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Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Sweet Side Awakens

"Hi, I am Julien Perrinet and I am the pastry chef at the Grand Hyatt Taipei." Last October, by chance I found myself sitting next to the friendly French chef at the counter of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei during dinner. As Perrinet introduced himself, I thought to myself: Grand Hyatt? The only times I step into the Hyatt are for weddings or the annual Ivy Ball. The food at these events are at best harmless. Besides the tickets to the Ivy Ball (not really Ivy nor a Ball), it has been years, perhaps decades, since I spent any hard earned money in the Hyatt.

To be fair, people often forget that the Grand Hyatt is the first large international hotel in Taipei. When the hotel opened over twenty-five years ago, it represented the standard of excellence in the city. Not only was the Hyatt the place to go for a fancy meal or event, it was also the premier training ground for the people in the hospitality industry. For instance, across the counter at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon where I sat, many senior managers had stints at the Grand Hyatt. However, in recent years the Hyatt seems to have fallen off the radar. The hotel is still grand but there doesn't seem to be any excitement that warrants a visit.

"I moved from Singapore to Taipei in May. I was part of the Robuchon team when the restaurants in Singapore opened." This explains why Perrinet was friendly with the visiting Robuchon team. As our dinner in October progressed, I asked Perrinet whether he would make any special pastries for the upcoming Christmas holidays. The question was answered with series of resounding yeses: Bûche de Noël? Yes; Galette des Rois? Yes. With the féve? Yes, of course.

The questions probably struck Perrinet as strange since he wouldn't think otherwise. I asked because Christmas is not an official holiday in Taiwan and there isn't a strong sense of the Christmas spirit in Taipei. Some of the good pastry shops in town, such as Sweet Tea by Yannick Alleno at Taipei 101, don't make any holiday items anymore. As I departed from the L'Atelier after another lovely meal, I told Perrinet that I would visit him at the Hyatt when the holiday arrives.

"I considered several places before deciding to join the Grand Hyatt. The hotel gives me a lot of responsibilities and I also have a pastry shop in the lobby to play with." Since around March of 2015, the hotel replaced its souvenir shop on the ground floor with a pastry shop/bakery called the Baguette. I wonder if this new shop is a response to Mandarin Oriental's Cake Shop on the other side of town.

The choice of "Baguette" as the name for the shop is very odd since the French bread is just one of the many items for sale. The name suggests the importance of the bakery. Hence at my first visit to the shop I bought a croissant to try. The croissant was not good at all. The shell was not crisp nor brittle and didn't shatter when one bit into it – a real disappointment. In a subsequent visit I asked the salesperson if Perrinet was in charge of the Viennoiseries, and she said no. The bakery and the pastry are produced by two different departments. Furthermore, the main attraction of the shop seems to be Perrinet's creations in the glass display case, which are the first things one sees.

"We have four kinds of Bûche de Noël for you to choose from." The salesperson at the Baguette responded when I called to ask and order the Christmas log cake in December. While other shops made one signature Bûche de Noël, Perrinet made Mosaic (chocolate praliné), Firework (pineapple-coco), Red Noël (raspberry litchee rose), and Chestnut (with pear and cinnamon). Over the phone I asked for the Red Noël and was told I had to pay first. Taken aback, I said, "you don't trust that I will pick up the cake later today? You have my name and mobile number and that's not enough?" In response, she said, "There were a few instances where customers ordered and didn't show up. The cakes are perishable and we need preorder to be prepaid by fax." I can't help but think the Cake Shop at the Mandarin Oriental doesn't ask me to prepay. Annoyed, I almost hung up the phone. Perhaps she sensed my unhappiness, and said I don't have to prepay if I pick up the cake within the next three hours.

The weather in last December didn't feel like winter at all, and as usual there weren't too many Christmas decorations around town. But as I walked inside the Hyatt to pick up the Christmas cake, I saw the Baguette was decked out in probably the most impressive gingerbread house in Taipei. With four types of Bûche de Noël, multiple Christmas themed pastries, and a gingerbread house big enough to walk through, Perrinet may be the most enthusiastic pastry chef in Taipei. Perrinet is also a very skilled pastry chef. The Red Noël cake was large and attractive – well suited for a party. The taste was very good, with the sweetness balanced by a bit of acidity from the fruits.

"Did you order the Galette des Rois?" My kids knew that I always buy one for the Epiphany; I don't know the verses in Matthew 2:11 well, but I know pithivier. They were also eager to try their luck again to see if they can add another fève to their collection. Maybe because I'm not a believer, in the years that I bought the Galette, I have never gotten the fève and the chance to wear the crown. 

The Galette des Rois at the Grand Hyatt was made with Isigny butter. The 7-inch version was NT$520 plus $100 for the porcelain fève. The price seemed very reasonable. I love puff pastry and frangipane thus the Galette des Rois is one of my favorite things to eat. Perrinet made the Galette with care and in the traditional manner. It was just delicious. Our family quickly devoured the cake. Similar to previous years, I didn't get the piece with the fève inside. My Catholic wife was the queen this year; as Psalm 37:18 states: The Lord takes care of those who obey him.

"The Canelé at the Hyatt was one of the reasons that I decided to join the hotel. During my job interview I saw that they made the Canelé in the traditional manner with the beeswax and copper mold. I knew there was a good foundation to build upon." Perrinet told me during our dinner last October. Indeed, the Canelé at the Hyatt is very good with a crunchy and well caramelized exterior with a chewy and soft interior. At NT$50 the large Canelé is a very nice treat. 

Perrinet changes the contents in the glass display case frequently in response to the seasons. Since strawberry is in season now he has made a few new pastries. They are not only good to eat but will surely bring a smile to anyone who sees them.

There has been an awakening in the sweet side of the Grand Hyatt. Anyone who visits the shop at the hotel lobby will definitely feel it. I love Perrinet's enthusiasm and passion, and I hope they won't diminish as he familiarizes with the local customers. I am eager to see how Perrinet's creation will evolve as he spends more time in Taipei. Furthermore, will the rise of the sweet side lead to a renewal of the bakery? Will the Grand Hyatt return to the forefront of the dining scene in Taipei? Hopefully more episodes await. 

1 comment:

  1. Great write up! I also haven't spent any money at the Hyatt in a very long time, but have seen Julien's wonderful pastries on Instagram.. Your post is encouraging and I'll have to check them out soon