It is late morning, just before lunch. In a small patisserie in the residential reaches of the 5th arrondissement, a middle-aged man orders a coffee and croissant and takes a seat at one of three tiny tables. A mother chats with the shop assistant while her son attacks his éclair. No one is in a hurry. Outside the sun bounces off pale Haussman façades. Ground-floor offices have their doors open on to the street. So far, so Parisian.
However, the name on the front of the shop and on its clean, modern packaging, is Japanese. Look closely among the mille-feuilles and the macarons, and you will discover madeleines, financiers, éclairs and mendiants with decidedly un-French ingredients, such as aduki beans, black sesame or yuzu. But it is owner Sadaharu Aoki’s mâcha green-tea creations that are getting French food editors into a froth, fitting perfectly with the Zen fantasies of a certain class of fashionable Parisian, while remaining on reassuringly familiar territory.
Aoki is considered an equal by even the grandest of French patissiers. He has won numerous awards and supplied cakes to fashion houses such as Chanel and Christian Dior as well as the outgoing French president, Jacques Chirac. Aoki not only creates cakes of rare beauty, but he is also a master of subtle and exquisite flavour combinations and surprising textures. Even better, he is easy on the sugar, while more famous patissiers, such as Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, seem to be erring on the side of the cloyingly sweet and rich these days.
In a room above the shop, the handsome 38-year-old in chef’s whites does not look particularly jet-lagged, given that he has flown in from Tokyo just the day before. Nor does anything hint at his rock-star status in Japan; the opening of his latest shop in the Tokyo Midtown development in Roppongi, he tells me, attracted hundreds of journalists.
Sada – as fans call him – has come a long way since he arrived on a one-way ticket in Paris at the age of 21, with two suitcases, no contacts and no knowledge of French. As a teenager, he had been passionate about motocross, but a bad crash forced him to give up the sport. Becoming a chef evolved out of another of his childhood pleasures. “I come from a temple family. We’d have regular gatherings and feasts.” Was it a big leap, going from motocross to pastry? “I’m someone who likes to win, so it’s the same thing. Patisserie is a hard métier; you have to do it 100 per cent. If it had been easy, I wouldn’t have done it.”
The switch started with three years of hard graft in Tokyo. While being apprenticed with Chandon, the leading French patisserie in Tokyo at the time, Aoki would earn extra cash by getting up at 5am to deliver milk, and spending his evenings working in a bar until 1am. Then, on the advice of an aunt who was a cookery teacher in Canada, he headed to Paris. If he was serious about becoming a pastry chef, she told him, he would have to train in the world’s pastry capital. Aoki spent a year in Paris trying to nail a stage (an unpaid apprenticeship that’s an essential rite of passage for any young chef with big ambitions) with one of the top French patisseries. There were no vacancies. He kept on doing the rounds while sampling their wares to educate his taste buds, decoding why an opéra might be a feat of the sublime in the hands of a maestro, yet a minuet in a minor key from an average cake shop.
Eventually, after his money had run out and he had been reduced to sleeping on friends’ floors, Aoki landed a stage with Lucien Peltier, the great patissier of the day, whose books had inspired him while still in Japan. The experience with Peltier set him on his path and he spent the next nine years working in leading Parisian establishments.
By 1998 Aoki was ready to set up on his own. He bought eight ovens, stacked them up in his kitchen, created 500 cakes and sent them as Christmas greetings to restaurants and retailers in Japan. The Isetan department store became one of his first clients and the relationship continues to this day; last year he opened his second boutique within the store. In Paris, meanwhile, he was adopted by the fashion set, supplying post-show petit-fours to the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Emanuel Ungaro. His financial breakthrough came during the 1998 World Cup, when his pastries were in high demand in the vip section of the Stade de France. After this, Aoki was able to invest in the first of his three Paris stores, which opened in the rue de Vaugirard, in the 6th arrondissement, in 2001. In 2005, Aoki was approached by All Nippon Airways to create the desserts for its business-class flights from Paris, and the relationship swiftly led to the airline becoming his partner in Japan. His first store in Japan opened in Tokyo’ Maru-nouchi district in the same year.
