Sharon Heinrich in Paris, across from the Eiffel Tower. (Eyal Yassky-Weiss)
Patisserie maven Sharon Heinrich is carving out a sweet niche in the City of Love, giving Hebrew tours to visiting Israelis and spreading the good word on delectable treats
By ROBERT SARNER, The Times of Israel, December 26, 2018
PARIS — Israeli expatriate Sharon Heinrich’s growing success in Paris belies the dictum that you can’t have your cake — or croissant — and eat it, too. Having created a business driven by her insatiable passion for French pastry, Heinrich has parlayed her expertise into a thriving pursuit called Paris Chez Sharon, becoming a recognized figure in the city’s fabled culinary scene.
Today, thanks to her global reach via Instagram and Facebook, Heinrich is also increasingly known around the world, especially in gastronomic circles. Her prolific online output and strong social media presence — more than 235,000 followers on Instagram — have helped make her a sought-after influencer in France and beyond.
It’s in sharp contrast to her previous life in Israel where, far from the spotlight, she worked for the country’s internal security service for many years before eventually moving to Paris in 2010.
If, as Heinrich insists, she’s now living her dream, it’s an all-consuming one. Her work includes giving frequent culinary tours, publishing her blog, creating video content, writing for Haaretz and doing photography and consulting for companies — most recently one in Italy. To remain au courant about new developments in her field, she constantly conducts research, meets with chefs and visits top French pastry houses.
“When people ask me if I’m not working too much, I say yes, but I love it,” says Heinrich, 41, with characteristic gregariousness.
“It’s almost as if I never stop working except when I’m sleeping. The hardest part is the publish-or-perish aspect. You have to be everywhere — Instagram, Facebook, the blog, internet sites, media interviews — because if you don’t create new content, you’re not there. Today the tempo is so dynamic that you have to publish all the time,” she says.
Helping shoulder the demands of Paris Chez Sharon is Heinrich’s spouse and fellow Israeli expatriate gourmet, Gali Hadari. The two were officially married in Paris in 2016.
When Heinrich arrived for a recent interview, she was accompanied by Hadari, eight years her senior. Heinrich had suggested meeting at the Pierre Hermé patisserie-café in the new Beaupassage upscale food arcade in the city’s 7th arrondissement.
The company — whose pastries, macarons and chocolates connoisseurs praise — has pride of place on Heinrich’s tours. Pierre Hermé created his eponymous brand in 1998, long after he began his career, following in the footsteps of his family that worked in the bakery and pastry-making field in Alsace for several generations.
“Pierre Hermé is the god of pastry,” says Heinrich, with great reverence. “For me, he is to pastry what Picasso is to art and Dior is to fashion. He’s the one who created French pastry in the modern way. Ask young pastry chefs who they most admire and the majority will say Pierre Hermé. I love him because he’s so intelligent and passionate. I’ve had many discussions with him on the philosophy of pastry.”
Pastry food porn as art
Who knew there was a philosophy of pastry? And who knew photos of French pastry — the mainstay of Heinrich’s Instagram presence — could attract nearly a quarter-million followers and growing?
For those who have never paid much attention to pastry photos, the visual appeal might not be obvious before seeing Paris Chez Sharon on Instagram, where Heinrich’s photography depicts each piece of pastry as an artistic creation, an aesthetic object of desire.
“What sets French pastry apart is the combination of taste, the visual, and quality of ingredients,” says Heinrich effervescently. “I love the colors, the technique, the layers, the texture. I love the new way of thinking of French pastry chefs. Modern French pastry is very different from the classic kind. It’s more developed, with lots of new techniques. The savoir-faire in using ingredients is amazing.”
That morning with Heinrich and Hadari at Hermé’s new emporium, he wasn’t there. Manager Geoffroy Côme was clearly familiar with Heinrich, though, greeting her warmly as she entered amid a steady stream of customers drawn to Hermé’s celebrated sweet and savory treats.
“Sharon is a highly-appreciated influencer in the world of pastry,” Côme later confided. “With her magnificent photos on Instagram, she has a talent for featuring both the great names of French patisserie while also validating all kinds of delights she finds in local boulangeries.”
If Heinrich wanted to make her life easier, she’d limit her content to just pictures, like most Instagrammers do.
“Sometimes it’s so frustrating,” she says. “I’m investing so much in my articles. I’m going all over Paris and the rest of France, doing research, asking questions, getting the facts right. Nobody pays me for it. It’s my passion and it ultimately brings me customers. But many people just look at the photos and barely read the text.”
Passion is a word Heinrich uses often.
