In contrast to the rainbow-hued macaron, the éclair has long been more delicious than it was beautiful. Traditionally glazed in neutral shades of chocolate or coffee, this classic French childhood snack had an enduring charm, but it has never been a visual standout in the pastry case. Nevertheless, the finger-shaped, cream-stuffed choux pastry has always been beloved, and pastry chefs have been making it pretty much the same way since the 1800s, unmoved to fix something that wasn’t ever really broken.
But French pastry chef Christophe Adam saw the classic éclair not as a fait accompli but a point of departure. While working as a chef at Fauchon, he began experimenting with ways to modernize éclair design, producing a bright orange éclair and a memorable iteration adorned with a digital image of the Mona Lisa.
Pastry design dates from the 18th century and the days of Marie-Antoine Carême, father of the elaborate pastry tower known as the pièce montée. But Adam belongs to a new generation of French pastry chefs who know that innovative design is the best way to set their brands apart, and the 40-year-old chef has earned himself something of a cult following.
Adam has injected excitement into the traditional world of French pastry not by inventing something new along the lines of a cronut (Adam is friends with the cronut’s creater, New York-based friend French pastry chef Dominique Ansel), but by giving an old silhouette new sex appeal. He bathes éclairs in Pop art colors and blingy high-gloss finishes made with edible powdered silver, their flavor profiles enlivened with novel ingredients like yuzu, fresh strawberries, popcorn, and salted caramel. Adam has also engineered the éclairs to be lighter in texture and reduced the sugar content of the icing.
To showcase his design-driven vision, Adam opened what he calls a “concept store,” L'éclair de Génie, less than a year ago in the Marais. With an all-glass storefront, concrete floors, exposed stone and a jewel-like pastry case, it has been thronged with customers since. On a recent afternoon, Parisians and a stream of visiting Americans stood in line to buy éclairs at 5 euros a pop, a Japanese journalist was photographing the pastry case, and a fan asked the chef to autograph a pastry box for her son.
When I asked why the éclair made a good canvas for his artistry, Adam offered only a Gallic shrug. “I always loved working on the look and the design of a pastry,” Adam told me. “An éclair has to taste good of course, but it’s also very, very important for it to look beautiful, to have that high-end, contemporary, modern quality. Five euros isn’t cheap for an éclair, but they’re made fresh, with sought-after quality ingredients, in an environment where we pay a lot of attention to aesthetics, and all of that has a cost.”
Adam also sells updated classics like coffee or vanilla, but his ever-evolving collection of more than 80 variations leaves room for constant invention and allows him to take creative risks that may or may not pay off. A blue-tinted éclair was “too chemical looking,” said Adam’s pastry chef Jean-Pierre Rodrigues, and deemed a flop. It remains to be seen whether customers will want to eat an all-black chocolate-and-truffle éclair that he said is inspired by Coco Chanel and the little black dress when it goes on sale for 10 days in December.
“If I’m selling something for a few days, I can allow myself to design something that reflects who I am, just because I feel like it,” Adam said. “And if people don’t understand the design choices that I make, which some people don’t, it’s no big deal.”
Adam has opened another store in Paris, has a Japanese location in the works, and is looking for an opportunity to bring his éclairs to New York City. Next up, though, he’s tackling Christmas. In the basement kitchen of the shop, assistant pastry chef Coralie Coms was preparing a tray of limited edition Christmas éclairs stuffed with salted caramel cream and chocolate. Last year Adam decorated his holiday éclairs with a digital image of a bearded Père Noël; this year it’s a busty blonde named Xmas Mama. “This year I wanted to do Santa’s mistress, or his wife,” Adam said. “We don’t know exactly who she is.”