A master pastry chef and chocolate maker searching for balance and perfect harmony
Once you have read the delicious words of Arnaud Larher, you will have an irresistible urge to go to his patisserie and chocolate shop in Montmartre. Meet the Meilleur Ouvrier de France of 2007.
Your "flip flop" tarts were the creative idea of the summer. Could you tell us the story behind this success?
Arnaud LARHER: The idea came to me when in Brazil where I spotted Brazilian flip flops on the walls of the shops. I decided that a cake in the shape of a flip flop, a simple and universal colourful object, would be a good idea. But inspiration is nothing without hard work and experience. You have to let the idea grow, it's a real gestation process. Without it, you can't achieve a well thought-out product; it takes a whole year for me to launch a new product. I free up creativity time, I do not put undue pressure on myself. Any pressure must be positive!
The success was overwhelming. The pleasant surprise was seeing customers buy not one but four flip flop tarts! I'm preparing a new collection for next summer. I will go even further in terms of creativity and marketing.
How do you still manage to surprise us?
A.L.: "Surprise" is my motto. When my customers ask me for a "light Christmas log", I take them at their word! I play with textures; it's impossible to be any lighter! If you stick a spoon into the log, the texture is so light, it will sink in without pushing.
Another novelty is a raspberry-based product resulting from our research work on combinations of fruit with different types of vinegar. I also work on fruit pastes. The aim is to "unsweeten" them to bring out the full fruity flavour. I have already made a yuzu fruit paste which is simply amazing. I'm currently honing the technique. I leave it to mature enough to achieve the result that I believe is satisfactory. "Let time take its course" is a saying that suits me.
Is this astonishment you are seeking dependent on technique?
A.L.: Lack of technique makes you lose time and hinders talent. Technique is the foundation of everything and needs to be well-grounded. I have studied with the best in the profession since the age of 15. In a world where everything has to move fast, you have to take time to learn. That's what I do, I take notes, I make changes and note any mistakes to avoid. You need to understand and "get into" the product, find the balance between dry matter, fat, water, etc. It's a laborious task that takes a lot of patience. You then need to "digest" this learning curve in order to have your own personal take and give free rein to your inspiration.
Learning from the best professionals is extremely rewarding; I have never claimed to be omniscient. Seeing what others are doing and testing products have helped me build me a real mental library of flavours.
And what room is there for passion?
A.L.: It's important to filter what you have learned through your own sensitivity. To achieve a subtle blend between technology, experience, your personal affinities and tastes. I love chocolate as an ingredient and techniques are only useful and applicable when combined with this passion.
In your opinion, what are the trends that will emerge this end-of-year season? There is much talk of savoury pastries, Asian ingredients, liquid-solid textures, hybrid formats...
A.L.: It's not something that I bother about. Fashion and trends have never guided my work. "If it's beautiful, it's interesting" is often a disappointing rule of thumb. You have to think out of the box, but not do any old thing. You need to surprise but not shock. And don't forget that the best cakes in the world will only appeal if they are good. The most important thing is to create an emotion.
Are your Breton roots still an inspiration today?
A.L.: Yes, I add "fleur de sel" just about everywhere. I was born in a vat of salted butter! I make simple, tasty Breton galettes with a "noisette" (melted) butter that I particularly like. When the galettes leave the oven, I can't resist them! My Kouign Amann demands a lot of work because I wanted it to be MY Kouign Amann and no-one else's.
How do you strike a balance between such different flavours as chocolate and fruit?
A.L.: Nature offers a variety of fruit that gives us a huge range of possibilities in baking. I use them in all forms: steamed, stewed, coulis, mousse, sponge, etc. I have no limits, I try everything. You have to make sure that the chocolate doesn't spoil the taste of the fruit. It must support the fruit, bring out its best. Chocolate should carry the fruit flavour in a balanced way and give a cocoa touch. On the palate, the first note should be the fruit not chocolate.
I taste all my new recipes. The product is my guide. I continually call myself into question. I observe how my test recipes progress, while trying to keep an open and critical mind. This is not how everyone works. I like to spend time on research and when I find the right flavour and texture, the time I spend on that research - which some may consider as a waste of time - is a real and gratifying return on investment.