“For me, the most important thing is I love what I do,” she says. “Adding to my knowledge takes a lot of time. I don’t care. I do it for my passion and I know it helps my reputation and credibility. People in the industry know I research my subjects, that my articles are very detailed, and that I write for Haaretz, which is a serious newspaper. They know I do it because it’s my passion. And remember, all great pastry chefs work with passion.”
From saving lives to playing with dough
Her predilection for French tastes began in her youth. While growing up in Haifa, she attended the Alliance school where students had to learn French. A history teacher made a strong impact on her, teaching a class about French culture and often bringing in cheese, Madelaine cakes and other French goodies. Heinrich also enjoyed attending the French culture evenings at the school.
As a teenager, she wanted to become a lawyer, influenced by the then-popular television show, “LA Law.” After her mandatory national service, which she chose to spend in the army, Heinrich received a BA in criminology and psychology at Bar Ilan University, where she later also got her MA in law.
Her first serious job was at the country’s domestic security agency, where she spent seven-and-a-half years, including during the Second Intifada when Palestinian terrorists killed approximately 1,100 Israelis.
“I was helping to save lives,” says Heinrich, uncharacteristically reticent when asked about her duties. “Although I had a good pension and all the things people want in Israel, my life was very sad. So, I decided to quit my job.”
For a change of pace and a different focus, she enrolled at the Estella Baking School in Tel Aviv.
“It was there I realized just how much pastry was my real passion, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the kitchen all day,” says Heinrich. “I need to meet people. I need to have interesting things to see and do. I can’t be stuck in a kitchen.”
To better understand the pastry business in Israel, Heinrich then worked with well-known pastry chef Miki Shemo but eventually sought to broaden her horizons.
In August 2010, she moved to Paris to pursue her dream. Arriving with little money, few contacts and no visa, she had a clerical job at the Israeli Embassy she arranged before leaving Israel.
In her free time, she sought to break into the local pastry scene.
View this post on Instagram
Please welcome the amazing Bûche by @laurentduchene_paris. A special variation for the Black Forest cake with brilliant combination of flavors, textures and an outstanding look. Chocolate biscuit, cherry confit, dark chocolate mousse, vanilla chantilly and almonds streusel. One of the best Bûche de Noël for 2017. Bravo!
“In the afternoon, I’d knock on the doors of pastry chefs,” Heinrich remembers. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m Sharon and I want Israel to know you.’ They’d often say, ‘Israel is camels and desert. What do you want from us?’” says Heinrich.
“I’d answer them, ‘People in Israel may not eat macarons and croissants every day, but they love the world. They love visiting places, they love information.’ And I started my blog, writing about my adventures in the sweet world of Paris,” she says.
See how the French cookie crumbles
In time, her blog caught on, becoming widely read in Israel where eastern European pastries — strudel, Black Forest cake, cheesecake, babka cake and the like — traditionally held sway. Many say Heinrich, through her blog and articles in Haaretz and Time Out Tel Aviv, helped make French pastry popular in Israel.
As Heinrich’s influence grew, Israelis traveling to Paris would contact her to ask her to take them to places they read about in her coverage. After taking two colleagues from the embassy on an impromptu pastry itinerary, she did the same with people she had met on an online community of cake aficionados who were coming to Paris. She offered the “tour” for free to gain their feedback.
Thus, the tours began in 2012 as she conducted them on weekends and days off. In 2014, her Hebrew-language book, “The Best Pastry in Paris,” came out, becoming a bestseller in Israel. It gave a boost to her business, causing Heinrich to leave her by then part-time job at the embassy to focus exclusively on Paris Chez Sharon.
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The amazing Christmas creation of @jeremydelval @yannbrys and @boucher.nicolas for @dalloyauparis. The BÛCHE KUKLA is a beautiful creation with milk jam, meringue with almonds, mango and passion fruit compote, financier biscuit and Madagascar vanilla cream. And on top, an amazing white chocolate cover. Love this creation, and you?
Today, Heinrich and Hadari give around 10 tours a week, and even more during holiday periods. Lasting four hours, they begin at a food market, then proceed to a cheese boutique or cheese stand, a boulangerie, chocolate shop and then two or three pastry boutiques, all hand-picked by Heinrich. None are certified kosher, although there’s no mixing of meat and dairy, nor consumption of pork.
Typically, when Heinrich or Hadari take a group into a pastry boutique, they explain who the chef is, his or her approach, the design of the place, its specialties and influence in the field.
“There’s a lot to share,” says Heinrich, who’s on a first-name basis with most major pastry chefs in Paris.
“Many people on our tours are surprised to learn there are trends and fashions in the pastry business in France. Here they treat pastries like fashion. Just like there’s Louis Vuitton, Dior and Chanel in fashion, there’s Pierre Hermé, Claire Damon and Patrick Roger in pastry. And the top ones create collections, just like in the fashion business,” she says.
