By his own admission, Nicolas Haelewyn fell into the caramel pot when he was small. A childhood in Normandy and grandparents who bred dairy cows has definitively sealed his fate: after a decade traveling the planet for Ladurée, the pastry chef opened his shop “Karamel Paris” last year. Meet the “Karaboss” is his Yvelines lab.
DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A PASTRY CHEF BECAUSE OF NORMANDY AND ITS DELICACIES?
Without a doubt! I’ve been immersed in a universe of good products since a very young age as my grandparents had a dairy farm in Normandy. I grew up on the farm, spending all my holidays there. My grandmother would prepare ‘tergoule’ there, which is a type of rice pudding with caramel, it was delicious! Gastronomy has always had an important role in my family. I also had a great uncle who owned a bakery in the Cher area. I started there at a very young age, working firstly in bread baking and then continued in pastry. After that, I continued studying in Normandy until I earned the ‘brevet de maitrise’ (master’s qualification).
THEN YOU LEFT YOUR DEAR NORMANDY FOR THE CAPITAL?
I left Normandy when I was 21, after working for 5 years in the same establishment, a traditional pastry and chocolate shop who worked by the book, it was a very good school where I integrated the basics. Then I came to Paris to work at Ladurée. That lasted 10 years, and I spent the last 5 years as an international chef. It was then that I really learnt another profession: I traveled the world teaching the French method to other pastry chefs.
HOW DID THE SWITCH BETWEEN NORMANDY AND LADURÉE TAKE PLACE?
I wanted to go abroad, and so I simply answered an ad placed by the chef at Ladurée. And I can tell you that I have traveled far more than I imagined! As well as being bilingual in English, I’ve got a really open mind and have made some magical encounters… this position taught me to be resourceful, to adapt not only to basic ingredients and equipment in each country but also to the culture of local pastry chefs who need to be trained from A to Z. For us, it’s almost innate because we learn pastry. But for Filippinos or Sri Lankans who haven’t learnt like us, you have to start at the very beginning!
YOU WERE ALSO IN CHARGE OF PURCHASING EQUIPMENT?
I had the chance to manage laboratory plans and referencing materials and primary ingredients: I selected them for diffusion in each territory. There were even times when I’d place orders directly. The reference was Paris. Then, we had to adapt according to the sizes of the laboratories: Paris, is 1000 m2. But when you open a lab in Qatar with only 80 m2, then the materiel just won’t be the same…! To start with, Ladurée worked exclusively with a single supplier but it was becoming redundant, so I brought in Matfer for the international scene.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE IMPORTANT CRITERIA FOR A SUPPLIER?
Quality, and Made in France! I can remember being invited by Matfer to Longny-au-Perche and when you visit the factory, they show you whisks, still made in France. You can see the machine that makes scrapers, etc. … and that matters. And, to be honest, the fact that the factory is in Normandy helps (Laughs). For Ladurée, developing greatly overseas, what can be better than working with French suppliers! You know, there are few who work for the artisan, and we can always count on Matfer.
AN INNOVATION THAT MAKES YOUR LIFE EASIER?
“I’ve been using Exoglass moulds for the past 4 years, and was using them at Ladurée. I’ve never had a problem with turning out. With Exoglass, no need to grease them and cooking is really good, leaving no marks. What’s also good is that you can use the mold on both sides: if you want a straight edge in a cake, you can simply just work on the flat side. You can even obtain a rounded edge, like for a pear and almond cream tartlet by simply using the other side.”
HOW WAS THE KARAMEL ADVENTURE BORN?
I spent 10 fabulous years at Ladurée, and professionally grew a lot. I was very lucky to have carte blanche with the general management, and I left on very good terms. Yet, I think that I’d come to the end of what I could bring to Ladurée, I’d done it all. I also just wanted to settle down and I felt ready to build my own business. I have the soul of an entrepreneur.
WHAT DRIVES YOU TODAY?
I take pleasure in creating, in meeting people. We have a magical profession, in a magical city. It is possible to have fun and to live off your creations! I’m always creating, however I have a hard time creating under pressure: for example if I have an event the next week, I’ll get a blockage, sometimes I can’t even sleep, it’s a nightmare. And yet, when I have time, like when I’m on vacation, that’s when I’m bubbling the most!
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
My associate and I are looking for a second sales point in Paris, near the Marais. This shop will be very different from the one in the 7th district: each Karamel shop will have its own identity, with some specific products for the type of clientele. As for overseas, we’re in an advanced stage of discussion with Japan…
Born in 1985, Nicolas Haelewyn spent his childhood in Normandy. In summer, he worked in his uncle’s bakery and then in his cousin’s pastry shop where he discovered his passion for caramel when making his first croquembouches. He then took on studying pastry in the region to learn the profession, taking on a CAP, BEP and Brevet de Maîtrise. He then spent five years working for a pastry and chocolate artisan in Normandy before answering a job offer at Ladurée for its international development.
At the age of 20, he began working for this prestigious establishment, starting out assisting the pastry chef in Paris, then in 2011, as international pastry chef. Another 5 years, during which he opened a dozen of the brand’s establishments around the world. At the age of 30, and after 10 years at Ladurée, the young chef felt the need to express his own talent, acknowledging both his childhood souvenirs and his dear Normandy, and in 2006 opened his first boutique – tea room “Karamel Paris” in the 7th district of the capital.