Junk foodie to prized pastry chef

Though only in his 30s, Christophe Michalak, is one of the rare restaurant pastry chefs to have made a name for himself that almost surpass that of cuisine chef.

by: Rosa Jackson | 07 Mar 2008

Michalak is known for putting his own spin on classic French favourites in his cuisine at the luxury hotel Le Plaza Athenee.

His whimsical creations, such as the After Eight macaroon and a chocolate-coated marshmallow bear for adults, are bringing a new sense of fun to the serious world of French patisserie.

Winner of the Pastry World Cup in Lyon in 2005, this personable 34-year-old credits his iconoclastic style to a steady childhood diet of junk food and television cartoons. "I didn't grow up eating delicious cakes that my grandmother made," he said during his appearance at the Omnivore Food Festival, which brought together France's most innovative chefs in Deauville in February.

Once Michalak discovered a love of pastry, which he admits is strongly linked to his own sweet tooth, it was determination rather than luck that got him to the top of his profession.

Michalak trained his uneducated palate by tasting foods one by one and memorising their flavours. "To learn the true taste of a pear, I tried every kind of pear."

His performance in a pastry competition got him noticed and he began a roving apprenticeship that took him to Hilton hotels in London and Brussels, the Negresco in Nice, Fauchon in Paris with star patissier Pierre Herme, and to Kobe, where Herme was advising a pastry shop and school.

He then worked at the landmark tea room Laduree in Paris before landing the coveted job at the Plaza Athenee. Though Michalak is considered one of the pastry world's great technicians, he believes it is the relative simplicity of his flavour combinations that appeals to people.

At his soon-to-open boutique in Beverly Hills dedicated to the "macaron", a delicate French cake of two almond-meringue biscuits with a creamy filling, he is drawing on familiar American flavours such as Bounty, Snickers, brownies and cheesecake.

Working with a staff of 23, he has developed an assembly-line method that allows any of his staff to produce any of his pastries. The secret lies in preparing each element of the cake in advance and assembling it at the last moment. It also depends on Michalak's total confidence in his staff: he is a modern chef who does not yell and knows how to delegate.

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