I was sitting at a table in Paris, with two sets of cookies in front of me. The set on the right crossed international waters in a carry-on bag, sheathed in Styrofoam, wrapped in plastic, undeclared at customs,had I been conscious to declare them. Mango, Tiramisu, Coconut and Cinnamon roll. The set on the left came in a monogrammed plastic bag at the tail end of a genuine ordeal, my body in repair, brain still skipping like a thumped record. Rose, passion fruit, rhubarb-strawberry. The flavors, like the men who produced them, are varied and rich and a little wild and the question I was supposed to be asking myself is, “which cookies are superior?” A seed that was planted almost a month ago in a train station food court, in my hometown of Tacoma Washington, by a man who doesn’t fuck around when it comes to macarons.
Roger Martinho was making one of his signature Liege dessert waffles that day, holed up behind his counter in the Freighthouse Square train station. There was a lull between the gouts of commuters and we were talking into it, over the sounds of construction noises outside.
“You are going to France?” Roger pulled the emphasis up on ‘going’, accent chewy at the edges, run through with french like marbled chocolate. He comes down hard on the ‘L’s” even in words like ‘talk’, but he leaves so much style in it that you can’t help but wonder if he isn’t doing it on purpose.
“Yes.” I said to him.”I wanted to come by and see if you had any suggestions.”
Roger lifts the lid on his Belgian Waffle press. Flips the golden treat within.
Roger is the man to ask about France. He fought for France. Jumped out of airplanes into Kosovo by night. Roger has scars for France and pain for France and love for France, in volumes. While he drizzles chocolate over the waffle he was cooking, he tells me about the coffee shops that I have to visit and the kabob place I should try and then there’s a flash of mischief in his eyes and he says,
“Have you heard of Pierre Hermes?”
I have not.
“He is a famous Patissier in Paris.” Roger says. He steps away from the banana he’s cutting. Lays his heavy forearms on the glass case that fronts his counter, shimmering with multicolored macarons.
“I went to culinary school with him and he has shops all over the world now. In Paris and in Japan and New York.”
A train unloads into the station, foot traffic like an incursion and Roger falls back to his knife and banana.
A line forms behind me, ravaged by the commute, jonesing and in no mood for the antics of a chatty Cathy like myself. I step off center and Roger says,
“Take my cookies with you when you go. Try them in Pierre’s store. Tell me what you think.”
“Do you think yours are better?” I asked. The crowd had a current that swept me towards the door.
“I don’t know.” He said. You tell me. Hung in the silence that followed.
It may have been that distant fire in his eyes or maybe I’m just a sucker for a grail quest, but I left that station knowing that I wouldn’t be getting on a plane without those cookies in my bag. I went home that night on a mission.
The internet has a lot to say about Pierre Herme. So does the New York Times, and the Guardian. Often, reading about Pierre Herme is like pulling a page out of a Kerouac. The wildness of character. The hyperbole.The legend they build up around him. 4th generation Alsatian baker, prowling through his many establishments like a shark through a school of guppies, sniffing for blood in the water. A dropped glass. An untucked shirt. A violation. He only wears black and people who write about him throw words like “magician” and “King” and “Emperor” around, and not without cause. Herme’s been credited with revivals and revolutions in dessert culture around the world. His macarons have been argued to be the absolute best, hands down, on the planet and the reasons for this are well stated. Only the freshest ingredients go into his pastries. The flavors he creates are produced with an attention to detail that errs on obsession. Strawberry macaroons effervescent with fresh basil and passionfruit absolutely crackling with tartness. He was awarded Best Pastry Chef of 2016 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy and“Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur” by Jacques Chirac in May 2007. His dessert restaurants and shops are regarded to be some of the finest on the planet and I in my feverish search to understand the man, I visited them from my laptop. I ate his food through the mouths of yelp users. I spoke to him on Youtube. I became engrossed.
The trip loomed closer.