As Israelis constitute the lion’s share of Paris Chez Sharon’s business, 90 percent of the tours are in Hebrew. The other 10% are mostly in English, the rest in French. Reflecting Instagram’s global audience, customers have also come from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.
“Israelis can be challenging, asking lots of questions,” says Heinrich. “But as I’m very verbal and love to talk, it’s not a problem. They also want to feel they’re getting value for what they paid, which isn’t an issue as we give a lot on our tours.”
“Giving for me is about sharing knowledge,” she says. “It’s not only about the tastings they receive at each place. When people come on our tours, they feel they’re discovering a new Paris, understanding it much deeper. Israelis want this depth of information, whereas Americans, based on those I’ve given tours to, don’t want such depth.”
Although France is home to many people ill-disposed to Israel, Heinrich’s identity and her tour participants being mostly Israeli haven’t triggered any hostility.
“I’m very upfront with people about being Israeli,” says Heinrich. “I’ve never experienced any negativity in this industry because of where I’m from.”
“On the contrary, many French pastry chefs are interested in Israel and I’ve brought many to visit,” she says. “They usually fall in love with it. I take them to do classes in Israeli pastry schools and they become like ambassadors for Israel. To such a point, they tell me they’re willing to get some Israelis as stagiaires [interns] in their companies, which is rare because they already have stagiaires from the best pastry schools in France.”
To ensure a certain intimacy to each tour, Heinrich keeps them private — only people who know each other — and limits their size to a maximum of 10 people. The base minimum price is 280 euros for two people, including tastings. For larger groups, the price per person is lower.
Although Paris Chez Sharon’s brand is intrinsically linked to Heinrich by her being in its name and being its public persona, Hadari plays a vital role, albeit with a lower profile. She’s an authority on pastry in her own right and gives tours when Heinrich is tied up with other work.
Hadari met her Heinrich nearly six years ago when taking her tour. At the time, she was CEO of a large research company in Israel. Growing up in the northern city of Nahariya, Hadari loved baking. Later, despite discouragement from her parents, she wanted to become a chef and dreamed of coming to Paris to study at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school.
In 2013, while in Paris for a weekend, she googled culinary things to do in the city and discovered Heinrich’s blog.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, there’s actually an Israeli woman living my dream; what chutzpah!’” Hadari says, smiling. “I knew I had to meet her. I emailed her and we set up a tour for me. That’s how it all began.”
A weighty issue
Given her line of work, Heinrich is vigilant about her weight. Most mornings, to burn calories, she runs five to six kilometers (three to three-and-a-half miles) along the Seine river near the apartment she shares with Hadari in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Surprisingly, since starting the business, Heinrich has lost weight.
“I’m more conscious of the calories I’m consuming,” she says. “It’s tricky because I can’t write about something without tasting it. That means I taste a lot of sweet things. Fortunately, in Paris we eat very high quality food, but not big quantities. This is very good for your health. The idea is don’t eat a half-kilo [one pound] of low-fat cheese. Eat two teaspoons of very high fat cheese. You’ll lose weight.”
This comes up in her tours, which is an eye-opener for most Israelis.
“In Israel, people love to host, to put a lot of things on the table but quantity is more the priority than quality,” says Heinrich, who twice a year visits Israel to see her divorced parents and brother. “Here in Paris, the accent is on quality and you eat small quantities. That’s why they have a lot of very fat things but eat small portions and don’t gain weight.”
Hadari cites another factor.
“The French put a lot of importance on freshness,” she says. “Each day, Parisians go to the markets to buy fresh vegetables and other fresh food, getting only what they’ll eat that day. When you don’t eat industrial food, you’re less likely to gain weight.”
Like most expatriates in Paris, Heinrich doesn’t take its time-honored appeal for granted.
“Even after living here for eight years, I’m still crazy about Paris,” she says. “It’s the most amazing place in the world — the culture, the architecture, everything. Every day I say to myself, ‘There are people who come to Paris only one time just to see the Eiffel Tower, and it’s our neighbor.”
That’s not to suggest Parisian life is blissful.
“It’s hard to believe, but French bureaucracy is much worse than in Israel,” says Heinrich, who sees her future in Paris for now. “The French are so different from us Israelis. They’re so formal, not direct. But you to learn to live with that.
“When you live in a different culture, you have to join it,” she says. “Since moving here, I’ve become more patient. Life in Paris is calmer, less stressful. Yet if you ask French people from Alsace, they’ll say Paris is so stressful — but not compared to Israel.”