SINGAPORE (Sept 3): It is a beautifully sunny day in Paris’ legendary Rive Gauche and I am making my way to Ladurée’s headquarters. No introduction is needed for the legendary French purveyor of luxury pastries and sweets but rather, due credit must be given to Ladurée for singlehandedly putting macarons on the international A-list of sweet treats while simultaneously throwing down the gauntlet to the croissant as France’s foremost edible icon.

Ladurée, with its signature pistachio-green packaging, now enjoys a veritable global presence — from London to Sydney and recently, Malaysia, where it opened its first café in Pavilion Kuala Lumpur late last year. And although knock-off macarons are a dime a dozen these days and as ubiquitous as a cookie or cupcake, few names can hold a candle to Ladurée in terms of taste, range of flavours, presentation and brand perception.

Discreetly tucked away somewhere between the Musée Rodin and Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement is the macaron mother ship, the headquarters of the company that is reviving — and indeed elevating — the classic French standard of elegant tea rooms as well as other exquisitely crafted delectables. It is here that I am to meet David Holder, the famously personable president of Ladurée and eldest son of Francis Holder, whose name, although not instantly recognisable in our part of the world, is almost household in France.

In a country obsessed with good food, the Holders occupy a special place in French hearts and are regarded as barons of bread, princes of pastry and culinary royals who make life a little sweeter, a little better, with their tempting offerings. The family empire, Groupe Holder, which also owns the bakery-café chain Paul and baking conglomerate Château Blanc, is a veritable billion-dollar business with Forbes magazine hailing Francis as “the Henry Ford of baking”.

Although the Holder scion’s slight, slim build belies a career built on sweet treats, his affability and easy- going manner makes it easy to settle down to chat in an office that is best described as highly creative. Sporting a Jesus Christ hairdo and dressed in a crisp white shirt monogrammed with a discreet pink “h” and loose, relaxed trousers, Holder could easily pass off as the head of a top creative agency, a rock star or perhaps a designer with a luxury fashion label.

Everything about Holder is intriguing. His English is impeccable while his work space, a hotbed of creativity and inspiration, reflects his personality. There are terrariums, a massive globe, titles on art and photography, a pop-up book on paper flowers and lashings of original artworks — from beautiful pieces by Irina Volkonskii to a neon light installation that reads Je peux rien pour vous (“I can do nothing for you” — “Very French,” Holder wisecracks) by the celebrated artist Claude Lévêque.

One wall, painted entirely in bright orange, is where treasures abound, including a patrimonial piece of furniture — the last chair of the King of Sicily — upon which sits a plush toy bear, a replica of a 2m-tall one he had commissioned and sent to his daughter, who is studying in England. Little figurines of animals, skull-shaped motifs and Sonny Angel dolls abound too.

Even Holder’s name card is out of the ordinary, with his title of “Dream Leader” coming across as more Tony Robbins than pastry pasha.

Established in the early 20th century, Ladurée has grown from a single tea room on the Rue Royale to an international pastry powerhouse; a de facto gourmet and lifestyle ambassador for the Parisian dream, a world where everything is enveloped in gentle, pastel shades and where life is, in more ways than one, sweet as can be.

“Ladurée is my pride,” says Holder. “When I first took over the company, we were just in Paris. Very few French people knew about us. But, from the time when we start ed to expand, the macaron has caught the imagination of the world.”

Certainly, that statement is not braggadocio but truth. From the cool eastern Sydney suburb of Woollahra to Baku in Azerbaijan, four outlets in Tokyo alone and one in Yokohama, Ladurée is also — to the delight of fans of the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette — to be found on the grounds of the Unesco World Heritage Site of Château de Versailles itself. If you have seen the Sofia Coppola film, you would have spied pyramids of macarons on set while the palette of the queen’s wardrobe as well as that of her courtly coterie could well have sprung from a Ladurée catalogue. Only hardcore historians would bristle slightly at the movie’s insinuation that these pretty, pastel-hued ganache-filled confections existed before the French Revolution (traditional macarons then were simple, golden-crusted and unadorned) but fans of Coppola, or to be more accurate, Kirsten Dunst, could not care less.

