If you’ve never witnessed a man make love to a tart of the pastry variety, then you have never met Yigit Pura or seen the ecstatic flutter of his chestnut eyelashes and the pursing of his full Turkish lips as he takes a deep bite from a Chantilly-filled St. Honoré cake to the sidelong glance of a scandalized Frenchwoman down the row on the Paris metro.
Brushing the crumbs, or “little bits of love” as he calls them, from the front of his Y-3 jacket, Pura has the twinkle of a triumphant child who has just raided the cookie jar.
It is on this metro bound for the flea market at Porte de Vanves that I realize Pura, a 31-year-old pastry chef and winner of Top Chef Just Desserts, isn’t just hamming for the camera. He has found his calling. As I will come to intimately know over the course of the next six days, Pura has a two-track mind: “Sugar and sugar!” he says excitedly, emphasizing the second sugar with a wink and a nod to the gorgeous European men who, like the pastries Pura craves, also abound here in Paris.
Pura, who grew up in Ankara, Turkey before moving to Novato in 1992, was apparently born with a taste for sweets. At age 4, he could be quieted for hours with the sticky spoon his mother used every Monday to make her weekly creme caramel. He’s worked in the pastry kitchens of some seriously renowned restaurants—Gary Danko and New York’s Restaurant Daniel among them—and since 2007, Pura was the executive pastry chef at SF caterer Taste. These days, the Nob Hill dweller is writing his first cookbook, Sweet Alchemy (due out from Chronicle Books in 2013) and will open his first patisserie, Tout Sweet, this summer on the third floor of Macy’s in Union Square. It is Tout Sweet that brings us here to Paris for what may be the most fabulous R & D trip ever.
Pura loves the charm of the budget-friendly boutique inn Hotel Chalgrin off the Champs-Elysées. I, being one for amenities, head to the Hotel Regina near the Louvre. After checking into our respective hotels, we meet for dinner at the iconic Left Bank gathering place Brasserie Lipp on Boulevard St. Germain. Lipp has served everyone from Marcel Proust to Kate Moss. Sipping an Americano, his favorite cocktail served here with a “very civilized” silver bucket piled high with ice, Pura asks me, “Is your pancreas ready for this?”
Looking over the list of the dozen-plus patisseries he intends to visit this week, I am certain it is not. Until tomorrow at least, I can find solace in savory food, tucking into our plates of paté en croute, studded with pistachios and served with a traditional side of gelatinous aspic. Pura is delighted by the old-fashioned oddity, telling me that he can eat at the restaurants of famous chefs in San Francisco and New York. Here in the City of Light, he likes a “classic Parisian experience.”
Classic is right. This being my fifth time in Paris, I have seen the sights and am content just to wander the Marais and St. Germain, popping into favorite shops like Assouline and Isabel Marant and noshing on crêpes complet. Pura, though, does Paris like a tourist: melting over lovers making out along the Seine at night; eating Nutella crêpes in the Jardin du Tuilieries; taking the stairs to the top of the tower at Notre Dame before walking, limp leggedly, to the Renzo Piano-designed Centre Pompidou for a study in modern art. All that is well and good, but we are here to eat dessert. Looking back, I wish I had taken those stairs.
Bright and early on our first day in Paris, I meet Pura at La Patisserie des Rêves on a chic shopping street in the ritzy seventh arrondissement. It is 10 o’clock on a Sunday, and the devoted are lining up to order breathtaking confections to take home for brunch. Beaming, Pura points out that this is just any ordinary Sunday, envying the French custom of gorging on splendid sweets without any requisite special occasion. Again he says, “civilized.” This becomes our watchword of the week.
La Patisserie des Rêves really is a place of dreams. Opened by pastry maestro Philippe Conticini in 2009, the shop is a contemporary gallery where petit gateaux, flaky mille-feuille, praline-filled Paris-Brest, and glistening profiterole-topped St. Honoré taunt you from beneath humidity-controlling glass domes. Modular, color-blocked shelves hold takeaway goodies in vibrant pink and silver packages, as well as jumbo rolls of cloth napkins ready to be torn off in sheets. Each order is prepared à la minute and presented in plucky boxes tied up with string. After a 10-minute wait in line and another five minutes before we receive our single St. Honoré, Pura and I joke that this is the Blue Bottle of Paris. This is the place, he tells me, that will inspire the look of his SF shop.
The saucy scene at the beginning of this story becomes all the more naughty when you know it was 11 a.m. Yet there we were, four Americans—including Rebecca, Yigit’s friend since high school, and Frankie, the photographer on Pura’s book and, as it happens, my spouse—passing around a St. Honoré, our cheeks fat from profiteroles. I ask Yigit if he ever tires of eating sweets. Nope, never.
When it comes to romantic notions of Paris, Pura drinks the Kool-aid hard. So do I, which makes us something of a ridiculous match. As he recalls scenes from his favorite movies (Paris, je t’aime, Midnight in Paris, Amélie), we traverse the cobblestone streets like school girls, pointing up at balconied windows with potted plants and Hermès orange awnings, dreaming of a shared pied-a-terre somewhere in our fantasy future.
We must have picked out half a dozen apartments on our 30-minute walk to Sadaharu Aoki, the eponymous boutique of the Japanese patissier known for an adventurous take on pastry with four shops in Paris and five others in Tokyo and Taipei. Between nods at Haussmann-style homes and expertly styled men, Pura salivates as he briefs me on our mission: the chocolate-yuzu-feuillantine bar—a citrusy wonder that, until now, has been just a magical myth in Pura’s mind.
You can imagine his disappointment when, upon our arrival, the shop was closed (on Mondays). The store’s neighbors experienced it firsthand when Pura, literally heartbroken, shook his fist in the air with a reverberating “Nooooooo!” We, of course, returned to Sadaharu Aoki to get a taste of the yuzu chocolate. As promised, it was delicious. As were the graphic, polka-dotted, chocolate-covered macarons flavored with Aoki’s Japanese heritage—wasabi, matcha, and hojicha are among the unusual offering. At Tout Sweet, Pura tells me, the macarons will be named for the people that he loves. (“Chloé” is a piquant, dark chocolate lady.)
But when it comes to macarons, there are none in Paris or beyond to rival the crispy-chewy, rainbow-hued dreams at Pierre Hermé, or as Pura calls it, “the motherland of modern pastry.” Downright giddy after his private tour of the chef’s kitchen (no plebeian journalists allowed), Pura cleaned house, spending 166 euros (about $220) on the mother of all goodie bags. Over café crèmes (the French version of a cappuccino) at a bistro across the street, we passed a box of 12 assorted macarons, each taking a bite of every one, until the box was gone, as a woman in leopard-print heels hopped on her motorcycle to Pura’s chipmunk-cheeked delight.
The petit gateaux, however, required more special reverence. Careful not to jiggle the box, we carried them to the Jardin du Luxembourg just as the sun was coming out. It was here that we shared our quintessential Paris moment. Sitting with our backs to the statue of some unmarked monarch, the tulips around us just weeks from beginning to bloom, we shared a life-changing vanilla tart, a citron mousse cake, a chocolate bombe cake with salted chocolate glaze, and a macaron gateaux with fresh raspberries and delicate rose cream. It was then that a bundled-up French woman on the other side of 60 stopped, pointed in our direction, and said, “Excusez-moi!” and politely schooled us on our total lack of respect. In Paris, it seems, you never show your back to a prince while stuffing your face with pastries.