Indulgent Escapes

No matter the destination, cuisine has become a destination itself within the world of travel, giving tourists another opportunity to indulge in the delicious delicacies that define the region.

When it comes to food, travel company Brown + Hudson aims to integrate a country’s cuisine into a client’s overall experience, to the effect that guests feel like they’ve been on a culinary tour without necessarily realizing it. The same integration is seen and felt in every aspect of the “Heart of Darkness” tour through the cities and jungles of Ecuador.

Coined a luxpedition, the tour means to tell the “untold story of chocolate through exclusive access to areas few visitors have set foot in before,” all while experiencing utter luxury and insider access.

In partnership with To’ak Chocolate, the tour highlights several natural and cultural sights, particularly within the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, where co-founder Jerry Toth originally became passionate about cacao farming. By way of rainforest conservation, Toth lived in the middle of the forest preserve in Ecuador for many years cultivating cacao trees, deciding after some time that he wanted to take the obsession to another level.

From the beginning, he says the goal of To’ak Chocolate was to “elevate dark chocolate to the level of vintage wine and aged whisky.” To’ak Chocolate is made with the rarest cacao beans in the world, which guests on the tour have the opportunity to experience at almost every level of crafting.

At the archaeological site of Santa Ana La Florida, travelers can explore the evidence left of the first domestic use of cacau among the Mayo-Chinchipe culture, dating back more than 5,000 years ago. With a visit to To’ak’s cacao plantation in the Valle Piedra de Plata, guests can roam the forest of nacional cacao trees, one of the most prized cacao beans on Earth and a species that was almost wiped from existence.

Jerry Toth

Photos courtesy Brown + Hudson.

Most appealing, though, will be the exclusive after-hours chocolate tasting in the Guayasamin Museum, creating a collective journey that acts as a portal into the culture, philosophy and emotions of the region.

Just as importantly, chocolate tends to play a complementary component in travel as well as dessert. Artisans of Leisure’s Food and Wine excursions provide in-depth private tours that couples the very best wine with other culinary and cultural highlights of the region, including chocolate.

For example, the “Bordeaux to Basque Country” tour includes sampling local wines, touring vineyards, viewing the architecture of several winery buildings, and sampling delicacies like chocolate found in the area.

This journey takes guests through cities and regions known for authenticity and tradition, from the half-timber houses and charming shops of Bayonne in southern France to the gastronomic capital of northern Spain, San Sebastian.

San Sebastian, Spain

Photo courtesy Artisan of Leisure.

While chocolate may not be thought of as the perfect complement to exercise, tour operators at UTracks have designed a self-guided bicycle tour that rides through the mountains and quaint cities of Switzerland, with special access to chocolatier shops and stops along the way. Tour Operator Kate Baker says the “Swiss Chocolate Cycle” tour offers the perfect balance of both travel and exercise. “Being active on holidays means you can indulge guilt free — a much better proposition than eating chocolate without being active.”

The tour will have participants cycling between cities throughout Switzerland, starting and ending in Zurich. Baker notes that “of course being in Switzerland, there are opportunities throughout the tour to taste artisan and more mainstream brands of chocolate.” In the town of Buchs, travelers will meet with chocolatiers at the Frey Chocolate visitor center to make their own chocolate bar. And after a peaceful bike trail along the Reuss River to the town of Root, travelers can experience the exciting world of Chocolatier Aeschbach, known for its tradition-conscious methods and high quality.

Other cities and destinations on the tour include the relaxing spa town of Baden, known for its thermal springs; views of the Swiss Alps through orchards and fields to the town of Sursee; a yacht trip around the bay of Lucerne; and so much more. The active aspect of the trip, Baker says, helps travelers to further witness the infusion of chocolate in many aspects of these cities. “A cyclist looks forward to every food experience, and moving between towns allows one to discover a range of cuisine.”

Top: Baden, Switzerland

Right: Lake Lucerne, Switzerland

Photos courtesy Switzerland Tourism.

