Rendez-vous with Aurélie Bessière, Tea Sommelier, Founder and CEO of Palais des Thés USA
A few days ago, I spent the afternoon with Aurélie Bessière, tea sommelier and founder of Palais des Thés USA. We talked about her story, the specifics of Palais des Thés, her work as tea sommelier and her passion for the tea world which she compares to the wine world. Listening to her was fascinating, particularly when it came to tea pairing and the many possibilities that tea offers in baking, cooking and even as a base for cocktails.
Where are you from and when did you come to the US? I was born in Paris which I consider my hometown though I traveled a lot with my parents for the first 12 years of my life and moved 15 times during that time. I returned to Paris as a teenager and started my studies there before continuing them in the UK. Then, I started working in Paris before coming to New York seven years ago.
How did you come to launch Palais des Thés in the United States? I started my career working for a leading industrial company but I was looking for a more entrepreneurial project and working abroad was always part of my plan. As my husband and I were really attracted by the US, we started looking at small businesses and brands that were really strong in France but not yet present in the US. We reached out to several of them presenting our project. It turned out that Palais des Thés was the best fit for us. We had a six months intensive training in France before coming to New York and launching the brand here.
Did you always have a passion for tea? I’ve always loved tea. Tea is my drink as I don’t have a taste for coffee. When Palais des Thés turned out to be a good lead for us I was really excited and the more I learnt about tea, the more passionate I became. The tea world is so complex and fascinating, with its different varieties, origins, tastes, uses and pairing possibilities. You could compare it to the wine world. And the people we work with are all passionate about what they do! Little by little I became aware that tea is not only a drink, it can also be a great ingredient to cook or bake. The culinary uses for tea are infinite. It has been used in Asia for thousands of years and I’m really happy to see that the idea of tea as an ingredient that I am pushing too is starting to be more and more recognized in the US too.
It seems like the passion of the people you are working with inspires you. Can you explain this? The people at Palais des Thés are really passionate about what they do. The founder Francois-Xavier Delmas is extremely passionate and inspiring. It is also fascinating meeting the people behind the teas in Asia, the farmers who are growing it. Often the plantations have been in their families for hundreds of years. They have dedicated their lives to it. You feel like you are joining a big family. For me tea is a whole world. It is part of the culture in Asia as much as wine is part of the culture in France. Tea is the second drink in the world after water. Of course, Asia is the number one consumer, but tea is more and more consumed in other parts of the world. In the United States there is a growing number of people interested in tea. They don’t necessarily know much about it but they are eager to learn about its origins, its benefits and its different uses. It’s really interesting for me to bridge these two worlds.
You are CEO of Palais des Thés in the US, you are also a Tea Sommelier. What does this mean? As CEO of Palais des Thés my job is to develop Palais des Thés in the US. It includes branding and sales aspects. An important part of my job is also to educate about tea: where does it come from, how does it grow, how is it transformed, how do the different teas taste...? All this is also part of my role as a tea sommelier. I would say the job of a tea sommelier is very similar to the job of a wine sommelier. I do a lot of tastings, a lot of analysis of the different samples we receive, looking at and smelling the leaves, selecting the right teas for the US. I also study and educate about the different uses of tea. Restaurants usually don’t have a tea sommelier but some hotels are starting to have one and we have an increasing number of requests for training in that regard. I also do train more and more chefs, and food and beverage professionals about tea, tea and food pairing, tea based recipes, so that they can use it and educate consumers about it.
Can you tell me about Palais des Thés and how is it different from other tea brands? I would say that what defines Palais des Thés and what makes it different from other brands is the passion of the people behind it: a passion for sourcing the highest quality teas and a passion for creating unique signature blends. Palais des Thés was founded in Paris by Francois-Xavier Delmas in 1986. He discovered tea and became completely passionate about it. At that time, there were not a lot of places in Paris where you could find high quality teas. He launched Palais des Thés and started to work with intermediaries but decided quickly to source the teas directly from the countries of origin to get the best quality, the freshest leaves, and to meet with the farmers to be sure of how the tea was produced. The fact that we have our own team travelling the world from farm to farm and meeting with the people who grow the teas is key. It also allows us to be sure that the plantations we work with meet our standards in terms of ethics, working conditions and environment and I think the consumers really appreciate that because whenever they have a question about our products we are able to tell the story behind it. A lot of our teas are already organic and we are in the process of switching all of them to organic. Sometimes it’s not so easy for the farmers to change their secular methods and the certification process is also extremely costly for them. Also, as the certification is specific to each country they have to choose between being Japanese organic, Chinese organic, European organic, US organic etc. Even when they can afford it, they have to choose which certification they’ll go for depending on what their bigger market might be. Then, we also have a strong focus on the creation of the blends. Palais des Thés is very famous for blends like “Thé du Hammam”, “Thé des Moines” and herbal tea blends. We’ve always been very successful as a brand in creating these really special blends that people love and I think it’s because we have a great team in Paris working on that. They have an idea in mind, they want to recreate an experience, a smell, a taste or a place and they work on finding the right balance of teas and ingredients to express these feelings. I think these unique blends are another thing that makes us different from other brands.
