"When you’ve eaten something great, you’ll remember it 20 years later".
French patisserie exploded in 1910 with the rediscovery of spices and fruits in nouvelle cuisine and pastry chefs started making mini patisseries for hotel customers. In the 1980s a signature pastry cuisine started to emerge, with Alain Passard, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras, my brother Christian Conticini and many others. And then this signature cuisine expanded with the likes of Marc Veyrat and Spain-based Ferran Avrià.
In the last 20 years patisserie has come leaps and bounds; it’s become lighter, more ornate and decorated, and has blossomed with the fruition of technology. At the beginning of the 1980s in France only three of us worked with flavour, perfumes and seasoning, alongside Pierre Hermé who singlehandedly took the visual side of the patisserie industry by storm. And about ten to twelve years later, when it was understood that taste and flavours was fundamental to the success of patisserie, the trade exploded.
Today, patisserie is becoming an art of expression and the pastry chef is entitled to express him- or herself completely. There is an abundance of talent that is emerging in France, which is great to see – the more there is, the better it will be for the profession and the flavour calibre of pastries.
Personally, what’s important is that whoever is eating my pastries is touched and moved by emotions and the harmony of flavours. Only when this happens does patisserie becomes an art – an emotion and feeling expressed through an object - and a fine art at that, that disregards any ephemeral ideas of food. When you’ve eaten something great, you’ll remember it 20 years later.
“The three stages of my career: 1986 when I realised communication and expression, in 1994 I realised sensation, and in 2001 I realised emotions”.
There have been three major stages of my career. First of all, in 1986 I worked with my brother, Christian Conticini. I realised that compared to his my pastry wasn’t quite up to scratch flavour-wise. So I began focusing all my attention on improving and developing each pastry and as I did so, I experienced something that really moved me: people would call after me after eating my food to tell me that the culinary experience I had given them had touched their soul. They were looking past my form and body, and they were talking to me – to Philippe. And that changed my life – I realised that through my job I was able to communicate who I was. And so I threw myself full-force into the exploration of flavour in patisserie, which I have done ever since. For me 1986 represents pure communication and expression.
Secondly, in the summer of 1994 over a glass of Bourgogne, I took my horizontal dessert and reconstructed it as a vertical dish in a glass. I was able to restructure, rebuild and provoke sensations that I had never thought of yet. By plunging a spoon into the layers of the glass I could begin to control how people tasted. For example, having an acidic ingredient at the bottom, a main flavour in the middle and light soyeux cream on the top, you get a perfect spoonful with a holistic taste that’s wonderful. So this second stage in 1994 represented sensation.
The final stage was in 2001 when I opened Petrossien in Paris and Petrossien Café Boutique in New York. At the same time I was travelling to New York and Japan. In New York people were telling me “what you do, Philippe is like music in our mouths”, which was incredible because I had written a book earlier that included a chapter called ‘Music in your Mouth’. When I got to Japan for the first time I was to focus on developing desserts using Japanese ingredients and French techniques. One dessert that I created was a crunchy croquette that melted in your mouth, made of traditional Japanese red beans and very untraditional balsamic vinegar, nut oil and fleur de sel. And when my boss tried it he proclaimed “OHH I remember this from when I was younger!” Impossible – he had never experienced those flavours during his childhood. What he had felt was the same pleasure as when he was a little boy. And I thus realised in 2001 that I was able to create emotions.
Obviously since I have been exploring flavours and taste in more depth. At the La Pâtisserie des Rêves I have been revisiting classic pastries and, ironically I have never been experienced such culinary creativity.
43 Marylebone High Street,
Take a look at Philippe Conticini's chef profile here.