Lady M Cake Boutique, known for elegant, multi-layered Mille Crêpes cakes, has partnered with  French luxury brand Baccarat to launch its first luxury cake truck in California.

Alongside 3D Artist Kurt Wenner, the five-year partnership will launch the cake truck in New York City at the Baccarat Boutique on Madison Avenue, and travel across the country before commencing operation in California. Set to start serving August 2019 in Northern California, the 28-foot multi-functional luxury cake truck will journey throughout California greeting new and existing clients of both brands with a unique cake experience.

“Baccarat is thrilled to be partnering with Lady M on this new and innovative collaboration,” says Jim Shreve, President and CEO of Baccarat North America. “Our partnership reinforces the Baccarat message of enjoying beautiful things every day. We are excited to share delicious cakes on beautiful Baccarat. Everything tastes better on Baccarat.”

From the sidewalk, pedestrians and guests will experience the Kurt Wenner 3D, life-sized rendering of the cake truck that will be affixed to the boutique’s glass façade. Inside, guests will meander through the boutique surrounded by Lady M cakes, capturing the feel of being in an actual Lady M boutique. Within the boutique, guests will be greeted with a glass of champagne as they approach yet another version of the cake truck, where Lady M Mille Crêpes will be served through a functional service window. 

The Lady M x Baccarat cake truck is a stunning and luxurious feast for the eyes. On the exterior, Baccarat has mounted two large Tuile de Crystal Chandeliers ($29,100 each) and 1 small Tuile de Crystal ($12,600) that will gracefully hang suspended from two long beams that are collapsible when the food truck is not in service. Four Baccarat Mille Nuits Torch sconces ($2,150 each) will mount on either side of the service windows. During the day, Lady M will provide legendary service to clients who pre-order cakes.  During the evening, Lady M and Baccarat will illuminate the night and create an outdoor dining experience for those who want to experience both brands.

“The collaboration with Lady M and Baccarat has allowed me to have an entirely new experience with interactive art. Placing my art on a food truck is a first for me,” says artist Kurt Wenner, who invented 3D Pavement Art in the 1980s. By combining his art with digital printing, Wenner offers stunning, durable, interactive illusions.

This collaboration is the first of its kind, and Lady M Cake Boutique is thrilled and honored to partner with Baccarat. We are excited to expand the concept of the Lady M experience and take our cakes (including a new confection made exclusively for the collaboration), on the road, introducing them to those both new to and familiar with the brand. We look forward to sharing our signature cakes on beautiful crystal, and sharing happiness.

Ken Romaniszyn

CEO, Lady M Cake Boutique

“My 3D illusions are where the language of proportion and innovation meet. I’m so excited about this project as the illusions I have created will be partnered with elegant chandeliers and the world’s finest cakes. The marriage of all three will shift the perception of what is reality,” says Wenner. 

The cake truck will start service starting this month in Northern California, and guests are encouraged to tag and follow along with the hashtag ​#ladymxbaccarat. ​A microsite tracking the cake truck’s journey throughout California will be live at ​www.ladym.com/thecaketruck​. 

All photos courtesy Samantha Nandez / BFA.com

Innovative pastry chefs around the world are presenting cutting-edge creations while respecting centuries-old traditions.

Most celebrity chefs specialize in savory courses while those who master sweets — the very dishes that put an exclamation point on any memorable meal — toil in relative obscurity. Culinary professionals, however, concede that desserts are at least as demanding and complex, requiring a greater appreciation of science and precision, not to mention artistic flair.

Paris is filled with extraordinary restaurants and pâtisseries, but Pierre Hermé may be the City of Light’s leading innovator of sweets.

Long before classic Parisian macarons (delicate meringue sandwich cookies not to be confused with American macaroons) began drawing attention worldwide, Hermé was revolutionizing the confection from his Paris studio. His audacious approach has become so trendsetting that seasonal releases of his new flavors are as anxiously awaited as the lines of haute couture turned out by the city’s fashion designers.

