France native Francois Payard got his Stateside start at Le Bernardin and Restaurant Daniel and eventually graduated to his own restaurant group, which now includes bakeries, patisseries and cafes in New York, Las Vegas, Japan and Korea. On April 5, Payard shared several insights after serving a roasted pear and ice cream dessert to conclude the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Battle of the Coasts: EAST.
Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
My family, we have a pastry shop for 55 years. My father did not really want me to be a pastry chef, because my brother was already a pastry chef. Pretty much, the idea was more to do catering and cooking. In France, you go to stage at the age of 12 or 13. Shocking, but not. I find that I like the kitchen, but I was much more into pastry. At the age of 15 or 16, I went to apprentice. That’s the reason I like what I do. The thing about what I am, I am much more versatile, because I have a restaurant and pastry shop. Payard Vegas is a restaurant and shop. Payard in New York is a restaurant and a shop. I can play in two worlds, and it’s very interesting. There is a reason the food we make in the restaurant is a different shape, because it’s more pastry oriented. You will see something very different. A lot of big pastry chefs, you don’t know they are chefs. Michael Mina was a pastry chef, now he has 10 restaurants, or 15. Laurent Tourendel was a pastry chef. Michel Richard is a pastry chef. The great things about pastry for us, to cook, is much easier than baking. Baking is a science. That’s the reason why it’s two different worlds. I love the worlds. The cooking world is more exciting. Baking is just recipes and production. Any restaurant and shop keeps me in a good balance.
How do your pastries differ from what your family was doing growing up?
What I do, I don’t cook like a pastry chef. I cook like a chef. Tonight, what you get is a pear roasted in brown butter, maple syrup, cooked in the kitchen, a la minute dessert, ice cream a la minute. It’s more like a chef, not like a pastry chef. Everything, for me, it’s food.
What do you remember about your very first night in a restaurant kitchen when you were 12 or 13?
What I remember is a lot of screaming. In France, everybody has to scream. If there’s no screaming, it’s not a restaurant.
Was that your approach when you came to the U.S. too?
Yeah, a little bit, but after I went to Le Bernardin, it was a very straightforward restaurant, and I like this way. The screaming is gone now. Everybody’s more into talking to people. I don’t think in the kitchen, we use and abuse like 20 years ago.
What’s the most recent pastry or dessert or dish you developed, and what was your inspiration?
To tell you the truth, I don’t develop too much dessert. I develop pastry every day because the restaurant I have is more like a bistro. The guests are more basic. I don’t want to say basic in a bad word, to say that they don’t get too adventurous. People go to Daniel, they go to Thomas Keller, they go to all the best chefs in America, Jean-Georges, Mario, they’re going for an experience. They will experience something they can never try somewhere else, but in a bistro, they go in for dinner. They go back for the same thing. People don’t like to say that, but I think it’s very true, what I just said. People, when they go to a fancy place, they’re in a mindset and will spend money, in an experience, they will try different things. The reason why, when they go to more of a family restaurant or neighborhood place, or bistro, they go back, and they eat the same thing, and it’s hard to make them change.
What is your most popular pastry, the top seller, and why do you think that’s the case?
In America, if you don’t have éclair or Napoleon, you have no business.
What’s the key to a great éclair?
I don’t like to do what people do. I like always to be different. They say, “Make an éclair,” and people force me to do it. I say it needs to be the best éclair, and they have a bite and say, “Wow, that’s not just an éclair.” That’s my impression about doing something. Everybody wants to talk about how much money, or how many businesses they have. For me, the best is what counts. For me, when I do something, it’s all about caring and loving. What’s on the plate is my way, and I like to make things perfection. I cannot be happy in life if I cannot achieve perfection. For excitement, some people jump out of a plane. I live for a dream. I know when I make it right, and I know when it’s wrong.
Is there anything you’ve ever made that you couldn’t have made any better?