When my paperbacks were bought, Netflix movies downloaded, sundries piled by the door, I made the trip down to Roger’s kiosk which was hanging in another mid-rush lull. The lulls have grown longer since the city of Tacoma took an axe to the station and lopped it in half. We’ve been assured that the renovations will be magnificent and invigorating, but for the time being, the streets are loud and the parking is scarce and the businesses of the food court are struggling.I bought 5 cookies from Roger that day. A mango, because he was proud of it. A coconut, because Herme didn’t have anything like that. A Cinnamon Roll, because it was unique. A tiramisu, because it was Roger’s favorite. And finally, a Rose Raspberry, because my wife loves them and if I stop at Roger’s without picking one up, my keys might not work in the door when I get home.
Standing there with the cookies in my hand, like the sword I was supposed to test on the dragon, I asked Roger what he thought of Pierre and his cookies.
I’ve spent a good deal of time at Roger’s counter. I’ve watched his confections plant the seeds of a smile on faces where they should not have grown. These cookies were the only thing that kept my wife on her feet at the end of a ten hour day and a 2 hour commute. This train station is the first place I take visitors from out of town, when I’m trying to sell them on the city I love.
So, when I learned about Herme, and how popular and revered he was, I couldn’t help but think that luck and hyperbole had a lot to do with it. Roger went to the same school Pierre did, at the same time. He took classes alongside him. Yes, they interned at different places, which can certainly affect the quality of training you get, but having been privy to Roger’s food, work ethic and technique, I certainly couldn’t find any holes in his abilities. So, their training was at least comparable, which made sense, because their philosophies echoed one another’s as well. Both men seem dedicated to producing an affordable product, without sacrificing quality. They’ve both said in interviews that reigning in the sweetness is important, and both men stand behind the ingredients they use like battlements on a beach head, ingredients, which, from what I could tell were very similar too. Yet, here Roger was at a train station, and Pierre was an international mogul.
My interview with Roger in May of 2016 shed some light on this for me. He had actually spent several years traveling through South America, working in fine dining establishments. He’d been the executive pastry chef for the Essential Baking Company in Seattle and at a posh restaurant called BA Bar on Capitol Hill, so his trajectory wasn’t all that different from Herme’s. Had he kept at it, he might very well have a chain of boutiques scattered across the planet, journalists slathering after him. But Roger had decided to hit the brakes. He told me that he missed seeing his customers. Missed being on the ground floor. In 2015, Roger left BA Bar and started selling his macarons at farmers markets around the Puget Sound, talking to people face to face, looking for the right place to settle down, which is how he’d ended up in Tacoma.
So when I asked him about Pierre, I think I was expecting rivalry. Fire. Maybe, disdain.
But Roger’s answer surprised me a little.
“The man is amazing.” He said. “The flavors he creates, the things he does… they’re great.”
He went on.
“To create a flavor, you have to go to the place. You have to find it with your eyes closed.” Roger went afar, searching for the words and the one’s he finally found, held onto me for weeks.
“A true professional tastes the food where it is, not just the flavor of it, but everything about it.” He motioned around him, like he was trying to draw the atmosphere into his nose. The essence of the people and the room. The noises and the feelings. ” You combine it all and recreate it. Pierre understands this.”
There was respect in Roger’s words. Reverence, even.
Still, when I boarded my plane the next day with that sleeve of cookies in my bag, deep down, I wanted Roger’s to be better. In my dumb, young, American way, I wanted the underdog to come out swinging and win. I wanted humble, train station Roger Martinho to wipe the floor with Pierre Herme, “the Kitchen Emperor”. I wasn’t going to let that change the truth, but I was going to do everything in my power to make it a fair fight. When my plane landed I would make a quick trip from the airport to Herme’s shop in the 13th arrondissement. I would buy some cookies of comparable flavors and taste them side by side right there in the place, and do my best to keep my bias out of the equation, by knowing that it was back there. That was the plan.
Then, 6 hours into my 10 hour flight, everything went sideways. I lost vision in my right eye. My right arm went numb, then the left, alternating like cheap Christmas lights. I needed to know how much longer the flight was but my wiring started to short circuit. I scratched the words, ‘which longer?’ into a magazine cover and slid it to my wife and then the vomiting started and a little voice in my head whispered, you’re having a stroke, and I fell down a chasm in myself. I passed out. Time went by in snaps and flashes. People were talking to me, but I couldn’t answer. The plane was dark and full of people. The plane was light and empty. I was in a wheelchair. People were asking me questions in French. Airport clinic. Needles. Ambulance. Hospital. Needles. My wife was crying. Days seemed to go by. Weeks maybe.
