He works quickly, pacing himself between the demands of a beeping timer and the need for the perfect temperature. He weaves among giant mixers, stainless steel countertops and rows of doors embodying the most precious element to preservation – the cold.
At minus-25 degrees Celsius, sweet delicacies can maintain their perfect form as they wait patiently for their turn to be decorated. Soon, they will be dressed in only the finest attire — delicate berries in shades of red, pink and purple; almonds and hazelnuts; and handmade chocolates made from Valrhona cocoa, mousse and fluffy whipped cream.
“I’m the most proud of my work when people tell me how good it tastes, and when I see them enjoy it,” says Roger Martinez, pâtissier (pastry chef), chocolatier (chocolate maker) and proprietor of Au Paradis des Desserts in Perpignan, France.
Pans and cake plates are his canvas. His deadline is based on demand. And although his creations are intricate, the true test is in the flavor. Pâtissier like Martinez spend hours crafting pastries to perfection, only to have them devoured in mere moments.
Martinez’s specialty is touron Catalan – a traditional Catalonian sweet made with almonds, hazelnuts and honey. But he is also sought out for his hand-made chocolates, and his chocolate-infused pastries and cakes, typically based off traditional French and Catalan recipes.
Martinez entered into the world of pastry and other sweets when he was 18, working for his future wife’s family business. He says he worked his way up as an apprentice. Later, he became a judge for upcoming pastry professionals. Then, 11 years ago, he purchased his own pastry shop from an established traditional pastry artisan.
In France, he says, people favor handmade creations, rather than mass-produced goods from a factory bakery. And his investment in perfecting a skill and knowledge of the traditional methods and recipes brought Martinez national attention after the popular national French TV network TF1 featured Martinez on a television series in 2000, right after he opened the first pastry shop, and again in 2009.
“TF1 came because they were looking for an artisan who wasn’t industrial. They wanted to see things made the traditional way,” explains Martinez.
“The Catalan specialties and touron were left for me by the previous shop owner. And then I took many other recipes and transformed them by adding my own personal touch,” he says.
Six months ago, Martinez opened a second shop near the city’s center – a sign of success in a city overrun with pastry vendors and bakeries.
The pastry shop is a local favorite and a tourist attraction for travelers who visit the area.
During high season for pastries, typically running from fall to spring, Martinez says Au Paradis des Desserts sees about 200 customers per day.
“Monsieur Martinez is well known and is someone who I really love and really appreciate,” Sylvie Albert, a regular customer, says excitedly after purchasing 10 loaves of bread and a cake from the pastry shop.
Albert, who has been coming to the location on Avenue General de Gaulle since 1996 (prior to Martinez’s ownership), says the fine quality ensures her steadfast loyalty to Martinez’s handiwork.
In both of Martinez’s pastry shops, consumers can find traditional desserts, such as the classic meringue treat le vacherin, as well as his own recipes, like his most popular cake, Péché d’Elodie, a rich chocolate cake, which Martinez created 21 years ago in honor of his daughter’s birth.
According to Martinez, natural talent and time is the secret to designing both delicious and alluring sweets. But love for the art sets true pastry artisans apart from the run of the mill.
In his mission to maintain the traditional methods and the profession as a whole, Martinez hires apprentices, typically for two-year terms, while they work toward pâtissier (pastry chef) certification.
“Of course, there are times when you need to keep little things secret, but for the most part you need to pass down the recipes and explain and show how they are made well, so that this work is passed down the right way.”
Martinez says he simply provides a resource for upcoming professionals.
“I’m just giving (apprentices) a frame so they have confidence, but then I leave it up to them to use their imagination. They have to think about what they want to create.“
To become a Level I pastry chef, known as CAP Pâtissier, a person must take a test, typically two years into their apprenticeship; it can take up to five years after that to specialize, he explains.
Presently, two young apprentices are training under him. François Boudagoec has been an apprentice under Martinez for one year.
“It’s very inspiring,” explains Boudagoec, who passed his Level I CAP exam with top grades after only one year (apprentices typically take two).
“I love this. I love what I do.”
As Martinez points at a flat cake (designed by Boudagoec) covered with brilliant colors from fruits like kiwis and strawberries he accentuates if an apprentice has talent, it’s evident in their cakes.
“I want them to be inspired to create. I leave them the opportunity to create and to express themselves. Then they can enjoy learning and develop their skills in a way that’s personal to them.”
“It can’t be a job,” he adds. “It has to be a passion.”