When I mention the Coppola connection, Holder’s eyes light up. “She came to us,” he says, describing the director’s visits to Paris while researching for the movie. “At the time of our opening in Japan, we had young Japanese girls coming in to [the] Ginza [outlet] and thinking about being Marie Antoinette or talking about having seen the movie 10 times. It was cute.”

Holder assumed the presidency of Ladurée in 1993, a role he had prepared for exceedingly well. Armed with a business and finance degree from Paris’ University of Dauphine and a master’s from Berkeley, California, and having chalked up two years of hard graft as an apprentice pastry chef with Groupe Holder, he was ready.

Ladurée, in the early 1990s, was somewhat in the doldrums. So, with a little help from his paterfamilias and after getting wind that the third generation of Ladurée heirs was looking to cash out, Holder acquired the brand. By then, he and his whole family were time patrons of the 19th-century tea salon.

“My family is from Lille and I had come to study in Paris in 1985,” he shares. “It became a tradition that every Saturday, we would meet at Ladurée when my parents came [here] to spend the weekend.”

In business, the importance of cultivating relationships, or guanxi as the Chinese call it, must never be overstated, as it was from this friendship with the staff that the Holders got the scoop. They were a natural fit, considering their own background in the baking industry, and talks progressed smoothly, with the Holders acquiring 51% of the company in March 1993, followed by gradual and complete acquisition after the original family members retired one by one. “It was a gentle transition,” Holder ays. “When we took over, there had been no innovation at Ladurée for decades. But the good part was that all the recipes were strictly original, unchanged. I then spent all my time at the salon de thé [tea room]. I wanted to understand the culture of Ladurée fully before expanding or making changes.”

Holder (second from right) with Ladurée associates from Paris and Malaysia — Ronald Sim, Anne Dedet-Duray, Jessica Ee and Chong Kim Heng.

After a few years of immersion as well as intensive, sheer hard work, Holder began his campaign to imprint Ladurée on the consciousness of all who appreciated l’art de vivre (the art of living) as well as make the macaron the most exquisite yet attainable of small pleasures. He also commissioned the great architect and interior designer Jacques Garcia — the talent behind the contemporary reinvention of historical hotels such as the Royal Monceau in Paris as well as Marrakech’s La Mamounia — to design a 14,000 sq ft flagship Champs-Élysées store. It was the first store to open, in 1997, after the historic Rue Royale salon. “It was a big step for the company and very frightening for everybody,” he admits. “I invested four times the turnover of Ladurée [in the ChampsÉlysées store]. The challenge was crazy, but it was the start of everything. I wanted to be unique and I didn’t want the Champs to be a simple replication. I wanted the best, as we were opening on the best avenue in the world. Besides Jacques’ design, we also had a new collection of pastries.”

For those who remember Ladurée pre-Holder days, only four flavours of macaron were available: chocolate, coffee, almond and praline. “It was summer when I joined and I insisted there be lemon and pistachio,” Holder laughs. Today, it would be unimaginable to step into a Ladurée and not be greeted by a plethora of soft colours and bewitching tastes — from salted caramel to strawberry candy, liquorice and geranium. There are also lactose-free chocolate and seasonal flavours. When Marie Antoinette opened in the cinemas, The New York Times reported that Ladurée had also created a special flavour for the occasion — rose with anise. Pastries, however, jostle for equal recognition these days and few things are as pretty (or tasty) as the Ispahan, a concoction of macarons, rose petal cream, fresh strawberries and lychee, while Parisians sweltering in the scorching summer heat might opt for an orange blossom religieuse, a cream puff topped with orange blossom confectioner’s custard cream. If you are a fan of pistachio, as Holder clearly is, do not miss the Saint-Honoré Pistachio, a heavenly creation starring puff pastry, light pistachio custard cream and crème de Chantilly.

