Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel share pie pastry secrets

Deborah Jones

Learn how to master pie pastry from the man who many call the finest chef in the country, Thomas Keller, and the man who fits that bill in baking, Sebastien Rouxel. They have worked together for 15 years, opened four Bouchon Bakeries, and have written the Bouchon Bakery cookbook.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Sebastien, how did you get together with this man?

Sebastien Rouxel
Sebastien Rouxel

Sebastien Rouxel: I was in New York City and I was looking to challenge myself as a professional. I was looking to work with a chef who was already working at the level that I was looking for. A lot of people were talking about Thomas Keller -- I had never heard of him. Even my wife was like, "You don’t know Thomas Keller? He’s one of the best chefs right now in America." I was like, "Alright, sounds good."

One day, my wife saw an ad in The New York Times that he was looking for a new pastry chef. Without telling me, she took my resume and sent it to him. Then, one day I came home and saw there was a message on the answering machine saying that they would be happy to host me in Napa Valley, Calif. I was extremely surprised.

LRK: Thomas, what made you look at his application? You would have had applications from around the world.

Thomas Keller
Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller: It’s interesting that you say that because we don’t really. I think people -- certainly young professionals -- are a little bit apprehensive about applying at The French Laundry or these days at Per Se because it does have such a high reputation. They’re not all so sure that they’re going to be able to fulfill the expectations, which is quite a shame because we have had great success in hiring, training and mentoring some of the great talent today.

I didn’t know the story for several years, actually, how his wife, Andrea, had sent me his resume. The resume showed up; it was certainly a very impressive resume knowing that he had classical training in France. He was also the pastry chef at the Élysée, which is the equivalent of the White House, he worked for a two-star Michelin chef, Alain Dutournier, and then came to New York and was the chef at Lutèce restaurant under Eberhard Muller, who was a chef that I certainly had great respect for.

I get this resume from this young Frenchman who has all this background. I said, "OK, this is wonderful," and we embarked on what has turned out to be a really fantastic friendship and certainly a great career path for both of us.

LRK: What are the things that you both know and do when you bake that make a difference? They’re usually things that most of us home cooks are just not told about or are not aware of. I think of pie pastry because it’s something that I think everyone should know about because it can take you in so many directions. Sebastien, with a basic pie pastry or tart pastry, what are the options you have if I want to have a flaky crust or if I want to have what I understand the French consider to be the perfect crust, which is more like a cookie?

Pâte Brisée
Recipe: Bouchon's Pâte Brisée

SR: It’s more like a cookie crust; for me as a Frenchman, I would use the term "pâte brisée" and not pie crust. The pie crust is the pâte brisée, which is a simple mix of flour, butter, salt and add a little bit of milk into it.

LRK: Why the milk?

SR: To give it a richer consistency -- color and richness. When you bake it, there’s a little bit of sugar in the milk and it’s going to give it a nice color.

LRK: So the texture: I want a flaky crust or I want a crust that's what I’m used to in a French tart, which is really like a cookie.

SR: Pâte sucrée. The difference between the two is pâte sucrée has sugar in it, pâte brisée has none.

LRK: But the texture -- isn’t that something about the fat?

SR: You have the sugar too, the sugar makes the dough more crunchy; it gives it a crunch. It’s kind of like making cookies. I’m not sure what your favorite is, but there’s always somebody who says, "Chocolate chip cookies -- I like mine soft in the center." And some people say, "I like mine to be crunchy all the way." Some of those cookies are really crunchy and the reason is there’s an enormous amount of sugar.

I like mine chewy in the center -- less sugar -- I don’t like sweet stuff. It’s kind of ironic for me to say that, but I think a lot of the desserts out there are too sweet. I think you have to learn how to manage the amount of sugar you add into any of your recipes.

LRK: Let’s go back to that basic pâte brisée or pie crust. We’re talking about butter, flour, water and milk. What should the temperature of the butter be when you’re making that pastry crust?

SR: I want to make sure there is a very fine crust, that every bite is the same, so I want to make sure there are no chunks of butter. I make sure the butter is diced and really cold. Then I’m going to incorporate it with the flour using a mixer and a paddle and I’m going to mix those two. I don’t want the butter to get clunky around the paddle. I want every particle of the flour to be covered with fat. I don’t want chunks of fat in the dough, so I’m going to keep mixing until the flour grabs onto all the butter and becomes -- we call it "sand," it’s got a sand texture to it. I want to make sure it doesn’t clump together.

Bouchon's Butter Continuum
Bouchon's Butter Continuum

LRK: Is that going to protect it from being a tough crust when you add liquid? Because you’re told once you add liquid, you have to be very careful.

SR: Yes. With flour, the more you mix the flour with any kind of liquid, you start developing the gluten that you have in the dough. When you roll the dough in the next step, the dough has a tendency to shrink. You start rolling and the dough comes back together. It’s because you mixed your dough too much in the mixer prior. When you add the liquid into it, you just want to mix it in the first gear and then just enough to combine all the ingredients together. Sometimes it’s actually better to finish manually than by using the mixer.

LRK: In writing the book you’re thinking about someone who’s cooking at home. Because, everything you do, you’re doing on a large scale in the bakeries, were there some things that changed your thinking about how you work or how the recipes can work?

SR: Definitely. It’s true -- we get comfortable in a professional kitchen where we have beautiful equipment, but when it’s time to do it at home, even for me it was a challenge.

TK: I think one of the beauties about the Bouchon Bakery cookbook is that the recipes are written in grams, in metric.

LRK: That’s hard for people, though.

TK: Well, no, it’s actually much easier because you get precision. We talk about baking and baking is precise. We all know that if the three of us scooped out a cup of flour, that we’d have three different weights and therefore it’s not going to be the precision that we want. If you’re dealing with cups and teaspoons, it’s kind of an archaic approach to baking at a high level.

LRK: When I said it’s hard, I mean in the sense of getting us used to weighing.

TK: Everybody gets on a scale once a week. That’s not hard for them.

LRK: Some of us less, but that’s another thing entirely.

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