Julien Plumart is a talented Frenchman with two pâtisseries and a busy production kitchen based in Brighton. Russell Brown pays him a visit
While the Julien Plumart Boutique et Salon de Thé might be nestled in the Brighton lanes, the heart of this business is a production unit on a small industrial estate in the middle of the Kemptown area. When I arrive at 4.30am, Julien Plumart and some of his team have been at work since 2am. The first deliveries have gone and the air is full of the smell of warm butter and caramelised sugar, as racks of croissants and pain au chocolat cool.
PÁ¢tissier Plumart was born in the small village of Contrevoz in the Belley district of eastern France, the birthplace of Brillat-Savarin cheese. Born into a catering family, his parents owned a restaurant where he helped out in the kitchen and front of house from an early age. Summers were often spent working for an aunt who managed a Relais & ChÁ¢teaux property with a Michelin star, and catering college was a natural progression. In fact, he went to the same catering college in Bellegarde that his mother had attended.
More study followed at the Groisy catering college while working at a chocolatier's. His master's degree was an obvious next step, and he attended the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de PÁ¢tisserie in Yssingeaux, where his teacher had just been awarded Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. Twenty-four students started the course, but only six achieved the degree.
His master's degree was undertaken while working at a pÁ¢tisserie in Lyon over a two-year period. Plumart says: "It is not a race - there is no substitute for putting in the hours and you can have too much too soon. We were making our own fondant, nougat and nappage, preserving fruit - even skinning our own nuts."
He then returned home for a while and worked in a local bakery before moving to the UK to work for Raymond Blanc at Brasserie Blanc in Cheltenham. Although it was a relatively short stay in England - around a year - it was long enough for Plumart to spot the potential for selling high-quality pÁ¢tisserie. Two job offers came simultaneously, at opposite ends of the country, but a desire to be by the coast made the decision to take the job as pastry chef at Havana in Brighton a relatively easy one. This was a time to look more seriously at the market for a pÁ¢tisserie and to save some cash towards a business of his own.
A taste of France
In 2008, Plumart opened Cocoa, now rebranded as Julien Plumart Café et PÁ¢tisserie, on Queens Road in Brighton. The pÁ¢tisserie café is Parisian-inspired with an obviously French character. A tiny kitchen above the shop proved a real challenge, but the business quickly established a reputation for offering something a little bit different in terms of quality and imagination. After two years, the space was being pushed beyond its limits with a team of five producing 300 pastries a day and deliveries being sent out by taxi. A production kitchen was needed to supply the shop and a growing number of wholesale customers.
The production facility has obviously served the business well: not only has the wholesale side grown, but a second shop was opened in 2013. In many ways, the new Duke Street shop was a huge gamble. Rents are high in this prestigious area of Brighton and the fit-out was expensive, but Plumart's reasoning was that if he opened a pÁ¢tisserie in one of the best locations in the city and made it top end, no one else would be interested in doing something similar. He recalls: "I had no money, I borrowed everything. I wanted something that was classy and flamboyant for the brand."
The result is just that. I have visited the shop on a number of occasions and there have always been people queuing and the café has been busy. Part of the appeal is the fantastic visual spectacle that the bespoke £40,000 display counter creates, with its immaculate rows of bright, multi-coloured macarons, glinting petit gateaux and celebration cakes.
Macarons are something that the business has become renowned for. Production currently stands at around 10,000 pieces per week, but Plumart has ambitions to double that. This year he took a stand at Hotelympia to launch the wholesale service, and over the three days of the show gave out 8,000 samples. The macarons can be supplied ambient or frozen, packaged and wrapped in a freezer-resistant film to ensure the quality after defrosting.
Plumart isn't one to sit back and enjoy his success; he exudes energy and passion for what he does and is a consummate craftsman. I spent eight hours in the production kitchen, watching the various processes. In a period of around three hours, he made 11 different batches of macaron shells (around 3,000 pieces), all made using two KitchenAid mixers and his own hands. There is something utterly absorbing about watching this sort of process; the easy rhythm, precision and speed that only comes with serious practice.
