French pastry chef Gaston Albert Célestin Lenôtre was born on May 28, 1920 on a small farm in Normandy. Both of his parents had been cooks at prestigious establishments in Paris, but his father’s illness forced the family to return to Normandy. Lenôtre fils made such a success of a bakery in a small town in Normandy and then moved to the chic 16th arrondissement.
Lenôtre hit the scene at a time when French cooking was becoming lighter and focused on natural flavors. He was able to marry these lighter flavors and textures with classic pastries, thus creating a whole new take on dessert. His best known confection was the Opéra – chocolate covered almond cake, and coffee-cream. Lenôtre became a brand. Paul Bocuse, the best-known celebrity chef of that generation said that Lenôtre’s name was as important “as the Christian Dior name on a dress.” I used to enjoy dining at the beautiful Lenôtre restaurant on rue Cler. It was like a jewelry store, not a pâtisserie.
He expanded to create savory dishes, catering, and 60 boutiques in 12 countries. In 1971, he opened a pastry school in the appropriately named town of Plaisir (pleasure), west of Paris. The best pastry chefs in the world are trained there. He sold the business to the Accor hotel group in 1985, but stayed on to run several of the businesses. For his 80th birthday in 2000, he was presented with a 33-foot high cake. Lenôtre elevated the simple pastry to high art as well as big business. Last year, the Lenôtre group was responsible for over 100 million Euros in sales. He died on January 8, 2009.
The expression soyez des nôtres (swayeh luh notruh) means “won’t you join us.” Lenôtre’s talents for creating beautiful dining experiences made many a guest glad to join him in his long, delicious career.