution a bit heavy, you feel you grow wings and you want to flit everywhere, right?
Christophe Michalak: In fact not really, because when we work in a palace we are well warm, we work in one of the most beautiful places in the world, with a great team, we have almost unlimited means. But it had become necessary to fly with my own wings: I had reached my dreams and I could not see at all what I could do more. The only thing that could help me question myself was to start from scratch in my own universe.

What does this universe look like?
It's a world of superheroes, modern, rock'n'roll. But that did not necessarily match that of the Plaza. I signed a very high fashion map. We were on Avenue Montaigne and it suited me very well. Then I evolved, I wanted to do things a little more rock. It's hard to leave a place where you have huge resources to become a small entrepreneur who has to build a mountain while he is at the bottom. It's a bit scary. Finally, I was right: it's the dream of my life!

Freedom?
Yes, it was my dream. Freedom has no price. In this adventure, there is only my wife and me: no partner. It's been 3 years since we started and we have 30 employees, four shops, we're opening soon in Japan. Like what we must never stop believing. You have to work hard, but when you're an artist at heart it's fabulous to be free. Even if it's complicated too. The real worries begin when you find yourself alone, but for nothing in the world I would not go back.

Back, what was: constraints, limits, obligations?
I will tell you an anecdote. I always signed a Christmas log throwing it. Then I wanted to go to the end of my delirium: I had imagined a kind of truck 38 tons of chocolate towing a huge tree trunk. It was never seen! Finally I was told that it was not very "palace". At that time, I thought that if I thought for two months to a project that was told me "it's not bad, but do something else", it could not continue like that. I did not want anyone to make me work for nothing. I do not like being pulled back and often, in this kind of institution, that's the case. So naturally, I decided to be master at home. And yet I adore them! I left on very good terms. I am someone who goes fast, maybe too much sometimes.

You have defined the rule of 4 E to qualify your pastry: elegance, balance emotion, efficiency. Would he not miss point G, that of taste, in your list?
There is no G, but in the box "emotion", the taste is understood. Just like the textures, the flavors, the temperatures ... People come to buy pretty cakes but they come back especially if they are good.

You talk about pretty cakes: is a pastry chef of your renown doomed to make nice cakes, or can he create something a little ugly like rum baba, but super good anyway?
It's not very sexy rum baba, we will not lie to each other. But I assume that what is ugly is not selling. We must today dress the cakes and make them desirable. If I buy a purse for my wife and it's ugly, I already would not want to buy it, and I know it will not be too happy.

But a cake is not the same as a handbag ...
No, but it's our job to make him both very good and sexy.  It's true that my baba by the meter, I'm very proud: inside there is a pastry cream with rum, the crumb is soaked, it has a cream very emulsified with vanilla ... I think it's is one of the best babas I have eaten in my life. When I create a cake, it must come out in the first three, or the first on the list of all that I could taste in my life.

Your sweets are graphic a little like pieces of Kandinsky's paintings. From what I read, you missed your entrance to Fine Arts?
I signed up too late. It's a school I would have liked to do. Art is similar to pastry, like architecture and design. If I had not been a pastry chef I would have gone that way. What is fabulous in this business is that we are close to architecture, graphics, but what we create has taste, we can consume.

Pastry would be a kind of substitute art?
These are the five senses that are awake every day! It is an ephemeral art. A painting can last for centuries, but a cake has a life of 24h to 48h to break everything.

The chocolate K7 VHS speak more about Generation X than Millennials. Nostalgic?
When I was a teenager, I collected VHS tapes: I had about 700. I used to eat movies, my favorite actors. I am a true film buff and I wanted to create a greedy chocolate bar. I made it naturally in the form of a videotape with a praline inside. It's atomic when you eat it! It's a little me. I fully assume.

Are you greedy?
I try to look after myself every day. I am a real addict to sugar and gluttony in general.

What is your favorite cake?
It's difficult because I have several, and it changes according to my mood. But my madeleine of Proust, it is certainly the flan nature. I like this cream: it's milk, sugar, eggs, a little cream, that's all. I like Paris-Brest too, and Mont-Blanc, ... I actually like everything.

If your childhood had a taste, what would be the flan?
Yes, undeniably the flan that my grandmother bought for 10-12 people and that I ate almost all over the day. I love this flavor, this milky side. I had a childhood during which I did not eat very good things, I was junk food to death. My mom never took me to the market, I only knew canned green beans. At the age of 18 years I took in hand while traveling and discovering the gastronomy of high flight. Like what happens!

What perfume do you wear?
When I was younger I wore Alien, a perfume for woman, because I found it strong and powerful. Then I changed. For a very long time I have worn Dior Homme Intense and now I am wearing Eau Sauvage from Dior. My wife loves it. I went from heady perfumes to other very light ones.

