We have a plethora of dining opportunities here in South Florida, but when it comes to bakeries we have few traditional options.
Sure, we have Colombian, Cuban, and heck even some Chinese, but in terms of traditional French pastry shops, the options are few and far between.
In late 2013, Patrick Lézé Palm Beach sprouted out of the old Champs Elysees bakery on "the island;" its namesake master pastry chef churns out a wide selection of breads, chocolates, and sweet treats in a comfortable and casual setting.
We sat down to chat with the renowned patissier about beating cancer, stumbling upon Palm Beach on a Harley, and the real difference between France and the U.S.
Clean Plate Charlie: You recently overcame a battle with cancer. You started undergoing treatment in the United States, but decided to go back to France. Why?
Lézé: Right after I was diagnosed, I started treatment and underwent my first treatment here, but the cancer came back quickly. Because of the prohibitive costs of treatment and chemotherapy I decided to go back to France; the healthcare system is more approachable over there.
You started working on the rebranding of the shop while you were going through treatment. What was that like?
I had Champs Elysees for five years; we were talking about if for about a year. I was involved in the PB Catch dinner at the Palm Beach Food and Wine Festival last year and we started talking about the opportunity right around then. Just after the dinner I went back to France to begin treatment (in January). In July my wife closed down the shop, came to France, and we started the rebranding. It was a challenge for me, because I was sick, but I like my job. I know cancer is important, but it wasn't to me; I fought it. Working on the project gave me hope. I knew that when I came back I'd have something great waiting for me. I've been doing this for 50 years now, and I've never felt this strongly.
You owned patisseries in France for years. What made you decide to come to Palm Beach?
I sold my business in Aix-en-Provence and then came to the U.S. with my wife to go touring on our Harleys. I always wanted to visit Florida; it was like a dream for me. While I was here I fell in love with Palm Beach. It had a lot of similarities with the South of France. So, I thought why not? I like the sun.
We've heard the process of becoming a pastry chef in France is extremely intense.
It's a more extensive training process for chefs. First, you have to go to pastry school for three years to get a diploma; you can't make bread or pastry without it. After ten years of working in the industry, you can sit for your master certification, but it's a weeklong process. You need a lot of experience. It's a state approved license like a doctor or attorney. You can't open a pastry shop of your own until you have your master pastry certificate.
What do you think differentiates French pastry from everywhere else?
The difference here is there is no real pastry culture; pastry culture is almost unique to France. Few countries have gone to the same lengths. There are a lot of sophisticated cooking cultures like the Japanese or Chinese, for example, but when it comes to sweets few have the same sophistication. To get your original certification you need to work for other pastry chefs for months to develop your skills; it doesn't require the same level of training here.
Why do the French take their pastries so seriously?
Because the French invented it. Marie-Antoine Carême brought sophisticated cuisine to France, and pastries were a big part of that. Later Gaston Lenôtre brought the first specializes pastry shops to the world.
What's your favorite dessert?
Black forest, it's not French, but I like the cherries marinated in kirschwasser -- a liqueur made from distilled cherries. For French pastries, I'd say I like the Saint Honore; it's made of puff pastry, soft caramel, vanilla creme, Chantilly cream, and more puff pastries coated in hard caramel.
Did you change the menu with the rebrand?
We didn't want to make any major changes, just the appeal and we extended the line of products. We're trying to do everything perfectly. We've placed a big emphasis on packaging. One of the things that sets the store apart from others and what it was before is that now you can come in and pick something up for a gift, a corporate order, or a hostess gift rather than a bottle of wine. That's very French; for us it's very rare to bring a bottle of wine to a dinner party -- it's actually a touch offending -- we bring flowers or macarons. If you're more familiar with someone we sometimes bring a cake or petit fours.
Speaking of macarons, we heard you worked for one of the leading macaroniers in France?
Yes, I worked for Ladurée, the absolute authority of macarons. The patisserie didn't invent the macarons, but it's famous for making it popular. Macarons are basically the almond-based cookie/merengues, which can be found all around France, but in the Jazz Age Ladurée made it into a sandwich; that's when it caught on with all the flavors, colors, and packaging.
Patrick Lézé is located at 229 Sunrise Avenue in Palm Beach. Call 561.366.1313, or visit patrickleze.com
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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