August 25, 2015
It isn't every day you meet one of the world's greatest masters of pastry.
On my way to meet Philippe Conticini, chef and co-founder of exceptional and innovative patisserie La Patisserie des Reves, I had certain things in mind. I knew that each time that he and his business partner Thierry Tessier open a new shop there is genuine excitement that only builds once people have tried his recipes. I knew that the London opening was hotly anticipated and the Marylebone High Street store is now a must-visit for anyone with any love of patisserie or viennoiserie. I see a steady stream of punters with childlike joy post pictures of their booty on Twitter, rhapsodising about what they are tasting. Children, friends, professional chefs, patissiers and bakers have all at different times professed to me their love for Patisserie des Reves and its creative heart, Philippe Conticini.
I knew I was on my way to meet a pastry god, what I did not know was that I was also to meet a truly wonderful man. And therein lies the secret of his recipes, they are full of heart. But that is to cut a long story far too short.
Over tea in the salon de thé at the boutique on Rue de Longchamp in Paris’ 16th arrondissement, Philippe explained the journey and thought process that has brought him to where he is today, and which were his most pivotal moments. His professional training started at 18 years old, and he passed his CAP exams in pastry, chocolate and ice cream at the age of twenty. He then worked in top establishments in Paris and Cannes, each for a year or so, mostly creating desserts, but also gaining experience of all the sections in the kitchen.
When he was 23, in 1986, the first formative moment arrived. His father and brother asked him to go into business with them, and they set up the restaurant La Table D’Anvers. His brother was already a celebrated young chef, and he took over the main kitchen, while Philippe was left to create in the pastry section. And create he did, quickly gaining a stunning reputation for what he produced. In 1989 Gault Milau magazine dubbed him ‘l’enfant prodige de la patisserie’, and then in 1991 honoured him as the best pastry chef in France. He was a man on a mission. A mission that was born in 1986, when they had first opened, and he had been eating lunches quietly with his brother. Before the restaurant was yet so busy that they didn’t have time to lunch together. He recalls a suckling pig, with pomme purée and served simply with the cooking juices, that gave him goosebumps. His brother’s food moved him, got right down into his core with its perfect rightness. He began to see how food could communicate and express something pure and direct from the chef. It was a pivotal moment, his first pivotal moment.
Philippe was generously and endearingly honest with me about his own life battles. An overweight child from the age of two of three, he has always struggled with his weight, and it has seen him on the receiving end of nastiness and bullying. The weight got in his way. But through food, and spurred on by comments from diners even in the early days that his food touched them, he saw a way through, a way to be himself. Through food he could speak directly, and when people loved his food it was genuinely him they could understand. Through his food it could be Philippe that was known and that shone, his weight was irrelevant.
The second revelation came in 1994, when, frustrated by the plates on which he was creating his desserts, and in the spirit of experimentation, he borrowed a glass from the restaurant’s sommelier and decided to put the elements he was playing with vertically, rather than horizontally. By ordering layers within a glass, depending on how he wanted them to be tasted, he could dictate the experience more directly. For example he could ensure that once they were on the spoon the first thing to touch the tongue and the taste-buds was the brightest opening note of the dish, next the main element, the body of the dish, and then finally something soft and enveloping to round and elongate the whole. On tasting this new creation, 8 years after his brother’s dish gave him goose-bumps, a dish of his own finally did the same. He had now created the sensation on eating his food that allowed the communication and expression that he had been seeking. At the same time as this personal achievement he also created the ‘verrine’ a form of layered dish in a ‘little glass’ that is now a standard of patisserie and refined kitchens.
In 1998 he left the family restaurant, to further his own journey, to think, and then to begin what became a prolific period of consultation for many restaurants and food business in France, Japan, the UK and America to name but a few. He had particular success as head chef (not just in pastry but the main kitchen) in restaurants for Petrossian for whom he was already consulting as pastry chef. Petrossian begged him to take on the whole kitchen at his new London restaurant after tasting his cooking at a private dinner. This went on to gain a Michelin star 18 months after opening. When they then took their partnership to New York, despite Philippe’s desire to speak through his food rather than directly, and Petrossian’s desire for the endeavour not to focus on the name Conticini, interest in the chef sky-rocketed. They were a massive hit – with a six month period of being on the cover of every magazine going, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Some of the phrases writers used to describe Philippe’s food began to take hold of him, and even echoed things he had written himself previously. And then in Japan, in Tokyo, using ingredients previously unknown to him, Philippe had his third revelation. He created a fusion of his own ideas and what he had to hand, a croquette with red beans, hazelnut, orange zest and a few other elements. When the client for whom it had been created tasted it the response was striking, they were convinced they had tasted it before. But it was brand new. It had merely evoked a taste memory, and it had moved someone profoundly.
