A visit to Julien Duvernay

The patissier is a smiley workhorse with a sweet tooth.

If Tanja Grandits is the queen of Stucki, the legendary restaurant in Basel, then Julien Duvernay is its prince. His realm, over which he has almost total control, is in the basement. Four people work in the restaurant’s patisserie, which operates from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The team starts each day baking bread. Lunchtime and dinner guests are served two types of bread, while other varieties are sold in Grandits’ small shop – a boutique full of tasty treats. Around 100 people eat at Stucki every day, and they’re enjoying top-level fare. The two biggest gourmet guides, Michelin and Gault Millau, for example, have given the restaurant two stars and 18 points respectively. Bread is baked fresh twice a day. Guests are served a lovely, small baguette, as well as robust, tangy, wholemeal bread with flaxseed. The accompaniment is salted butter, one type of which is lime flavoured.

But Duvernay, who was born in Roanne, France, in 1982, doesn’t spend 14 to 16 hours a day working on bread and butter alone. His field of activity has expanded over the years and many in the know now consider him to be Switzerland’s best patissier.

The Frenchman is a quiet but smiley perfectionist. Rather than barking orders at his team of baker and two patissiers, he teaches by example. His colleagues Alex, Marco and Silvana, the only woman on the team, already know what to do. If you watch their boss working, he looks involved, but there always seems to be a small smile on his face, maybe an external sign of the joy and satisfaction – the complete fulfilment – he finds is his work.

It wasn’t always the case, however. The patissier has been at Stucki longer than Grandits. When he came to Basel in 2002, after completing an apprenticeship at a small patisserie production outlet with four shops in France, Stucki was run by Jean-Claude Wicki. It offered traditional French cuisine and the sole language spoken was French.

The take-over of Stucki by Grandits and René Graf in 2008 shook Duvernay’s world. Back then he worked alone in his basement, producing artistic cakes, pastries and confectionary. Smiling, and somewhat amazed, Grandits today reveals how the patissier would finish off an apple dessert with a small, liquid-filled apple, the point being that it wasn’t the type of dessert that she, as the new boss, wanted to serve her guests. She had a radically new culinary language in mind, an avant-garde approach. Duvernay found himself in the midst of a creative crisis, as he considered himself incapable of meeting Grandits’ demands. In addition, the fact that everyone around him now spoke German, which is still a foreign language to him today, only served to make his situation worse.

However, with Grandits’ almost unlimited trust on top of his emerging wish to change, Duvernay trod an astonishing route. Grandits admits she is no great fan of desserts, “but I like what Julien makes. It’s a natural progression from what we’re making in the main kitchen. The significance of desserts in my menus has only increased because of Julien.”

Trust is the basis of this highly successful partnership. It is said that there are people who only visit Stucki for its desserts. Grandits’ food boutique is also full of specialities from the basement kitchen: spreads for bread, yoghurt-cereal mixes, sorbets, apricot bread and flavoured chocolate bars, all labelled “Tanja Grandits – Julien Duvernay”.

The Stucki patisserie smells of roasted flour from the freshly baked baguettes. A massive machine, appropriately called “bear”, is beating a large, bright pink-coloured mass of merengue until it’s solid enough to be moulded into almost any shape. Duvernay, a slim man of medium height with a well-groomed haircut and strong, muscular arms – the result of his sometimes physically strenuous work – is measuring out cream into silicone moulds. Every movement is accurate, carried out with the accuracy of a precision engineer, and every portion of cream looks the same, as if you were looking at eggs in a cardboard tray.

Flavoured sugary mixtures are cooked on an induction hob. For an Italian-style merengue, for example, the syrup must be exactly 125 degrees before it is poured into the stiffened egg-white mixture. Wafer-thin chips are dried at 60 degrees in a V-ZUG Combi-Steam oven, while, in another, a stock made from asparagus, limes, oranges, apple juice and lemon grass, which will later be used as the basis for a sorbet and foam (mousse), is being cooked using the Vacuisine (sous-vide) method on a steam setting at 85 degrees. Half a dozen V-ZUG Combi-Steam overs are in operation at the same time: drying, baking and steaming. They weren’t necessarily designed for constant professional use, but Duvernay relies on his ovens. If one gets particularly dirty in the course of business, he often grabs a cloth and cleaning product himself and wipes the door until it shines once again.

The actual challenge facing Duvernay is not, in the first instance, the search for the next original idea (“I’m currently thinking about a dessert with melons and parsley for the summer,” he says), but rather in maintaining the highest quality, regardless of whether you’re making 30 desserts for a lunchtime session or 100 on an evening when, in additional to the usual dinner-time business, a banquet is also being held in one of the adjacent rooms. Each dish must be made with maximum precision, no fluctuations allowed. If this isn’t the case, that lovely smile on Duvernay’s face may fade, which is not a good sign.

The Stucki menu is changed roughly every two months and is adapted to seasonal availability. Duvernay and Grandits sit down together to discuss the basic products, cereals (oats, quinoa, etc.), spices, herbs and dairy products (quark, yoghurt, kefir, etc.) that will be used in the next collection of desserts. There is generally one dessert on the Business Lunch menu, two on the Flavours menu and two-to-three for the à-la-carte offering. Even the petits fours, three-to-four small pieces of coffee-time confectionary, are always redesigned. Once the short meeting is over, Duvernay is then completely free for his own ideas, which he fine-tunes in the lunchtime break or late at night. Although his creations are both avant-garde and ultra-modern, traditional patisserie skills are still used to make them. Creams and mousses, for example, are made textbook-style, in several stages, from sugar, egg white, gelatine and egg yoke. Duvernay rarely uses modern binding agents from the building blocks of molecular gastronomy. “I generally work with gelatine or agar,” he says.

But Duvernay is certainly a futurologist when it comes to flavour, with herbs or vegetables also included in his desserts. A sorbet and espuma (thick foam) made from asparagus, local sorrel and lemongrass may sound odd, for example, but if you try it you’ll be hard pushed to keep your paroxysms of joy to yourself. Crunchy, creamy, in various nuances, and runny: most of Duvernay’s desserts take a basic theme and play with using different textures, consistencies and preparation methods. Up to a dozen components need to be used (in procedures that only look random on first glance) until the sweet dish – generally with a strong, tangy note – is ready, for example quinoa mousse and cream, a coconut croquant, rhubarb and hibiscus sorbet and espuma, rhubarb gel and jelly, quinoa “paper” and finally a hibiscus lassi.

The fact that these meticulously prepared artworks are barely on the table before being destroyed with a spoon and eaten within a few minutes is no problem for Duvernay, as he says he is happy when guests enjoy his food. He receives praise with quiet contentment, but he has little sympathy for people who, for one reason or another, don’t like desserts.

Summing up his work, he says, “My desserts should be light and fresh and not too sweet.” Ingredients include blossom, tea, herbs and vegetables, a mix that serves to change traditional taste patterns. Nothing against apple, vanilla and caramel, or banana and chocolate – but a progressive perfectionist such as Duvernay is already one-to-two steps ahead, and of course with that quiet smile on his lips.

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