Anise and saffron, chocolate and foie gras, caviar and walnut. These brazen yet balanced flavor combinations represent the imaginative macarons dispensed at Hermé’s jewel box-like stores, which have spread throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Monsieur Hermé’s magic also extends to cakes and tarts such as his “Ultime,” a sleek, seductive disk of Belizean dark chocolate cream and Madagascan vanilla ganache.

Pierre Hermé’s macarons may be the most elegant take-out snacks in Paris, but extraordinary plated desserts are found at the city’s Hôtel Plaza Athénée. Maintaining the property’s world-class culinary standards — it is home to an Alain Ducasse restaurant earning three Michelin stars — is Angelo Musa, a world pastry champion and recipient of the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France.

“I’m inspired by the changing seasons, with each turn I discover and rediscover unique flavors,” says Musa. His creations are sophisticated, but the chef has a restrained approach to presentation. “I don’t favor art at the expense of taste,” says Musa of a philosophy he has maintained throughout his career. “Finding the balance between tastes and textures allows staging to be more harmonious and attractive, and when the taste transmits a sensibility far beyond the visual, the aestheticism offers an immediate emotion,” he explains.

Nearby, on the other side of Place de la Concorde, is Paris’ Le Meurice, a lavish hotel dressed in gilt, crystal and silk. Cédric Grolet, the property’s 32-year-old pastry chef, was named “Best Restaurant Pastry Chef in the World” (2017) by Les Grandes Tables du Monde, as well as “Best Pastry Chef” (2018) by France’s influential Gault Millau guide. His desserts at the hotel’s magnificent dining room, Le Meurice, and pastries for afternoon tea at Restaurant Le Dalí have generated considerable buzz.

Cédric Grolet

Rubik’s Cube

While a serious artist, Grolet indulges his playful side in fanciful yet elegant pastries that resonate with customers. He is renowned for his fruit sculptures, confections so realistic they mirror their inspirations with incredible precision, and his interpretation of a Rubik’s Cube, a dazzling cake sculpture consisting of 27 ganache- and gilt-clad petit fours.

 

“The colors, as well as the textures and decorations, are from nature,” says Grolet of the Cube, who adds for emphasis, “This is essential.” Like Musa, Grolet’s menu is dictated by seasonality and he regularly tastes the savory dishes to ensure his finales are complementary. “This means taking into consideration the weather, having a dash of boldness and adding last-minute touches,” he explains.

Johannes Bonin

Mascarpone Cheesecake

Although innovators, Musa and Grolet are classicists at heart, while Oriol Balaguer experiments with molecular gastronomy to perfect pastries and chocolates showcased at his high-end boutiques in Barcelona and Madrid. Earning an award as “Best Dessert in the World” is a glossy study in chocolate in which Balaguer presents eight distinct textures of the sexy ingredient.

At his eponymous pâtisseries in Tokyo and Paris, Sadaharu Aoki applies classic French pastry technique to traditional Japanese ingredients, resulting in matcha (green tea) napoleons, black sesame éclairs or macarons infused with wasabi or yuzu. Aoki’s sophisticated aesthetics, displayed in both his cross-cultural desserts and sleek boutique interiors, play equally well in Japan and France.

Thomas Raquel

APPLE Brown Butter Mousse

The Japanese-born Aoki mastered his craft in Paris, but the city’s claim to being the epicenter of pastry art is being challenged as French-trained chefs scatter across the globe. At Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the iconic sail-shaped structure that has been called “the world’s first seven-star hotel,” French-born Johannes Bonin turns out edible art for well-heeled guests.

