Thomas Keller Restaurant Group executive pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel received an early introduction to the culinary realm. “My aunt used to own a restaurant, so I spent a lot of time there,” he explains. “I was very attracted to the environment and felt comfortable there.” At 16 years old, he took on a pre-apprenticeship at Les Jardins de la Forge in Champtoceaux before landing a pastry chef role at age 20 at Mess De L’Elysée, where he served France’s president.
A move to the United States and a couple of bicoastal restaurant experiences (L’Orangerie in L.A. and Lutèce in New York) led him to The French Laundry, where he spent five years as a pastry chef before moving to New York for the opening of Per Se. In addition to overseeing the pastry program at all of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, Rouxel manages the retail offerings at all of the Bouchon Bakery (10 Columbus Circle #3, 212-823-9363) outposts — right down to the macarons. In honor of Macaron Day, we chatted with the Loire Valley native to get his thoughts on the trials, successes, and future of the colorful bite-sized pastry.
What is your process for creating desserts?
When I think about a dessert or a pastry for retail, there are a few guidelines we follow. It has to have textures. It could be sweet or a little salty, but it needs to have something crunchy and soft — and maybe laminated. Paying attention to those textures is a big thing because you don’t want to end up with something bland. It’s important to focus on the flavor you’re looking for. I also think it’s very important to involve your staff and to work together — to share opinions and ideas.
Any favorite flavor combinations?
One of my favorite combinations is chocolate and citrus. I’ll often try to come up with something that has the two ingredients. I was thinking recently about using bergamot oranges and chocolate. I like yuzu and chocolate, yuzu and mint chocolate, grapefruit and dark chocolate.
How do you approach a retail pastry versus a plated dessert?
The restaurants are about fine dining, so everything needs to be refined. If you have an idea, you can break it down and work around it. But in retail — especially for Bouchon Bakery — it’s meant to be a bakery and pastry shop with home-style items; a place people can frequent for a cookie and cup of coffee. I also want to bring some of my favorite items from my childhood and introduce them to our customers.
What’s one of your favorite childhood offerings?
One of the big ones for me for different reasons is the croissant. It’s been made for many years, but it’s something I realized has sort of disappeared. Fewer people are making it; the craft is complicated, it takes time. Some people are not interested in doing that kind of item anymore, and it’s a shame. I like to take a look at it and say, “How can I make it better?” The last thing I thought about was the butter, which is a huge part in the success of a croissant. I’ve found a butter that I import from France — it has a great flavor.
As a pastry chef who grew up in France, what is your take on the macaron and its evolution?
People travel a lot now. Pastry shops like Ladurée and Pierre Hermé have a really good reputation, and people want to be sure they visit them when traveling. When they come back home, they want to see those items. As pastry chefs, we can bring what we’ve made or learned from where we come from and try to introduce it to our customers here in the U.S. New Yorkers especially are always looking for something new. When macarons were first introduced, they were kind of like the new cupcake. People enjoy that — something different and something new. I was thinking yesterday actually that now, too many people are making the macaron because it’s so popular. So many people make it to try to make money. But the quality of the macaron has diminished. It’s important to respect what a macaron should be, and it’s up to us pastry chefs to try to change that.
How should a macaron taste when made correctly?
It’s a delicacy. It should be delicately crunchy on the outside while moist and chewy and flavorful on the inside. The flavor of the macaron should come from the inside. Sometimes the flavor of the macaron is sweet, and you’re not even sure what flavor it is. It says lemon and the macaron is yellow, but it doesn’t really taste like lemon on the inside. That’s why you have to respect the process. You have to make them and preserve them in the freezer so they can develop their flavor and texture. That’s where the moist texture comes from. Then you can bring them back to room temperature and start eating them. They’re difficult to make.
What makes their production so challenging to master?
There are many different things, from the baking and batter to the room that you work in. It really depends on whether you’re making them in the winter or the summer — the humidity in the room is very important. If you mix the batter too much, the macaron will spread and lose its shape when you pipe them on the sheet pans. Or, if it’s too thick, you won’t be able to make them flat. In the baking, you have to have a little “neck,” as we call it — it’s when the macarons raise up and have that little ring around it. Sometimes it doesn’t work — they’ll get stuck to the paper and won’t raise. Sometimes the quality of the almond flour isn’t refined, which will impart chunks of almond flour on the top of the macaron. It’s time consuming, but you have to sift the sugar and the almond flour.
So many different variables! No wonder they’re a pretty penny.
It’s all about the craft. It’s really only almond, sugar, and egg white. It’s like croissants — it’s flour, water, butter, and lamination. There are no fancy ingredients — no gum, no agar agar — they’re simple ingredients. But the craft is very intricate.
When you think of a traditional macaron, what flavor comes to mind?
I think the first one would be chocolate, then coffee and vanilla. But macarons are also meant to be colorful and playful, so you have to introduce fruit flavors. The color has to match the filling, so yellow for lemon, a pink one for raspberry. And now there are flavors like olive oil and green tea. We actually had a party for Vanity Fair a few weeks ago, and we made black truffle macarons as a savory canapé. You can get really creative.
What do you see for the future of macarons?
I wonder about this — will it remain in New York and the U.S.A., or will it diminish like the cupcake? Will it become a staple that will always be here, or will people lose interest and move on to something else? I think the reputation will remain — as long as we professionals continue to make them well.