Given the runaway success of the Champs-Élysées store, it was inevitable that global domination would be next. Holder soon trained his sights across the Channel — on London. “Yes, it is right across, but we had to have a huge shift in mentality,” he says. “I went to see Mr Mohamed Al-Fayed, who asked me to open at Harrod’s Food Hall in a space of 15 to 20 sq m. On my way out, I saw the loading bay, which measured 300 sq m at least, and it had a high ceiling. He thought I was joking, but I wasn’t and fought for that space for six months… You must remember… no one fought Mr Al-Fayed at that time. But, at the end of the battle, we became friends,” he laughs. Ladurée’s first international salon opened in Harrod’s London in 2005, followed by Tokyo, the US and then, slowly but surely, all over the world.

Clearly, the importance of space and emotion is never lost on the fey-like Holder. “One of the feelings I love when I travel is to be home,” he says, ever the contrarian. “I want customers to be in my dreamy world. Apart from the cuisine and pastries, the atmosphere and vibe has to be excellent too. The colour and lighting must be gentle, and we need that as the world is crazy aggressive enough.”

For those who need regular infusions of Ladurée gentility in their daily life, Holder has created a complementary retail world that is certain to please. And if we want some Ladurée love sans the calories, candles are among the brand’s bestsellers. “I’d initially ordered only 3,000 for the Paris stores, at which my staff exclaimed it would take years to sell. We sold out in three weeks,” he grins. Candles now account for 10% of the business while other non-edible items, such as tote bags and stationery, have also been introduced. Being a French brand, there is also champagne, produced in collaboration with a producer from Reims, and soon-to-be-unveiled celebration cakes, in line with Holder’s vision of Ladurée being a place of celebration and happy occasions. “Our outlets in the Middle East are especially popular for weddings,” he lets on.

Ladurée’s core demographic consists of women, who make up close to 80% of its customers. Holder says it’s in their DNA. “Ladurée, after all, is a brand built by women. It was the wife of one of the founders who, in 1890, set up the salon as a place where respectable women could meet and gather in a public place.”

Coming from a highly entrepreneurial family, Holder admits the best father-son lesson he has learnt is the simple spirit of tenacity. “I’ve always seen my father labour. I’ve worked from the age of 14. And when I see him want something, he gets it. It’s inherent, I suppose… natural. At 20, while I was at Dauphine, my dad asked me to do my apprenticeship — to learn baking and pastry-making. I worked 17 hours a day — the old way. This was 30 years ago and certainly not what millennials are used to now!”

With a 22-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter, he understandably harbours plans for his children to one day follow in his footsteps. “My son already works at the Ladurée salon at the Hotel des Bergues, Geneva, and my daughter is studying global management at Regent’s University in London,” he beams.

When he is not working, Holder, disclosing the routine that keeps his physique so trim, practises yoga, meditates and jogs, “but only outdoors and on nice trails”, he qualifies. “I love being close to nature. My office, as you can see, opens out onto a garden and I spend weekends by the sea. I can have a very [hectic] week — New York one minute, then Paris, then Milan. Last Thursday, I was in Monaco for the Grand Prix and then straight after to Saint-Tropez for sailing. It’s always nature, exercise, family and fun,” he adds. “I have massages and I take care of my body and mind so it gives me fantastic energy for the rest of the week!” When I ask if he sails the boat himself, he grins and replies: “I have a captain. If I have to sail it myself, I will be stressed!”

With the summer season in full swing, the indefatigable Holder excitedly shares his vacation plans: the Hamptons, Corsica, Saint-Tropez and Capri, which he loves with a passion. “I’ve always loved travelling and discovering. New cultures… that is what I love most. The world has changed. Today, if we want to be successful in a new market, we need to understand the country and its culture.

“The average age of customers when I took over was 60,” he continues. “Now, it’s 30 or younger. Our appeal has certainly grown broader and it’s also common to see three generations come in together, which I love. Besides, I don’t like segmentation. You know, in Paris, there are still many places where one can be turned away based on how one looks or dresses and all that. I don’t like it,” he snaps. “At Ladurée, everyone is welcome. Everyone is allowed to dream. Everyone is allowed to be happy. Whether you spend €2 on a macaron or €8,000 for a celebration, all are welcome!”

Diana Khoo is editor of Options at The Edge Malaysia