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French pastry has been experiencing a glow-up of sorts in the last few years. Chefs are breaking with the super-sweet fillings, stodgy creams, and neon-colored glazes that dominated pastry in the 80s and 90s to pave the way for pâtisserie that’s more seasonal and lower in sugar, somehow managing to be both more approachable and more refined.
It’s a trend that’s evident in the advent, at palace hotels from the Meurice to the Plaza Athénée, of pastry shops, a slightly more affordable takeaway option joining the plated desserts that conclude the often Michelin-starred meals served within the hallowed walls of such establishments. After François Perret’s Ritz Le Comptoir, with its luxe filled madeleines and long, elegant croissants or Cédric Grolet’s La Pâtisserie du Meurice, where Instagram’s favorite pastry chef dazzles patiently waiting customers with his trompe l’oeil creations, Matthieu Carlin has become the latest pâtissier to jump on this trend, with his new Butterfly Pâtisserie, a veritable jewel of a boutique within the recently renovated Hôtel de Crillon.
“Butterflies symbolize elegance and fragility,” says the chef. “And a certain lightness, too. And of course, something attractive. A butterfly always attracts the eye.”
The offering at Butterfly is indeed eye-catching, not to mention surprisingly varied, considering the diminutive size of the shop. An array of about nine pastries is available at any given time, in addition to a selection of traveling cakes and chocolates. But while it’s certainly tantalizing for guests, it’s not necessarily the project that would have most excited Carlin as a young pastry chef.
“When I first started, it was plated desserts that most inspired me,” he says. “But today, I think it’s important to be polyvalent.”
It’s a skill required of him at the Crillon, where he and his team make everything from breakfast viennoiserie to tea cakes for the glamorous Jardin d’Hiver to plated desserts for the Michelin-starred l’Ecrin, not to mention special occasion offerings like wedding cakes and croquembouches.
“You get such a wide range of what the job offers at a hotel,” he says. “Whereas if you’re in a shop, you only make pastries, and if you’re in a restaurant, you only do plated desserts. Here, with my team, we do everything from A to Z.”
It’s never boring – and it means that after four years at the helm, he was more than ready to rise to another challenge: create a new range of pastries exclusive to the new takeaway shop.
Oddly, the desserts themselves were the element Carlin was least worried about.
“The pastry part – maybe it’s pretentious to say this – but it’s not the hardest part,” he says. “Making cakes, doing trials, putting everything together… I know how to do that. That’s my job.”
But there were other challenges in converting what was once a small souvenir shop into the jewel that is Butterfly. The space needed renovations to welcome the necessary fridges and tea salon space where one can enjoy Carlin’s creations on-site. He had to come up not just with cakes but with packaging. New staff had to be hired and trained.
“That,” he says, “was the adventure.”
And it also paved the way for Carlin to embrace new challenges. The inviting tea salon space has become home to a beautiful chariot, used to serve, not digestifs or cheese, but madeleine tea cakes, each paired with its own accompaniment. And in crafting his new line, Carlin has also leaned into at least one other pastry trend: that of the signature shape.
If not supplanting, then at least joining more classic pastry shops, where choux pastry coexists with puff, where macaron shells meet tart shells, a new generation of Parisian pâtisseries have built their success on mastering a form and varying the flavor: Sucré Coeur’s gluten-free tarts, Odette’s cream puffs, or l’Eclair de Génie’s éclairs are just some of the shops that have leaned into this approach. Carlin, too, has crafted a signature cake: a long oval that, from afar, somewhat resembles an éclair, but from up close reveals itself to be a creative entremets marrying textures and flavors: grapefruit with a fromage blanc mousse, for example, or a chocolate shortbread with coffee gel, coffee whipped cream, and caramelized buckwheat.
“The advantage of this shape,” he explains, “is that when you taste your pastry, each mouthful has all of the elements. When you eat a round cake, as you get closer and closer to the center, you get different things. It’s not that it’s not as good… but the emotion is different.”
To these cakes, he applies the same mentality as he does to his other offerings, not just at the shop, but throughout the hotel. Seasonality is forever at the forefront of his creations, which feature top-quality local produce and eschew excess sugar and food coloring.
“If we do glazes here,” he says, “they’re fruit glazes. If it’s red, it’s because I put strawberry juice or strawberry purée in it.”
To wit, one of the best-sellers is his charlotte aux fraises, revisited with a flavorful heart redolent with fresh strawberry flavor.
“I love fruit,” he says. “And it’s a little cake that’s rich in fruit. It’s really flavorful. And it’s the season, so we’re just having fun with strawberries.”
It’s been on the menu since the shop opened, but it won’t be on the menu forever. When raspberries take the lead, the charlotte will disappear, and a new pastry will take its place.
“For a long time, in pastry shops, you’d see strawberries from January to December,” he says. “No matter the season, there were always strawberries. Today, we have strawberries because it’s strawberry season.”
In addition to local produce, Carlin works closely with purveyors of flavors from further afield, like Epices Shira, an organic spice shop founded by a former cook who provides him the best orange blossom water, the most exciting high-altitude teas, and all three vanillas – Mexican, Tahitian, and Malagasy – that go into a vanilla dessert he serves at l’Ecrin. He uses this top-quality vanilla, too, for an upscale play on a nostalgic classic: a gourmet flan pâtissier, available in plain vanilla as well as a more innovative iteration marbled with chocolate, vanilla, and crunchy hazelnut praline with fleur de sel, that has become a house favorite.
“It gives it an even more moreish dimension than the vanilla,” he says. “Less classic, but more gourmand.”
While a return to nostalgic classics is yet another trend he acknowledges, musing that it may be a response to a search for reassurance, post-Covid, it seems that rather than leaning into these trends, it’s the trends that have finally caught up with Carlin’s stoic reliance on his longtime pastry philosophy: tradition married with creativity, bright, fresh flavors focused on fruit and just the right amount of sugar. It’s an approach perfectly embodied in his play on his personal favorite of the French classics: the lemon tart.
“Whenever I go anywhere,” he says, “I always get a lemon tart. Because I love acidity, and I love citrus. And it’s timeless. I think it’s reassuring. You always know what you’re going to get.”
Or… nearly. His lemon tart may look like the classic, but in reality, it’s as novel as his other offerings, featuring a cake soaked in lemon juice concealed beneath house-made lemon curd and a trompe l’oeil meringue on top. A lemon mousse dome is merely dipped in a thin layer of meringue, giving the impression of generosity with a far less cloying result.
“But it’s still a lemon tart!” he says. “Because there’s the lemon curd, the lemon mousse… voila.”
Lead photo credit : The pastries on offer at Butterfly Patisserie, Hôtel de Crillon. Photo credit: Emily Monaco