FRÉDÉRIC CASSEL: MY CHOCOLATE STORY

FRÉDÉRIC WON THE PASTRY CHEF WORLD AWARD IN 2013, AS PRESIDENT OF THE FRENCH TEAM - BEST PASTRY CHEF IN FRANCE 1999 AND 2007 - HONOR PRESIDENT (AFTER 25 YEARS AS A PRESIDENT) OF "LES RELAIS DESSERTS", THE WORLDWIDE PRESTIGIOUS ASSOCIATION FOR THE BEST PASTRY CHEFS - PRIZE OF BEST MILLE-FEUILLE (NAPOLEON PASTRY) FOR THE PARIS AREA, 2010
STORES: FONTAINEBLEAU, LIEUSAINT - STORE/RESTAURANT: CASABLANCA, MOROCCO - CORNERS: BERLIN, GERMANY - TOKYO, JAPAN - KYOTO, JAPAN

A HANDMADE CAREER

I come from three generations of cattlemen-butchers. I have a grandmother whose garden is full of apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries and grapes. She gave me my taste for fruit and the taste for seasons, through the cakes she makes for my whole family.  

My other grandmother is a seamstress. Fascinated by the Dior and Saint-Laurent fashion shows, I too was interested in haute couture. Unfortunately, in the 1980s French countryside, it was easier to find an internship with our neighboring pastry chef! One Saturday, I went with him to a wedding where he was making the cake: a wedding dress made of sugar, lace on the cone, and sugared almonds as pearls. The bride’s tears made me realize that baking can be as beautiful as sewing, and that we can enjoy it as such. I will take a moment to harass Paul Manu, the artist who creates these marvels, but who refused to take on a trainee like myself. I started by making roses -- 500 a week -- for Dalloyau or Lenôtre, some of the most high end pastry shops in France. One day, someone from Fauchon came to learn how to handle sugar, his name was Pierre Hermé. I proceeded to ask him if he had a place for me.
I spent 6 years at his side, watching him invent haute pâtisserie, just like the haute couture I dreamed of as a teenager. 

My father was also a caterer, so on weekends I went back to his house and made cakes for his clients. After a reception one night, I see a car roll over in front of me on the street. The beautiful Helene, whom I pulled from the wreckage and took to the hospital, became my wife and partner in crime for any crazy projects that I was working on.
Together, we opened our first house in 1994, Fontainebleau (whose renaissance castle was one of the favorite residences of François I and Napoleon). Six months later, customers were lined up every weekend to discover our newest creations. 

This was followed by our endeavors in Casablanca (Morocco) in 2010, Tokyo and Kyoto in 2008, and Berlin and Tunis.

MY CHOCOLATE STORY

Valrhona, which offers the best chocolates in the world to the most esteemed restaurants and pastry chefs, took me with other respected clients to the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s. I picked fruit there, as I did at my grandmother's, and discovered the fermentation process: it was a revelation. I became fascinated and, 6 years later, I opened a store dedicated entirely to chocolate. 
For me, chocolate -- like wine -- is a terroir. The percentage of cocoa was a trick invented by manufacturers, and I often explain to my customers that it is secondary, to the typicality of its terroir. The customer who comes to buy a cake is in a hurry. The customer who comes to buy chocolate (often as a gift for themself!), will take his time in exchange for ours.

CHOCOLATIER VS. PASTRY CHEF

Pastry is 50% invention, 50% execution. Chocolate is more like 30/70. I love the creative space around it. I have 35 different flavors, like the jasmine ganache I recently created for Japanese Valentine's Day. 
Chocolate has made me a better pastry chef. Knowing the different flavors has allowed me to invent more original cakes. Our chocolate cake lovers can now say whether they prefer Venezuelan or Haitian flavors more. They know they will only eat it for 2 to 5 months of the year, so it makes the tasting experience all the more precious. 

SAVING THE GOOD CHOCOLATE

In the early 2010s, I returned to the Dominican Republic. In the meantime, I became president of a group of the 100 best pastry chefs in the world. This earned me a meeting with the minister himself. I told him that we had come to buy Chateau-Lafitte, not performance chocolate. For this, the community needed an exceptional industry, open schools, and outstretched arms to the next generation of magnificent chocolate makers. The local cocoa sector also needed to be preserved to ward off outside buyers, who might harvest an alternate hybrid that requires insecticide, lots of water, and deforestation.

We created Cacao Forest, and paid two doctoral students on site to save this endangered masterpiece, as many farmers were old and could not keep up with the land. We opened schools, take care of the maintenance, and keep up with the manure supply. We educate farmers on the quality of what they produce; very often, they have never eaten the chocolate made from their beans! 
We took back the land that was no longer yielding, and returned it to those who knew it best. We also created a local chain to sell the citrus, mangoes and passion fruits that were rotting between the cocoa trees, while hotels just kilometers away offered imported options!

THE CHOCOLAT-E ADVENTURE

I met Jeanyves Verdu, in 2015, during a conference on the geopolitics of cocoa. When he presented his project to me at the end of 2019, I was enthusiastic: creating a range of tasting experiences is pure pleasure. I exchanged ideas with my young collaborators, and rediscovered the excitement I felt when creating my own, in particular my Caribbean-Venezuela cover with a touch of Africa.
Working with Valrhona is a joy. Everyone tastes in their own style, but Valrhona always finds a way to anticipate mine. As for me, I still have to convince Jeanyves (all 8000 kilometers away) that my "dark with milk" -- more chocolatey than any of its competitors -- is what we need, and that I have found the vanilla that balances its original blend.
We are constantly working on the beans, the origins, the precision -- with chemistry, alchemy, inspiration and mystery as our guide. I try to understand my partners on the other side of the Atlantic, just as Marion Tedoldi (at Valrhona) understands my criteria.

HOW TO TASTE CHOCOLAT-E 

Taste and eat them all! Don't look at the percentage, rather taste the origin, the terroir. Buy three bars and take your time, top-of-the-line chocolate is not simply made for snacking. 
Go by bits and pieces, why not blindly?
A little bread crumb or water between chocolates will help, and remember to stay aware: look, listen, crush the chocolate on your palate, inhale and taste the air, seek out the emotions it brings to you.

FRÉDÉRIC'S FRENCH DELIGHTS

 

PHOTOGRAPHIES: GÉRARD UFÉRAS