How do you see the American tea consumer and how is it different from the French tea consumer? The American tea drinker is typically very curious about trying something new and very open about discovering and learning about tea. There are also a lot of different ways to use or consume tea in the US. For example teas to go are really strong here. Using tea for cooking or baking is really popular in France because we have a strong food culture. But here, it’s becoming very popular because people are really curious and eager to try new ways of using tea. For example, when they learnt about our new “Cooking with Tea” set, they were really enthusiastic.
Palais des Thés used to have two boutiques in NYC. They both closed a couple of years ago. Why? When we arrived seven years ago, Palais des Thés was already very famous in Europe but nobody knew about our brand in the US. We opened our stores as pop up stores for 3 years because we felt that was the best way to introduce the brand, showcase everything we could do, explain about our products, get to know our consumers and offer them a brand experience. We chose Soho as one of our locations because Soho is in the heart of what’s new in New York which means what’s new in the US for many. A lot of our consumers discovered us in Soho and also a lot of our partners: hotels, cafés, restaurants… After 3 years, the business was developing really quickly and we wanted to adjust a few things in the stores’ concepts; make some changes and improvements. We thought about it and finally decided it was a better investment for us to transition from stores to a place which would be a showroom, a tasting room and a tea school and would allow us to better focus on the experience and receive people by appointment on a one to one basis. The tea school is both for individuals and professionals. We do professional training for chefs, for culinary students, for beverage professionals. They can either come here or we go to their premises and train their team. For the individuals we offer tea tasting classes and events. They can register for these classes through our website. Events and classes are definitively something we want to develop even more in the future.
We now have three main business channels:
our own website ;
Hotels, cafés, restaurants: for example in NYC our teas are served at the Plaza Hotel, The Peninsula, the Saint-Regis, several Ritz-Carlton, Dominique Ansel Bakery, Maison Kayser etc. ;
The stores or websites of gourmet food retailers, e-tailers and department stores: Dean and Deluca, Le District, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom to name just a few.
Can you explain about the concept of “tea pairing”? You can see tea as wine. Tea offers a very wide palate of flavors and the idea of tea pairing is to have it with your food to enhance the experience. We recently created a seven-course gastronomic dinner of tea and food pairings at The Pierre hotel in New York with Chef Asfher Biju. The whole idea was to educate about what an entire dinner with tea, tea recipes and tea pairings could be. It started with a tea based cocktail and then, each dish was paired with tea and some of them were also prepared with tea. I had worked on the menu with the chef on how to add tea in the dishes to enhance their taste. I wanted to surprise the guests at the beginning of the dinner so the first tea was served in a wine glass. I had chosen a tea which really looked like white wine and we served it cold. Everybody was expecting wine, they were surprised at the first sip but they really enjoyed it as it paired perfectly with the food. The best compliment I had at the end of the dinner was “I didn’t miss wine”. When you pair tea and food carefully, playing with the flavors and the temperature of the tea, and if you serve it as a dedicated drink on the side, you create a really unique and interesting experience.
Palais des Thés recently launched a “Cooking with tea Set” can you tell me more about the culinary uses for tea? Because there are so many people interested in food, new flavors and cooking possibilities we launched this Cooking with tea Set which includes a selection of 5 teas and some easy and fun recipes to execute with these teas. It includes 4 sweet and savory recipes per tea and presents different ways to use tea in cooking and baking. Our team in Paris creates recipes on a regular basis and you can also find some of them on our website. We want to make people aware that they can easily use tea at home in many different ways. The idea is to think about tea as an ingredient, a herb or a spice and get creative with it.