“As a global culinary hub and home to diverse nationalities, the Middle East inspires chefs to put their creative skills to the test by making the most of local ingredients,” reports Bonin. Explaining his personal approach, he states, “I choose a premium-quality product, then add just one or two flavors to complement that main ingredient and give it an original twist.” At Burj Al Arab, Bonin deviates from his own French traditions, creating desserts that are fun, less sweet and relatively healthy. He believes presentation should be secondary to taste, but recognizes its power in the age of Instagram and applies his share of gold leaf at a hotel renowned for luxury.

 

At New York’s Le Bernardin, America’s most honored seafood restaurant, 31-year-old executive pastry chef Thomas Raquel is challenged with maintaining the perfection of preceding courses from celebrity chef/co-owner Eric Ripert, whose cuisine has earned three Michelin stars. Each of Ripert’s dishes tend to showcase one primary ingredient, and Raquel is similarly focused. “A single ingredient or classic dessert is the star on the plate, then I add my own twist — whether it’s in the presentation or an unexpected element — to elevate the ingredients and make the dish memorable and unique,” he explains.

Whether interpreting a classic Mont Blanc or reimagining a Black Forest cake, Raquel has a thoughtful approach to plating. “I always consider flavor first, then aim for a presentation that balances organic shapes and clean lines,” says the chef, who adds, “I want each plate to be both simple and unexpected…. I love when the plating of a dessert can offer guests a little surprise!”

 

With its salad-picking supermodels and an obsession with health, one would not expect Los Angeles to be promising territory for desserts. But The Peninsula Beverly Hills’ Stephanie Boswell is among a cadre of innovative young pastry chefs in her native city. At The Belvedere, the hotel’s fine dining venue, she is known for literally transforming desserts into works of art.

Mascarpone Cheesecake

Stephanie Boswell

Cassis Plum

Janice Wong

Boswell’s Fabergé eggs — chocolate shells hand-painted with floral designs and embellished with glitter — are exquisite presentations. “I wanted the egg to be this perfect, precious, austere thing that comes to your table and you have to smash it to eat it,” says the executive pastry chef of her edible performance art. Inside, pretenses are dropped in favor of nostalgic fillings like s’mores or Boswell’s upscale take on a PB&J sandwich. She also creates cream puffs emblazoned with pop art images from masters like Warhol, Lichtenstein or Robert Indiana, whose original work is on the wall.

 

“My work is greatly influenced by the world of art,” explains the chef, who as a kid spent every weekend at a different museum. “I heard the phrase, ‘DON’T TOUCH THAT!’ a lot and I think it made me want to create art that was made with the intention of being touched, messed with and changed by the viewer,” recounts Boswell. Ultimately, she recognized pastry was the perfect medium for that approach.

The traditions of East and West collide in Hong Kong, where chef Janice Wong — the native Singaporean was mentored by Hermé and Balaguer — applies classic technique to Asian ingredients at Cobo House. Wong creates the entire menu but reinforces her reputation as a pastry chef favoring avant-garde presentations. Inspired by the Japanese cherry blossom is a half-sphere of blackcurrant and white chocolate with a crater filled with pink foam created from red shiso leaf liqueur.

Dessert, anyone?   

Photos courtesy of Georges Biard, Angelo Musa, Pierre Hermé, Thomas Dhellemmes, Pierre Monetta, Stu Williamson, Daniel Krieger, Ryan Forbes, Cobo House, Burj Al Arab, Le Bernardin, Peninsula Beverly Hills

Sweet Spots

Burj Al Arab Jumeirah
Dubai

www.burjalarab.com

Cobo House
Hong Kong

www.cobohouse.com

Le Bernardin
New York

www.le-bernardin.com

Le Meurice
Paris

www.dorchestercollection.com

Oriol Balaguer
Barcelona and Madrid

www.oriolbalaguer.com

The Peninsula
Beverly Hills

www.beverlyhills.peninsula.com

Pierre Hermé
Paris and elsewhere

www.pierreherme.com

Hôtel Plaza Athénée
Paris

www.dorchestercollection.com

Sadaharu Aoki
Tokyo and Paris

www.sadaharuaoki.com

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