I had the opportunity to sit down with renowned pastry chef, François Payard, as he fondly recounted his childhood in France and provided sage advice—don't buy cheap chocolate! In his quintessential French accent and a glass of red wine in hand, Chef Payard explained how he expanded his pastry business across multiple continents—while staying true to himself. I caught up with Chef Payard at the celebration of the first U.S. Citigold® Client Center, where he was serving one of his most celebrated desserts, the French macaron.
When it comes to chocolate, go for the best.
Christine Detris: You grew up in Nice as the son and grandson of pastry chefs. Were you destined to be a baker, or did you dream of other fame?
François Payard: In Europe, it's our tradition. It's easy when you see your parents having a business to think perhaps one day you'll take it over. My father encouraged me to be a kid, but when I was 13 years old I realized that I liked baking. It's part of my heritage—it's in my DNA more than anything else.
CD: Do you use family recipes?
FP: I have a new book coming out—my father recently passed away and it features 10 to 15 of his recipes. I was more inspired by my father than my grandfather because of the generational difference between the two. My grandfather gave me two or three recipes, but I was too young at the time to truly appreciate them.
CD: Are there any dessert trends on the horizon that you're currently exploring?
FP: I compare pastries to computers—every five years they change. I have to stay up-to-date on consumers and their needs. In New York we are so spoiled. We find out about new trends but then quickly tire of them.
Sometimes, we [pastry chefs] get stuck because the customer doesn't always allow us creativity. What I sell the most are always the classics. When people go to pâtisseries, they stick with what they know, like a chocolate éclair.
CD: Over the past few years, the French macaron has risen in popularity in the U.S. How have you managed to keep people interested?
FP: I make them my own way. I always try to be French, but with American ideas. I'll do the French macaron, but with pumpkin—a French pumpkin with only a hint of spice to keep the focus on the delicate pumpkin flavor.
If I do cheesecake, I'll do cheesecake my own way. If I do cookies, I make them flourless and butterless. Why would I try to make an American cookie for America? I can't. Don't compete with what you can't compete. You have to find your own way to build up your business.
CD: Is there a baking ingredient that you can't live without?
FP: Chocolate, because it's very versatile. It can be used for savory, like a mole; it can be used for candy; it can be used to make a cake; and it can be used for drinking. That's four different uses without even trying! So imagine—if you really think hard—you can find many other ways to use chocolate.
When it comes to chocolate, I always tell people to go for the best. Don't buy cheap chocolate! How much are you really using in the recipe—five ounces? At the end of the day, the difference is only 50 cents or a dollar, but it makes a big difference in the quality of your chocolate éclair.
CD: You're constantly surrounded by the most delectable pastries. Do you have a guilty pleasure?
FP: Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's. My father was the same way. I always pair my ice cream with a little cookie. To be honest, I'll skip dessert, but not ice cream and cookies—I always go for the ice cream first!