In our 'Patissiers of Shanghai' series, Dominic Ngai and Betty Richardson speak to some of Shanghai’s makers and bakers, digging deep into different aspects of their work. Up next is Lucien Gautier of The Peninsula.
For man who’s spent the majority of his life surrounded by patisserie, Lucien Gautier is of a remarkably slim build. “Actually, I don’t tend to eat a lot of sweet food,” he admits with a smile. That’s fine with us, as we tuck into The Peninsula’s famous three-tiered afternoon tea set, the crowning glory of the hotel’s opulent Lobby Lounge. Complete with live string quartet, cavernous Art Deco interiors and an immaculately dressed local clientele nibbling from tiered silver tea trays, the Lobby Lounge is case in point that afternoon tea culture is China’s new bourgeoisie status symbol.
If not for love of cake itself, Gautier’s initiation into the culinary world is by blood, as the second son of Jean-Marie Gautier, head chef of the Hôtel du Palais, Biarritz. One of France’s most celebrated chefs, Gautier Sr. is the recipient of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF), an award given to the country’s most elite craftsmen and women.
Not that Gautier junior is keen to play up this fact. “When I arrived at patisserie school, everybody assumed I would get special treatment due to who my father is. There was a fair amount of jealousy, even when I started working. People would look at me and just see my father, so I worked harder to gain their respect.”
Over the years, he’s worked under Éric Fréchon in the Michelin three-star kitchen of Le Bristol, one of Paris’ most prestigious hotels. After that, Gautier sought a position under the comparatively avant-garde Christophe Michalack, author, television presenter, and head patissier of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée.
Fast forward to 2016, and Gautier has been installed as The Peninsula’s head patisserie chef for over a year now, presiding over all things sweet in room service, banquets, flagship restaurant Sir Elly’s, and of course, the legendary afternoon tea. And of the 20 items on the set, 12 remain constant.
“Here at The Peninsula we have a regular clientele who expect precision and classic flavors every time,” he explains. “I’ve found that people here don’t like very bitter chocolate or sour lemon profiles, whereas in France we look for the sourest or deepest flavor possible, and I’ve had to change a few of my recipes to reflect this.”
To say the local population has been quick to adopt afternoon tea – originally a preserve of the English upper class and the hotels they would frequent – would be an understatement. Every hotel in the city, not to mention restaurants, offers afternoon tea as an integral point of profitability, and The Peninsula’s is known as the most traditional (and exclusive) of them all.
Consistency is the name of the game with afternoon tea, but it’s on the à la carte menu at Sir Elly’s where Gautier is able to flex his creative muscles and take his patisserie to the next level. “At Sir Elly’s, we have a little more creative freedom. People want to see something new and impressive every time they come, meaning have to innovate new techniques constantly.”
Despite having been trained by some of the most advanced French patissiers, Gautier admits that China’s next generation of pastry chefs took him by surprise. “I recently visited a pastry competition in Shanghai and was blown away by some of the techniques that these young chefs are using,” he admits, “some of which I’ve not even seen in Paris. I’m hoping to take my own team from The Peninsula to compete next year.” Case in point that not only is Shanghai’s taste for afternoon tea culture is here to stay, but that domestic patissiers could be taking on their Gallic rivals in the years to come.
See a listing for The Peninsula here.