We Chat with Chef Damien Herrgott of Bosie Tea Parlor
"Classic desserts will remain forever—they're not something that's going to fade away."
Tucked away on Morton Street is a tea parlor that is not to be underestimated. I'm almost reluctant to share my love of the place, because with speedy Wi-Fi, a delightful selection of thoughtful teas brewed perfectly to temperature, and an impressive case of classic French pastries, what more is there to want? We've included Bosie Tea Parlor in many of our favorite this and favorite that lists, and I have pastry chef Damien Herrgott to blame that it's getting harder and harder to snag my favorite table.
Herrgott is the epitome of what we assume in a French pastry chef; he is flavor-focused, meticulous in his technique, and balanced in both his love of the classics and his joy at playing with contemporary ideas. Don't expect a foam or liquid nitrogen at Bosie any time soon. Instead, grab a classic éclair, lemon or Darjeeling tart, or any variety of crispy/chewy macarons, and drink in deep.
Let's start at the beginning. You were born into a family of pastry chefs in France. Yes.
So you started working with pastry rather young. Do you feel working with pastry was something you had a natural affinity towards, or was it something you went into because of your family? It was a little bit of both. When I was seven or eight years old I was always helping my dad out in the pastry kitchen on Saturday afternoons, doing what I could do. And I always enjoyed that. But I started working officially when I was 15, and I liked it right away. It was not a difficult decision to make for me.
Do you feel you had an extra advantage? Was there something that was engrained in you from an early age? I'm not sure there's an advantage. Obviously I started a little earlier but it doesn't make me better than someone who started later but gets the same experience.
What drew you to leave your part of France for Paris? I grew up in the east side of France very close to Switzerland, a small town of 130,000 people. My dad had one of the two biggest and best pastry shops in town. I felt like there was not much higher I could reach in that town, so I needed to move. I got the opportunity to work at Ladurée on the Champs Elysées, so I took the advantage to learn there from the people who were mastering their craft.
Was there any regret in leaving a family business in the field you wanted? When I moved to Paris I had only worked in one place—I only knew what we were doing there and in order to evolve you kind of need to open your mind to other things, to see how people do the same thing differently. That's what I was looking to do primarily. And to work with Pierre Hermé, who was working at Ladurée at the time and was kind of my hero. He unfortunately left Ladurée two weeks after I arrived so I was a little disappointed! But I stayed for a year. I never planned to work in a little bakery in the neighborhood that was halfway decent. That was not my goal at all.
Do you remember something that shocked you during the education process there? Mostly I was impressed with the flavor; Pierre Hermé is a genius with flavor, so I was really impressed with the combination of flavors that I thought were really, really great, and something I wanted to learn from someone like him.
Fast forward to when you came to New York. We don't have many classic French patisseries here, which is sort of odd... It is, and I don't know why. It's always a question I ask myself; why aren't there more real patisseries? I think the demand is there, because obviously we're selling.
Did you have a set idea of what you wanted your menu to be? Because we hadn't opened yet and were nobody in town, I didn't want to have a line of products that was too crazy so that people would be afraid to try things. I started with French classics; éclairs, lemon tarts, chocolate desserts and stuff. Same with the macarons—I had a line of flavors that were pretty common, that people were intrigued to try, like pistachio, caramel, and chocolate. Now that we have regular customers I don't have to limit myself and can be a little more crazy.
Yeah, we do like our macarons here now. I have few flavors of macarons and pastry that are not common, and I do that on purpose, something you won't see from someone else. I have one macaron now—bacon and maple syrup—that at first people were buying just because it was different. I tried to remove it for the summer last year because it was more of a fall/wintery flavor, but then people were asking for it so I had to put it back on, and it's stayed ever since.
We're so opinionated on our macarons. How do you make sure yours can stand up to the little specialty shops around the city? I taste them, every day. We're a very small structure here, so most of the macarons I make myself.
Are you on board with our current trend around macarons or does it make you want to roll your eyes? A macaron is a product; it's basically a shell of almond meringue filled with a jam, or a ganache, or a buttercream, or a cream cheese, or whatever. I hate when people say, "Oh, a macaron should be like this or like that," because that says that they do not know anything about macarons. It's like saying, "A cake should be like that!" It's a matter of taste and preference, of appreciation.
I make them the way I've been taught and the way I think them the best. To me the key of the macaron is the flavor—the main flavor you advertise should be the star. And that's the complaint I often have; I'd rather have a macaron that tastes like what it's advertised to be and looks a little rustic-style. To me that's better than something that looks perfect and is a little dry and doesn't taste like what it's supposed to be. If it's vanilla it should taste like vanilla. If it tastes like extract, it's not good.
You said you're a small operation and so you have a bit of control thus far. Is staying small an intention? The intention is first having this place up and running and being successful; we're getting there, after almost two years. And we'll see what the future holds, but hopefully we'll have other locations in America. We're working on a commissary kitchen because we want to work on our wholesale business; there's a big demand from restaurants that are too small too hire pastry chefs but have a big demand for desserts, so that's something we want to focus on.
From what angle? The main problem I've noticed in smaller restaurants in New York is that the menus are very good, but the dessert doesn't match the quality of the food. Not that the dessert is bad, but there's a difference of quality. And I talk to a lot of chefs that are like, "Yes, we know, but I can't afford to pay a pastry chef full-time." They're not selling enough desserts for that cost. So I'm going to be able to provide that; it's going to be like a kit, they can assemble the pastry in the kitchen in the restaurant and plate it however they want, and I supply them the elements already made.
Yeah, I've talked to some pastry chefs about that concern, that when times are tough in a restaurant... The pastry chef is the first to go.
Exactly. I think we could help lots of savory chefs. I wouldn't say it's good for the restaurant pastry chef, because if restaurant owners have that option...
Despite the dwindling complexity of pastry departments in New York restaurants, why do you focus on the classics? Classic desserts will remain forever—they're not something that's going to fade away like a certain type of molecular gastronomy. Not everyone can be Ferran Adrià. And I think that's going to die much faster than this. These pastries have been around for hundreds of years, at least in France. An éclair will always be popular. People will always eat a simple lemon tart. There's always little twists to add to make it more new, more interesting, more contemporary, but that's mostly why I choose to do this thing.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about chefs and cooks things for bread and butter. She drinks way too much tea and dreams about peanut butter and jelly macarons, so on any given day you may find her at Bosie transcribing yet another interview and shaking from sugar. Read her rambles, grab her recipes and chat her up at www.thedustybaker.com or tweet excessively with her at @dustybakergal.