The prestigious Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie, or World Pastry Cup, is the culinary equivalent of the Olympic Games. This year, for the first time, the United States won gold, ahead of Japan (silver) and Italy (bronze). Creating mouth-watering masterpieces in chocolate, sugar, and ice, and a member of the victorious three-person U.S. team that competed in Lyon, France, was Michel Willaume, executive pastry chef at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton. We nibbled on one of Chef Willaume's creations, an irresistibly light and creamy pistachio petit-four, while learning how a pastry chef rises to the occasion.
Q: What inspired you to become a pastry chef?
A: My mother made a wonderful apple cake. I fell in love with this cake. I started following the recipe and making this cake when I was 11. When I was 13 years old, I said to my parents, "I want to make pastry." I started in a pastry shop when I was 15.
Q: Does it bother you that your specialty, dessert, is sometimes an afterthought?
A: It is always my concern that after a good meal, there won't be space in the stomach for dessert, so it became my obsession to make pastry as light as possible. People remember the last thing they eat at the end of a meal so I feel the dessert has to be the Wow! of the meal.
Q: You are a Master of French Pastry and were, for a time, pastry cook at the French government's Hotel Matignon in Paris where you cooked for President Jacques Chirac when he was Prime Minister. What was his favorite dessert?
A: Chocolate charlotte. It is a very old-fashioned cake we make in France, a chocolate sponge with a powerful chocolate crème anglaise, like a heavy mousse, completely covered with lady fingers.
Q: Name four famous people who have eaten your pastries at the Ritz-Carlton.
A: Madonna. I didn't meet her but I like her, so that was really nice for me. Michael Jackson. He was here not very long ago and used room service, as he doesn't like to be recognized. Margaret Thatcher. And former president Bill Clinton, of course.
Q: How should one pair dessert with wine?
A: A fruit or a chocolate dessert require different wines. With a fruity dessert, a rich and sweet white Sauternes from France's Bordeaux region is a good choice. With chocolate's heavier texture, go for a sweet red wine, a port or a Banyuls, which is a very interesting French vin de liqueur.
Q: If you were going to make your wife Susana a special treat, what would it be?
A: She loves chocolate, and she loves vanilla flavor, so maybe a heart made from chocolate with some vanilla crème brûlée in the middle and some fresh raspberries on the top with a little fresh raspberry sauce. I'd use Valrhona chocolate from the small town near Lyon in the south of France. That for me is one of the best chocolates in the world—for the consistency of the product and the richness of the beans.
Q: Can you give four tips for readers who want to make pastry at home?
A: First, always start with something basic, to gain confidence. Second, you can amaze people with simple things . . . like dipping a strawberry in chocolate. Third, always use the freshest ingredients and remember that an apple pie can be wonderful. And fourth, don't have more than four flavors on a plate. You don't want to disturb the palate with too much complexity. If you want complexity, have different textures using the same flavors.
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: Sushi. And, generally, I don't eat dessert after sushi!
This article was first published in May 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.