June 2, 2008 -- It's not a love of sweets that inspires pastry chef Francois Payard — rather, it's the malleable properties of sugar that allow his confections to be coaxed into elegant shapes and translated into beautiful artwork on a plate.
"Most of the time when I meet people, you know when I do events, and people ask me do I know how to make good cookies or chocolate mousse, I say, yeah, sometimes I do," said the 41-year-old chef. "But you know pastry is much more than that. ... When I have people asking me do I know how to make cookies I don't get upset, but I don't think people really understand what I do."
Recognized as one of the top pastry chefs in the world, Payard says his career stems from having "grown up" in a pastry shop in his native Nice, France.
"I am a third-generation pastry chef. I grew up seeing my grandpa and my dad making pastry [as well as] my brother," Payard said. "I wasn't allowed to work in my parent's [pastry] shop. I was little and I was a brat. Every time I was helping, I was helping to make chocolate truffles, but I was dirty all over and I was making a more mess than really helping. But my brother was a little older because — he was four years older than me — and he was the one ... working a little more in the shop."
As the second of three children, Payard often felt "lost in the middle," which turned out to be a motivating factor.
At 13, Payard left his childhood home in southern France for an apprenticeship at a restaurant, the beginning of his path toward greatness. He eventually worked his way up to a pastry chef position at La Tour d'Argent, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. Then, in 1990, Payard moved to New York, satisfying both his love of travel and his desire to discover a new culture. He has stayed ever since.
"All my life I thought I was not so good. I lived most my life thinking my brother was better," Payard said. "That's the reason I decided to leave, and maybe that's the reason why I love to challenge myself and why I have done all these things with my life to have a bigger challenge."
'I'm Very Demanding'
Fulfilling a lifelong dream, Payard opened his own pastry shop and restaurant, in 1997, named Payard Patisserie and Bistro. He subsequently was awarded "Pastry Chef of the Year" by the Bon Appetit Food and Entertainment Awards, and today has restaurants all over the world.
The pastry shop-restaurant combo suited Payard, who said stand-alone pastry shops can be boring.
"You don't really have the contacts with the client. That is the reason I like to make a bigger challenge," he said.
Hard work is one of many challenges Payard puts on himself, as do his dedicated employees.
"I'm very, very demanding but I'm demanding to the people, and I'm demanding to myself. But you see I don't, and this may sound very crazy to you, but I don't own Payard. I work at Payard like everyone else," he said. "Every morning I come to work at the same time. I work at Payard like every other employee. I think that is the reason I have a lot of people on tenure. I have had the same chef [Philippe Bertineau] for the last 11 years."
The rest of Payard's family also shares a strong work ethic. "It's just, I think, the background that we have. My mom and my dad work all the time in the shop — [that] doesn't mean that it's good, I don't want to be like that — but that's the reason that I have that in me, like in my blood."
His ambition and drive is fueled by the public's feedback. "I just think that is the best reward — you know when people come everyday and people love the place and they tell about the best croissant, better than in France. It's great feedback and it's the best motivation."
Payard's mantra is "never complain," no matter how tired he may feel. The public's expectations are high, and he puts great pressure on himself to make sure that there are few mistakes.
"What we do is the same thing like those on Broadway. Everyday you open the curtain and it's a new show," he said.
Loves Food From Around the World
Surprisingly, the one food Payard says he can't live without isn't chocolate or butter: It's beef.
"I love a great beef. I think in America it's all about beef," he said. "Last night I went [to Laurent Tourondel's restaurant] to have BLT steak and it was perfectly charcoaled, and that was just enough for me. That was my dream."
All food, not just pastry, entices Payard. "To tell you the truth, I love Japanese food and I love different kinds of food. I love Vietnamese food, too. You know when you surround yourself with French food you want something different. To tell you the truth, every new restaurant open in New York or Las Vegas I try to visit it. I say you can eat as well in Vegas as you can in Paris or in New York."
Payard's latest cookbook, however, satisfies the sweet tooth. "Chocolate Epiphany" tosses aside fussy pastry recipes in an ode to the home chef. Click HERE for three recipes.