April 23, 2013
An obsession with freshness and ‘thinking like a chef’ have forged a stunningly good chocolatier from this self-taught workaholic.
The night after my rendezvous with Jacques Genin I dreamt about his chocolates. I dreamt about wandering through his calm and ordered kitchens, the cool marble tops dotted here and there with his exquisite creations. I dreamt that he was sitting opposite me, as he had been that afternoon. His insightful was gaze fixed upon me across a table in the serene elegance of his spacious café, while I tasted his chocolates. And in my dream, without the barrier of my imperfect French, I was able to describe what I was tasting in full sensual detail. In my dream I did a much better job than in real life. Perhaps, because I am a writer, the need to bring words to the experience dominates sufficiently to have inhabited my dreams. Or maybe it is to do with how seriously I take my task of communicating to you how good his chocolates are, better to tempt you to go and try them.
In truth I think it was the affect of M. Genin himself, whose heart is evident in every bite, in every nuance of flavour, and my child-like desire to impress upon him that I did get it, did get what he was doing. I didn’t manage it at the time. My words were inadequate. But there was one lovely moment when no words were needed. As we talked I interrupted the flow to try one of the treats that had been placed on the table between us. What would you do; pay attention to the finest of chocolates sitting, irresistibly under your nose, or their creator, sitting with you, giving you some of his precious time? I reached out for a small milk chocolate enrobed bar. I went to cut it for sharing. M. Genin hopped up to grab another from behind the counter. (Altogether he did a lot of hopping and grabbing, leaving me feeling honoured, spoilt and decidedly full!) He returned with the words; “This one you don’t share, you have one each!” Up to this point I had been attempting to describe what I was tasting, and given that it was a blind tasting it was a case of “No pressure then!” But this time words failed and a more elemental grunt emerged. I hastily smiled, apologised and said that I was speechless. M. Genin was grinning and said that that said it all.
This chocolate, which is a must-try, is that rare thing that treads the line between familiarity and innovation. It contained peanuts and caramel, so was reminiscent of a Snickers, but reinvented them entirely into a fantasy, hence the groan of pleasure.
An hour earlier, on arrival at Jacques Genin’s boutique and café, 133 Rue de Turenne, Paris, I had been shown up to the kitchens and found a man fully immersed in the business of a late afternoon’s kitchen tasks. A dance of rolling and folding the pate feuilleté for the next days galettes. The buttery blankets passed back and forth between him and a sous chef, before being wrapped for the nights rest in the fridge.
We began our interview during this procedure, and many of my questions were batted back to me. It became clear that M. Genin doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and perhaps the interview might have ended there if I hadn’t shown adequate understanding of his chosen metier. He is singular in his reputation as one of the top chocolatiers as being without formal training. He began his endeavours in patisserie thanks to a desire to make perfect birthday cakes for his daughter. He is self taught and in all ways his own man. In response to my question of whether there were any other chocolatiers who have inspired him he retorted:
“No, nobody has inspired me. Firstly I don’t have time, my focus is here working. And secondly why would I look to others, to see something I would try to emulate and try to be like them? I can only be myself and that is the best I can be.”
A fine sentiment indeed, and I can assure you his best is worth being!
All the pastry despatched, his movements all swift and agile, he excused himself, ordered my divine hot chocolate to be taken down to a table in the café for me, and said that he would join me in two minutes.
So I was honoured with the time to talk at length to this fascinating and unique man, and came under his direct gaze as I ate his chocolates.
What makes them so stunning, apart from his use of great couverture (he finds Valrhona to be the most consistent to work with and best suited his recipes), is that, as he puts it, he thinks like a chef. He cooks in his kitchen, whose on-site position is a rare thing amongst Paris chocolatiers, and makes things to be eaten there and then, or shortly after. It is all about freshness. Indeed the herbs and fruits that infuse his recipes sing out, even while they are perfectly balanced with the ganache or caramel that they are paired with.
I still cannot forget a dark chocolate basil ganache I had on my first visit, introduced by a chef friend who quite rightly was raving about the place. I eat a lot of chocolates, it was a long time ago. For that one chocolate to stand out, with its stunning burst of the fragrant herb utterly pleasing in the smoothest cloak of deep cocoa, is a testament to how good it was. To how good he is!
He is entirely focused. I have it on good authority that he lives, eats, sleeps and breathes 133 Rue de Turenne. He is not interested in being a brand, and is properly scathing at the affect that the ‘ing’ words (marketing, branding) can have on that which is most important, the chocolates and confiseries. He cannot expand at present because there is only one of him, and he is present in all the activity, the auteur of all production. He has turned down ideas to create for others if it involved any compromise of his philosophy, for example requiring shelflife that his first choice of ingredients wouldn’t allow. He does work with some of the very best hotels and restaurants in France, but supplying what he makes best, they know not to interfere in the creative process. It is not about collaboration but appreciation. He lacks the time to develop new recipes as much as he would like, saying that it is not hard to think of them. What is hard is working them up to the finished standard sufficient to meet his exacting requirements.
Judging from what I saw, and tasted, there is more than enough here already for him to keep his eye on, to satisfy and delight any imaginable customer. Once we were on a roll he kept hopping off to bring me a new taste or taking me back upstairs to show me something. Highlights included a sneak preview the exquisitely hand painted Easter Eggs, worthy of an art gallery and reminding me of Braque and what he might have produced if he was thinking of the early Mayans and the origins of cacao.
And of course the caramels, he is famous for his caramels. Again this trod a line between the old and new, nostalgia and reinvention. Caramels in France to me mean sitting at my grandfather’s knee, in the cool of his grapevine shaded terrace, after a lunch of market finds, baguette and saucissons, tomatoes and basil, in the South of France where he lived. He had a passion for caramels, and to be given one of his stash was to be smiled upon.
The first hint of sweetness from Jacques Genin’s caramel brought a tear to my eye in his memory. But then it blew away the cobwebs and breathed new life into it all. I have never eaten a caramel more tender and melting, it is rich and sweet, yes, but also somehow light and bursting with flavour. In the one he gave me to taste the addition of passion fruit and mango cut the sweetness and added layers of flavour. My beloved grandfather aside, I am not a fan of all caramels, and I would choose the plain, unflavoured type, probably with the addition of a little sea salt. But I would cross Paris for this. Given that I live in London I will likely cross the channel for them too at some point.
When I left, despite having been more than generous and treated me to all manner of delights, M. Genin sent me off with a box selected specially for me. The boxes are a classic design with only one layer;
“Why would you pile them on top of each other? What kind of respect does that show for what is inside!”
These were to allow me to do a degustation in peace, pen in hand, expressing myself uninhibited by M Genin’s gaze.
I have loved every one of them. But I have written enough about what matters here, this wonderful man and his wonderful chocolates. I cannot do better than groan, quietly, with intense pleasure, and hope you know what I mean and go and visit yourself next time you are in Paris.