Published in: September 2013 Features > Rise of the French Oven (Page 1 / 5)

Rise of the French Oven

An impressive crop of famous Paris patissiers has taken up residence in Hong Kong. In a city where the majority of residents traditionally don’t eat creamy dessert, this is a curious phenomenon. We find out why, and meet the independent bakers who are giving the maestros a run for their dough

Paris-Brest at 126 Grammes

At a recent rendition of Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, staged by the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre at City Hall, protagonist Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya utters wistfully, “Vive la France!” while sipping on a café au lait. It was La Belle Epoque, an era when French society – the upper echelons at least – enjoyed a litany of artistic and cultural breakthroughs, with intellectuals and artists making the pilgrimage to City of Lights in droves.

More than a century later, this sentiment is keenly echoed in certain segments of Hong Kong society. Bordeaux wines are snapped up at auctions, and the je ne sais quoi attitude is fervently adopted (note the oxymoron) among (pseudo)-artist types. Following on the rich heels of the French chocolatiers, French patisseries are now popping up in various locations around town.

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Laduree's signature macarons

For a society not known for its sweet tooth – many would choose to end their meal with a piece of fruit – why have macarons and eclairs taken a hold so strongly and quickly in Hong Kong? Do French sweets evoke a sense of romance, propagated by such films as Chocolat, or are digital nomads doing it largely for vanity?

While prices (HK$45 for a small piece of cake in some cases) will no doubt lead some to slink away, long and persistent queues outside Laduree and Le Salon de The de Joel Robuchon seem to indicate it’s no fleeting fancy. Some may attribute the trend to the proliferation of the French population in Hong Kong, which has doubled in the past seven years to an estimated 15,000 according to the French Consulate. Yet Emmanuel Vallier of Stan Cafe rejects the notion of specifically catering to the French. “We are not just targeting the French with our baguettes, of course – everyone wants good bread these days,” he says.

Pierre Herme, who opened an outpost in Hong Kong in May, links the success of the modern-day bakery to the desire for escapism. “The colorful hues and impeccable furnishing in pastry shops are vehicles for transporting people to a fantasy land,” he opines. “Everything needs to be perfect, from the quality of the desserts to service and decor. The experience needs to be magical!” Packaging also plays a part, with brands like macaron-maker Laduree – which seems to debut a new gift box every few months – propelling it from a protective container to a collectable item. 

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Choux pastry temptations at 126 Grammes

It also helps that the local baking scene has remained largely stagnant over the past decade. In a city of skyrocketing rents, where a bakery chain’s only concern is often to cut costs, experimentation is a risky proposal. As Nicole Fung of Nicole La Patisserie succinctly puts it, “Two common misconceptions among locals are that a good cake needs to be round, and that it needs to be topped with lots of fruit.”

Alexandre Talpaert, pastry chef at Boulangarie, adds: “Hong Kong was behind everyone else [in acquiring international gourmet habits], not only in terms of bread and pastries, but also stuff like coffee. It’s a stark contrast to Japan, which is way ahead of the curve.” There is also worry that the French bakery’s speedy boom might also lead to its swift demise. At Boulangerie in increasingly hip Kennedy Town, opera cakes, lemon tarts, eclairs and pain au chocolat line the shelves, yet one cannot help but wonder: where are the ubiquitous macarons? “Oh, there are so many people doing it already! Plus I think it’s a trend,” opines Talpaert. “In Hong Kong, trends come and go like that,” he adds, snapping his fingers. “Seldom do you find this phenomenon elsewhere, not in Paris, not in London, not even in New York.”

Which is not to say that all is eternal in the French pastry world. While local forerunners like Sandra Cohen Taieb of 126 Grammes have adjusted the sugar level to cater to tastes, Talpaert reveals that the practice is not exclusive to the city. “There’s been a global trend to cut down the amount of sugar used in pastries and ice-cream. People are starting to realise that rising obesity rates correspond with the consumption of sweets. After all, you are what you eat.”

Fung concurs: “The French are known for being headstrong, but they’re slowly starting to accept that not everyone likes their dessert sweet and creamy. It has been a huge compromise on their part!”

– Christie Lee