NEW YORK — While the Monday morning crowd debated between croissants and pain au chocolat in FPB’s Houston Street bakery, chef François Payard could be found in his subterranean office mapping out the day.
Staffers inquired about holiday cake orders and the status of 30 cases of sweets made in the adjoining Willy Wonkalike “chocolate room” bound for an overnight flight to the Payard shop in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Seibu department store. Payard’s duties also included providing dessert for a lunch held in New York Monday for President Obama at an undisclosed private residence. The Nice-born, third-generation pastry chef broke away from the daily grind long enough to discuss his new book, “Payard Cookies.” As is always the case, though, he was never too far from what was happening in the kitchen. A wall of video monitors allows him to view his four FPB outposts, as well as his FP Patisserie pastry shop, bar and restaurant. Payard prefers to make a few surprise visits each week to see for himself what’s what. (In addition to Japan, Payard has shops in Korea and Las Vegas.)
Recent trips to Japan, Korea and China inspired a Thanksgiving cake infused with mandarin orange, green tea and panna cotta. French and Italian women’s magazines also help to put his creative wheels in motion. But the inspiration for his 272-page cookbook simply boiled down to his love of cookies. He explains, “It’s what I eat the most of. I may skip dessert but I will have cookies.” So much so that shortly after a friend visiting from France finished Sunday’s New York City Marathon, they were soon off to Arthur Avenue for Italian cookies.
Now Payard is sharing his own recipes, as well as a few that were favorites of his father, who died last year. Aspiring bakers can try their hand at batons marechaux, palters, kipferls, mini canneles and pignoli cookies. He offers some guidance for the wary. “Buy a scale, weigh everything and you cannot make mistakes. First of all, every recipe fits on one page. What’s difficult about using six ingredients?” he asks. “This machine called the Perfect Bake is incredible. You use the app to put the recipe on your iPhone, tablet or whatever. For me as a chef, it’s silly but not for a consumer. It will tell you that you need to mix something for 30 seconds and then a timer will go off…”
Payard’s own company has veered away from cookie-making, due to how time-consuming the task is. The chef himself was often questioned about the $6 or $7 price of his highly designed creations while he was decorating them. “I would say, ‘Ma’am, I will buy them for $10, if you make them as beautiful as this one.'”
Early on in his career, Payard worked at Le Cirque with Sirio Maccioni, Jacques Torres and Daniel Boulud, and later worked with the latter for a few more years at Daniel. There, Al Pacino is said to have been once asked by Boulud to sign the gold book in which he wrote,”Thank you so much for the great dessert.” Payard laughs knowingly when asked if the tale was true.
Established as he is in New York City’s celebrity chefhood, Payard says, “I’m not really a celebrity, because I work every day and I’m not on TV. Celebrity chefs are great for making people more knowledgeable about food and caring less about chains. But as a chef, the most important thing is to have a restaurant doing well, too. It’s not just to fit your image and your personal ego.”
Asked if the commonly accepted egotistical chef stereotype is fair, Payard says, “We have to have an ego. Every chef has an ego, some maybe more than others. If you don’t have ego, what is the way to fight to get better? Ego is part of being driven. I can keep making the same thing for 10 years. But do you think the staff will stay with me? They’re waiting for me to challenge them to do new things.”
As far as New York City’s tipping debate is concerned, Payard says he shares Drew Nieporent’s view — if a system works, why change it? With prime Madison Avenue rents running $1,000 a square foot, Payard has no immediate plans to open his own eatery in the neighborhood, which now only houses Bar Italia Madison. But one or two Madison Avenue retailers have approached him about the prospect of an FPB outpost because their stores are too big. As he has gotten older, he has tried to heed to the advice, “Less is better,” he says. “It’s hard because many times I have many ideas…When you have a shop, it’s not to show your skill. When I teach, I say, ‘I will show you, not what I am able to do, but what you are able to make.'”