Arduously, I came back, like climbing a rope to the surface of myself. The half empty bag of saline may have had something to do with that. I was spinning and feral and disoriented and the vomiting and medication may have had something to do with that.
“How long was I out?” the only complete sentence I’d said since the plane.
Relief like the first bite into a cookie on my wife’s face.
“Few hours.” She said.
Impossible. “No,” I said. “Since the plane.”
“Few hours.” she said.
It wasn’t a stroke. We’re not sure exactly what happened but our best guess is a hemiplegic migraine. If you’re curious what the start of one looks like, watch the worst day of this poor lady’s career play out. They’re no fun, but they’re also not a stroke, which is cause for celebration.
They released me, barefoot, into the hospital parking lot with a pocket full of amoxicillin and codeine packets and my wife and my parents and I stood in the afternoon light and waited for a cab and everything was different.
For days, I rested. My vision was still squirrely and my body was still weak, but I recovered on French cooking and when I finally made my way to Pierre Herme’s shop in the 13th, everything was still different. Sober is a good word for it. Grounded. Deflated. The epicness had drained from my cookie quest in the hours of peril and fear and uncertainty and I was left with a job to do.
I found Herme’s shop down a cobblestone alley, jammed with people like me, lost but not particularly upset about it. The inside of the place was tasteful and clean and decorated a bit like a jewelry shop. Rows of macarons sparkling under glass. I bought three cookies, which were slipped into a monogrammed bag by a teenage girl with a pair of tongs. One rose, because I was very familiar with that flavor of Roger’s, a passion fruit and chocolate, because I had a fruit and chocolate macaron to compare it to, and one rhubarb, passion fruit and strawberry because there was a line forming and I panicked. Pierre Herme wasn’t there. I carried the cookies back to the apartment we had rented because I had completely forgotten to bring Roger’s with me.
So, there I was, sitting at the breakfast table of an apartment in Paris. There were two sets of cookies in front of me and the question I was supposed to be asking myself is, “which cookies are superior?”
But the first bite into Roger’s favorite macaron was a gut punch. It had gone stale. All of them had gone stale in the days I was recovering. I pushed them aside and I ate Pierre’s to the bleating tune of Mayday sirens on the streets of Paris in the pale light of a sunset against the pallid buildings outside.
They were excellent.
The passion fruit sparkled, tart amidst bitter chocolate going off like a bomb at the back of my tongue, whooshing out my nose. The rose was subtle and aromatic. I’ve heard it said that Herme works with sugar the way most work with salt, just a touch as needed and I could taste it in every bite. The Rhubarb and strawberry was fresh and delightful and measured to perfection. I ate them all slowly and with reverence in this city across the world with it’s new smells and sounds and identity and the things that Roger said about flavor came back to me.
About understanding the depth of it, and what good chefs do with it. Suddenly, I felt naive for thinking that I could compare things this complex just because they had the same name and some of the same ingredients. Good cooking is about being so invested in the place and the moment, that you put the people who taste your food in that place and moment with you. These men are in such different places, having such different moments, that once you’re drawn into their confections, it’s like you’re eating entirely different things. Pierre’s flavors were perfect for Paris. Roger’s for Tacoma. Herme’s shop is the kind of place in which you might find a Michelin star, but not anyone who knows your name. Roger might remember your birthday when you approach his counter, but he’s still in a train station food court. In their element though, these cookies are king.
So, I sat there at that table, watching the sun fall against the jagged Parisian skyline, chewing fervently on the last bites of Parisian perfection and when that was done, I ate Roger’s stale cookies too, thinking that these two men had worked very hard to deliver me into an enjoyable moment, and that I might as well enjoy it.
La Waffletz on Yelp:
La Waffletz Website:
Pierre Herme’s Site: