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The Art of the Tarte

Master confectioner Pierre Herme combines exotic ingredients with a flair for the dramatic at Paris's chicest patisserie.

One sunny afternoon during a recent Paris fashion week, Palais de Tokyo (a chic contemporary exhibition space) was packed with a stylish crowd holding hot-pink programs. A Japanese deejay was spinning Brazilian music on the mezzanine, and all eyes were fixed on the runway. Instead of models, however, out strutted a long line of chefs dressed in white and carrying small silver trays with domed lids. One by one they marched up the catwalk until, all at once, the lids came off, and voilà!—platters of Technicolor cakes, meticulously sculpted pastries, and glistening tarts. A man dressed head-to-toe in black stepped out from behind a curtain and into a wall of applause. In a soft voice, he declared that the tasting buffet was open, and, as if Karl Lagerfeld himself had announced that Chanel couture was up for grabs backstage, everyone immediately leaped up and made a dash toward the colorful creations.

It was the debut of the fall-winter line by wunderkind pastry chef Pierre Hermé, whose sweet creations are their own couture of sorts and have been treated with equal fanfare since 2003, when he held the first of his now semiannual haute patisserie shows. Credited with breathing fresh life into the heavily traditional French pastry business, Hermé has spent the last two decades crafting innovative and modern desserts that have become the benchmark against which other chefs' desserts are measured.

Born into the fifth generation of a family of bakers in the small Alsatian village of Colmar, 42-year-old Hermé jokes that a passion for French pastries is encoded in his DNA. At the age of 14, he secured a position with legendary chef Gaston Lenôtre in Paris. "It was an invaluable introduction to the classic techniques and the foundations of my craft," he says of the six years he spent working his way from apprentice to executive chef in Lenôtre's kitchen. "It took me years to process and then detach from all that I had learned, in order to find my own voice."

But it was during the 11 years he spent in the pastry kitchen at Fauchon, the Paris gourmet store, that he perfected his art. Recognizing an immense talent, Fauchon gave Hermé, at 24, carte blanche over the dessert menu. Right away, the young chef began experimenting with flavor combinations and updating old standards. He intensified chocolate and caramel by adding a touch of sea salt to both and spiced up berry desserts by grinding black pepper into the mix. Hermé also developed a lighter puff-pastry dough and smoother lemon cream. To highlight his modern riffs, he devised an innovative—and ultrachic—way to showcase his novelties. He created two ensembles of pastries a year and dubbed them les collections.

Like the beaded-silk gowns or fanciful feather headdresses of couture, Hermé also concocts whimsy. Take, for example, the one-of-a-kind milk-chocolate extravaganza from 1990 that he calls La Cerise sur le Gâteau. Playfully reinventing a traditional shape, La Cerise is a giant slice of cake adorned with a huge glossy cherry. Beyond the eye-catching design—part Disney cartoon, part Pop Art installation—it is one of the most complex and delicious items in the Hermé collection. Multiple layers seamlessly fuse velvety ganache, shards of crunchy praline, delicate sheets of silky chocolate, and fluffy meringue.

Hermé's boutique at Rue Bonaparte in the Sixth Arrondissement is the ideal showcase for his constantly evolving collection. Dark wood and moody lighting accent the stage for the exuberant treats found, à la gemstones, in glass cases. There's Satine, a tender cheesecake with zesty bursts of passion fruit and orange marmalade and glorious Garance, a fig-and-raspberry tart seasoned with a dash of cinnamon. An intense chocolate creation called Plénitude brilliantly combines bitter-chocolate mousse and brittle caramel with a hint of salt.

And then, of course, there are the famous macaroons. These tiny almond cakes filled with ganache have long been the quintessential Parisian pastry. Hermé's renditions, however, come in bold colors and original combinations. A recent roster included cream of peach spiced with saffron and flecked with apricot; creamy white truffle jazzed up with minced hazelnut; and velvety chocolate with passion fruit.

Hermé spends an enormous amount of time seeking out each ingredient, whether it be candied orange from Corsica, chocolate from Venezuela, or artisanal butter from Charenton-le-Pont. Yet he also has an instinct for teasing, provoking, and creating specific—and unbelievably delectable—new flavors with familiar staples from the baker's palette.

Like many artistes, Hermé does not have an easy time describing his process. "It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what inspires my creations," he explains. "Sometimes an ingredient is with me for a long time and then, one day, I suddenly realize how to use it." Complex tastes, ingredients, and baking techniques aside, what inspires Hermé is the simple pleasure of the finished treat. "In the end, the only distinction I make is between bad and good pastry."

Pierre Hermé, 72 Rue Bonaparte; 33-1/43-54-47-77.