"I love New York because every day is a new day and every day is a challenge—if you cannot challenge yourself every day you cannot come over here."
Pastry Chef Francois Payard has both bakeries and patisseries in New York City, and he wants us to know that, yes, there is a difference between the two. The third-generation chef specializes in classic French macarons, wedding cakes, lush chocolates and decadent pastries with both French and American flair. His recently opened Francois Payard Patisserie on the Upper East Side perfectly melds the two, with opulent décor and a refined menu perfect for a light bite between shops or museum exhibits. We chatted with the renowned Payard about where he's come from and why New York is now home.
You're a third-generation pastry chef. In what ways have you progressed from the styles of pastry as your father and grandfather? I'm not a different type of chef, but I am of a different generation. In the old days the pastry was heavier, less elegant and more rustic. We all get more sophisticated little by little. There's nothing good or bad about it; it's just an evolution of time.
Was there a field you think you would have gone into were your family not in pastry? My father wanted me to be a caterer. He was thinking about the third generation and my brother was a pastry chef too, so he thought, "we already have one pastry chef; let the other do something else so they don't fight over the business!" Until the end he directed me, but I liked pastry better than catering. I know how to do both sides, so if I get tired of pastry I go back to savory.
Did you see an advantage in being a pastry chef? Some pastry chefs can be great chefs, but some great chefs cannot be great pastry chefs, because pastry is science and cooking is inspiration. Pastry is all about recipes. In pastry there's never a use of leftovers or "maybe I'll use a little bit more." Add a little bit more and the recipe won't work.
Was there something you liked about that? I like everything to be precise. I can cook as much as I can bake, but even when I cook I like everything very precise. You know some of the best chefs in America started as pastry chefs: Alain Ducasse, Laurent Tourondel, Michael Mina, Michel Richard. And what makes them different (I'm not saying they're "better") is that their kitchens are very organized. Sometimes incredible chefs have too many things going on and change things last minute, and it makes everybody crazy. Pastry chefs know what will be the special the next day. That's it. Maybe it brings less friction to the place. It doesn't mean they're the better chef, but it's a different approach.
What act or technique in the kitchen is most comforting for you? I have no idea, because every day when I go into the kitchen I know what production we have. We make a list, we organize the chefs, and we list our provisions. Pastry is a long preparation. It will sound silly to you, but during the summer we did all the chocolate decorations for the Christmas logs. For the holidays the bar of chocolate is in the box or already decorated. People perceive that they won't like it because it was made four months ago, but the shelf life of a chocolate (if you don't open the package) is one year. Pastry is a lot of little things coming into the middle.
Is there something from your childhood holidays in a chef family in France you've carried over to your holidays here? Pretty much most of the holiday I am stuck working, organizing, and dispatching for all the shops. I take a break during the summer. If I were to entertain friends, who would run the show?
Is there something you make this time of year that particularly excites you? I like to create things that are very different. I'm always creating something French but with American ingredients. The French love caramel with fleur de sel, but I'm adding pecans to make it a bit American. The French love chocolate with raspberry, but I'm doing cranberry. Last year I did gingerbread and it was very good, but this year has to be something new. People like to come back and see a change.
You just returned to the Upper East Side with your newest patisserie. In what ways are you trying to evolve with the new location? I'm trying to explain to people in America what the difference is between a bakery and a patisserie. In every village in France you always have a church, a bakery, and a patisserie. It's a very different approach over here—it's not bad and it's the same quality, but it's less work and refinement. A bakery is a lot of bread—it's rustic and convivial. A pastry shop is much more elegant, and is all about presentation and details. They're very different.
Which do you prefer? It's not about what I prefer. It's about what the neighborhood needs. For my shop down on Houston, the patisserie would be too sophisticated and the cake would be too expensive for some of the clients because they're younger. In Soho something sells for $4.25; up there it's $7.25. It's not the same cake, and I cannot tell you which one you like better, but there's a reason we have three shops. One is not better than another one, but they're all adaptive to the neighborhoods.
How is New York the right climate for your shops? New Yorkers are very difficult and very demanding, but if they like you, even if they complain, they will come back. They are very loyal clients. New York has something special; you either love or hate the energy, depending on your temper. I love New York because every day is a new day and every day is a challenge—if you cannot challenge yourself every day you cannot come over here.