Now Philippe began to believe in himself, that he could create emotion in others; that he was communicating through the sensations in his food.
He left Petrossian in 2004, to concentrate on his consulting and set up a catering kitchen. In 2007 he worked on a luxury hotel in Portugal, for its founder Thierry Tessier, who, over the course of the menu development for that hotel tasted many of Philippe’s recipes. In 2008, knowing Philippe and his food well, Thierry proposed that they set up a patisserie. Philippe agreed, but on condition that he was allowed to go back to the classics. He wanted the purest expression of himself, and felt that the elaborate desserts he had been creating, while clearly delicious, were not truly allowing him to be understood.
Before opening on the Rue du Bac in late 2009 Philippe took 10 months to prepare those first recipes, tweaking and rethinking until they moved him. The Paris Brest was three months in development, the Tarte Tatin six! All that he has ever wanted, all that he wants now, is to touch people deeply with his food, to evoke in them memories of their childhood wonder and joy, and give them back to them anew. If you love his food, Philippe is satisfied.
I was there to interview Philippe, and he was open and animated with his history and we enjoyed a really wonderful conversation. But when it came time to taste things, and he sat, explained and waited for my responses to his recipes, it did feel like that is by far the most important thing to him. And my evident pleasure at all that he fed me was enough. That a chef of his stature should care so much about simply sharing the food with one other person – and get so much from it – speaks volumes, and why I like him so very much.
The Grand Cru Vanille is a simple square of dreamily light vanilla mousse-cake, that slices silently open to reveal a heart of pure vanilla on top of a fine layer of soft biscuit with the very slightest crackle of texture. Philippe does not like heavy, obvious textures, he prefers crackle to crunch. It is a superbly comforting thing to eat, interesting, delicate, technical even, but above all a child-like hug in cake form, with its milky flavours and vanilla scent.
Next came the Paris Brest, classic of the French pastry kitchen, and something that Philippe has reworked to retain all the important flavours and associations. With this Philippe has used techniques that he often employs, reducing the amount of butter traditionally used. He retains a luxurious mouthfeel, yet lightens the whole and gives it a wonderful texture, by whisking the crème patissiere centre to create a smooth body and lots of little bubbles. Into this light moussy crème he injects a centre of pure rich flavour; the praline that he allows no one other than himself to make. It is full of deeply toasted caramel and hazelnut flavour and is quite wonderful. These two contrasting but perfectly married elements, encased in a meltingly good circle of choux pastry, combine to both evoke the classic Paris Brest, and to delight anew.
Finally we taste Philippe’s version of a brioche, the brioche feuilletée. This has the shape of a standard little cottage loaf brioche, but is made with a flaky yeast-risen dough, more like a croissant dough than the conventional brioche dough. Philippe instructs me to pull it apart with my hands. Then, when the top has come away with a twist of the soft, elastic pastry that has been down in it’s core, he tells me to eat that bit. I cannot help but put it to my nose first. And what greets me is the pure smell of a buttery, bit of croissant heaven. It is also a pure memory of standing outside the backstreet kitchens of the local bakery in my grandparents hilltop village in the south of France as a child. We would stand and watch the croissants as they were rolled and formed, and the loaves getting their razor-slash decoration and final dusting of flour. Then we would profit from a croissant or a brioche, sugar studded, direct from the ovens, before the baker’s wife arrived to collect for the shop. In that case the butter, flour and yeast were so much more than the sum of their parts. They are here too, in this new creation Philippe has handed me. He has moved me deeply. For a moment I can’t speak, and then I devour the rest of the brioche, while telling him about the memory it has evoked.
We have been talking and eating more than two hours, Thierry has arrived to run over details of some new recipes and packaging with Philippe, and the time has come for me to part. But Philippe insists I take the Paris Brest with me, and they also pack me up a box full of other treats, for which I have strict instructions how to eat them. For example I am told that the Grand Cru chocolate must come out of the fridge 40 minutes before I eat it, as that is the point at which the ganache is correctly melting and not too hard. Philippe’s concern for my enjoyment is palpable, and he is absolutely focused on ensuring that what he has to say is understood, is heard.
I have my ears wide open, I am listening. And so now are many many others!