And what is the scent of your childhood?
My childhood is automatically linked to my large family of Italian origin and my grandmother. She lived near Chantilly and I loved to walk the dogs in the neighborhood in the forest. This smell comes back to me, a smell of pine, earth, tree, moisture. It's a bit like the smell of my childhood.

Did you use it in a cake that foresty smell?
I only met her once, in a cake from Lenôtre who had co-created a log with Philippe Stark. Stark had asked for a rectangular log, which was like a sawmill and would taste like wood, whiskey, vanilla, tonka bean. That it feels the tree. It had never been done yet it was so obvious! That's the strength of the big guys.

There is more and more talk about the harmful effects of refined sugar on health. Can not consider pastry without sugar. What ingredients did you decide to replace and by what?
I have always said that if we do not pay attention to the ingredients we use, they will be demonized, like cigarettes, in the next 20 years. We work more and more with raw sugars. What is surprising is that refined sugar is the cheapest on the market and yet it is the one that requires the most operations, while raw sugar, molasses, vergeoise, which has a real taste, a true dynamics, costs more. Today's cakes are less fat, less sweet, less gelled, less alcoholic than those of thirty years ago, but a pastry is not a pharmacy. We do not eat a cake to heal, we eat a cake to do good. And me first. A few years ago, I did a Paris-Brest and "light", too. I found it very good, very nice. Then I tasted the Paris-Brest Philippe Conticini and I took a slap! It was the opposite! A Paris-Brest, it must be rich, sweet, good.

Pastry chefs are the new stars. Is it because we can not live without sweetness?
I do not think so. The kitchen in the 70 years has experienced a revival with a new guard, Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, etc. They embellished the pastry. At the time there was only Lenôtre who pulled out of the game in this area. Then Pierre Hermé developed haute couture pastry. People started to get passionate about cooking. But like pastry, it's very complicated, very technical, it was put a little aside. In the 2000 years, I wanted to desecrate the pastry, make it funnier, cooler, and prove that you can make cakes at home without getting your head and without spending 8 hours in his kitchen. All this work, all these TV shows, it paid off. Pastry arrived via TV and social networks in front of the spotlight. A cake is sexier than a salad: it's a hit on Instagram.

What are the most harmonious tastings you have created?
I made a dessert at the Plaza with perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. I wanted to combine the pastry with the perfume and sublimate the strawberry. He made me feel full of things. I remember the galbanum that reminds a little green mango. And by dint of feeling, we created a perfume by combining three things: strawberry, banana and orange blossom. I made a strawberry-shaped sorbet with 80% strawberry, 15% banana and 5% orange blossom. It made a sweet taste. It's a bit my Hispahan to me.

Are you talking about Pierre Hermé's Hispahan?
Yes. I worked with him at Fauchon and at the time he made a cake with rose and raspberry: Paradise. It never sold. When he took over the reins of Ladurée, he began to experiment. At this accord of raspberry and rose he added lychee. At first we threw a lot, and then one day it took. Hispahan is the only cake a contemporary pastry chef has managed to impose like the Millefeuille or Paris-Brest. I have regimented one not long ago. Wow! Damn it's good! It's subtle. It is the great strength of Pierre Hermé to dare combinations. Sometimes it does not work, sometimes it's nice but nothing more, and sometimes it's an uppercut. Hispahan is an uppercut.

What would be your impossible cake: the one you dream of making if the ingredients existed?
It's hard to imagine ingredients that do not exist. I can tell you, however, what cake I would have liked to create instead of one of my colleagues! The one that makes me crack and which is of an overflowing simplicity, it is the vanilla pie of Pierre Hermé. Before he created it, I would have been told to make a vanilla cake, I would have said no. Vanilla is flat when you think of vanilla yogurt. His true taste, I rediscovered it with the pie of Pierre. Except that today vanilla is 800 euros the kilos, so I banish it: it's more expensive than the truffle! Its pie is a shortbread with a white chocolate ganache with vanilla, which has a real density, and an emulsified mascarpone cream. We put everything together in the mouth and it's nirvana! This pie, she is demonic. I blame him a little.

I just launched an online magazine called ALL IC. It is still a baby but who wants to grow up. Which of all your cakes could match it?
I made a pretty iconic cake that was copied a lot, and so I changed the scent: it's a combination of chocolate and yuzu. I call it my heart. It has the shape of a rose, topped with a little glossy red, like a lip gloss. It's a cake that's going down in time, my signature cake. It can bring you happiness.

L'Ecrin by Michalak - Ephemeral Tea Room,Cartier boutique, rue du Rhône 35, until 23 December from 11h to 17h. Upon reservation: 022 818 54 10

"I'm assuming that lousy things do not sell."

"In my childhood I was junk food to death! Like what, everything happens ... "

"A pastry shop is not a pharmacy. We do not eat a cake to heal, we eat a cake to do good. "

"A cake is sexier than a salad: it's a hit on Instagram!"

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