In French patisserie these days, a foothold in Japan is almost essential if you want to take your brand to the next level; Pierre Hermé, Dalloyau, Lenôtre and Jean-Paul Hévin are just some of the big names building empires in the East. The difference in scale between the two markets is tremendous. “I do 100 times more business in Japan than in Paris,” he explains. “Paris earns me nothing – I stay here for the brand, not the business.” While the French boutiques are tiny, jewel-like operations – the rue de Vaugirard store measures a mere 20 sq m – his Marunouchi and Roppongi boutiques each measure 250 sq m and attract 800 to 1,200 customers a day. All his chefs are Japanese. Although he occasionally takes French stagiaires, his main problem is the French 35-hour week and motivation. The catering industry is no longer considered an interesting career by the young of France. “If a Japanese chef joins it means they will apply themselves, like Olympic athletes.”
While the Tokyo-Paris axis makes evident business sense, Aoki is also interested in expanding to New York, London, Dubai and Moscow. But he is in no rush; it depends entirely on the right partners. Does he ever get overwhelmed by all his projects and his star status in Japan? “At night I will go to bed with my head full of stuff but I haven’t panicked since I was a child. It’s like motocross; if you panic then you’ll definitely have an accident.”
With its all-white décor and Ibiza soundtrack, it’s clear that Sadaharu Aoki’s new patisserie in Tokyo Midtown is no ordinary cake shop. Plates are piled high with truffles, pastries, biscuits, jams and chocolate. Some are perfect renditions of patisserie classics, others quietly reworked with green tea and sesame.
The cakes are tucked away behind a glass counter. Each one is named and enticingly described: cassisier, fraisier, cheese cake citronné, bambou – a green-tea sponge and mousse cake, chocolat praliné and Valencia, a lemon cake with a squiggle of artfully placed sugar. Aoki’s cakes look exquisite and taste even better. Take a seat in the café, order some apple caramel tea, served in a tetsubin, and work your way through the menu.
Aoki’s favourite things
Paris “Visiting hotels for their interiors and architecture, especially the Hotel Pershing Hall in the 8th arondissement and Hotel Bel Ami in the 6th.” Tokyo: “There’s not much time for leisure but I love going to good sushi restaurants as much as possible, such as Kazama in Nogizaka.”
What goes into the mix of a Sadaharu special
Duomo Mâcha Azuki Featuring a red-bean paste, a mâcha macaron and a buttery, crisp feuillantine base, the Duomo Mâcha Azuki tastes as exotic as it looks. Mâcha is a powdered green tea commonly used in Japan to flavour ice cream and soba noodles, while aduki beans are a popular dessert ingredient in Japan, China and Korea. Red-bean paste is a vital ingredient in traditional Japanese cakes.
Citron Praliné This yellow dome combines the sweet and the tart, the crunchy and the smooth, with its zingy lemon and white-chocolate mousse, praliné feuillantine and lemon macaron base. His creations might seem minimalist, but for Aoki it is about enhancing the flavours of the ingredients: in this case, an explosion of lemon flavour manages to be fresh rather than acidic.
Symphonie Aoki’s macarons are his biggest sellers in Japan. The Symphonie takes it one step further, with Darjeeling crème brûlée and raspberries sandwiched between violet-flavoured macarons and crème mousseline. Aoki maintains macarons are one of the hardest things for a patissier to get right, and the gauge by which the rest of their cakes can be judged.
Saya Inspired by Aoki’s four-year-old daughter, the Saya is particularly popular with children. A pink dome of strawberry mousse and strawberry micro-macarons surround a crème brûlée pistachio filling and a jaconde biscuit base. Aoki’s exquisite, multi-flavoured tennis-ball-shaped domes are one of his signature styles.