A refurb of the Queens Road store has just taken place and one is under way at the café on Duke Street. The idea is that the café side of the operation in Duke Street will be for pre-booked afternoon teas only. Much of the reasoning behind this is about offering a better customer experience. At the moment, an element of luck comes into play as to what is available on the afternoon tea menu dependent on the retail sales, whereas bookings will allow people to choose their pastries in advance from the complete menu.
Staffing is a challenge in a pÁ¢tisserie business and the skills are hard to find, but, Plumart says: "It is partly our own fault - we are often too busy to interview properly. I try hard to accommodate staff with holidays, shift patterns and rotas - never say no to customers or staff, try to work out a way of saying 'yes' that works for everybody."
Into the limelight
Conversation inevitably turns to the Plumart team's appearance on the BBC2 TV programme Bake off: Crème de la Crème and, although the team didn't get past the first round, it was obviously an experience they enjoyed. I think every chef recognises how hard it is to cook outside of your own kitchen - different equipment, not knowing where anything is, how hot the ovens are and so on - but added to that was the presence of a film crew and some high-profile judges. There are commercial advantages to the situation though. Interest in the business has been generated by the television appearance and one of the petit gateaux they made on the show, a strawberry and balsamic pyramid, is selling well in the shop. Plumart was certainly positive about how the programme has raised the profile of the pastry chef and pÁ¢tisserie role.
The show's host, Tom Kerridge, told me: "It was a fantastic opportunity to showcase top pÁ¢tisserie skills by incredibly talented chefs who are often overlooked from a media and television perspective. The show has presented them with a wonderful opportunity to let the world know their skills."
As far as retail sales are concerned, the Great Taste Awards are another important factor. Plumart received two awards in 2015 for his macarons: two stars for the red berry and violet flavour and one star for the sea salt caramel, as well as one star for his tonka bean shortbread. More products have been entered for this year's awards, a clear indication that it is worthwhile from a business perspective. The macaron flavours are innovative and include lemon, mint and cucumber, lychee, raspberry and rose and mojito. Often complex flavours such as these are indistinct or very artificial; however, the team uses homemade syrups and infusions to deliver clear flavours.
Plumart's vanilla macaron
Makes about 220 pieces
For the vanilla buttercream
- 400g whole milk
- 5 vanilla pods, split and seeds scraped out
- 265g free-range egg yolk
- 240g caster sugar
- 1.1kg unsalted butter, softened
- 150g Italian meringue
Warm the milk with the split vanilla pods and seeds and leave to infuse for one hour.
Mix the egg yolk and sugar and leave to rest in the fridge while the milk is infusing.
Reheat the vanilla milk and whisk into the yolk mix, then return to the pan and cook out as a crème anglaise until the mix reaches 75Â°C. Pass the mix through a fine sieve into the bowl of a mixer. Using the whisk, beat on a medium speed to cool to room temperature. Beat in the soft butter and Italian meringue and continue whisking until the mix is light and fluffy.
For the macaron shells
For the base
- 330g free-range egg white
- 800g icing sugar
- 800g extra-fine almond powder
- Seeds from 2 vanilla pods
For the meringue
- 330g free-range egg white
- 800g caster sugar
- 270g water
In a mixer, mix the egg whites, icing sugar, almond powder and vanilla pods with the paddle attachment until homogenous.
For the meringue, combine the sugar and water in a heavy-based pan and cook to 118Â°C. Using a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, gradually whisk the hot syrup into the egg white. Continue to whisk the meringue until the temperature drops to 50Â°C.
Mix half the meringue into the base using a long plastic spoon. Add the remaining meringue and 'macaron' the mix: this means stirring the mix until the correct consistency is achieved (the mix is runnier than you might expect and Plumart works the mix quite vigorously).
Transfer the mix to a piping bag with a 10mm plain nozzle and pipe in 35mm discs onto trays lined with baking parchment. Once the whole mix has been piped, leave for 20-30 minutes until a thin skin has formed.
Bake in a convection oven at 150Â°C for 18-20 minutes. Slide the shells, still on the baking paper, off the trays onto a cooling wire. Leave for one hour, peel off the paper and then fill with the buttercream.
It is essential to leave the macarons to mature overnight in airtight boxes to give the correct final texture - a crisp outer shell giving way to a softer meringue and a creamy centre.