‘Become like a chef hunting for the best.’ – The Francois Payard Interview

Francois Payard

Renowned French pastry chef Francois Payard could not be more accessible and down to earth in the way he speaks about his high regard of raw ingredients, and how even desserts as simple as a dried fruit compote belong on the menu at restaurant Daniel and on your table. His newest book, Payard Desserts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), features his favorite recipes from years of professional work in various restaurant jobs, as well as those featured within his own retail locations. At first glance, the book’s recipes look complicated because they have several components, but after close inspection and definitely after our chat, it is clear that there are basics here for every one of us to incorporate into our repertoire. And if you are wondering why there are so many exclamation points in this interview, it is because this is how Francois talks – passionately!

Payard-Desserts jacket

Dédé Wilson: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us during what must be a very busy schedule.
Francois Payard: My pleasure, Madame. Thank you for your interest in the book.

We love asking pastry chefs this first question because the answers are as varied as the bakers themselves. When people ask, “what do you do”, what is your answer?
People think I make chocolate mousse all day. This is their idea of what a French pastry chef is, but of course, it is more than you think. I am working on new recipes, my retail locations, business. It’s not all in the kitchen.

What is your favorite part of what you do?
To be able to create something, to create and experience different things in the kitchen. Sometimes it is researching produce or traveling or finding a new ingredient. Doing the same thing over and over is boring for me. Creating something new is more work, but it keeps me interested and excited about what I do.

What was the last time you discovered a new ingredient?
It might not be new, but sometimes it will be new to pastry, like using Szechuan pepper in pastry. There are savory ingredients we can use in the sweet department like Swiss chard. And people say, “is he crazy?”, but think about it. Rhubarb is a vegetable and tomatoes are a fruit. So what? Taste them. How can they be used in the sweet kitchen? So much produce is so versatile but we don’t think about them because we think they only belong here or there. There is no reason to limit.

How are you inspired to create recipes?
I am always inspired when a fruit or vegetable is in season. It cannot just look beautiful, it has to taste beautiful. Right now I am thinking about pears, I will not be using pears in the summer. A pastry chef has to think like a chef. When is it at its peak during the season? And once I decide I want pears, I think, “where can I get the best pears?” We are lucky. We are in New York City, so I can go to the Union Square Greenmarket and I can buy pears that are tree ripened direct from the purveyors. If I get them from a supplier, they are packed hard for transport and storage. I want to go directly to the grower. It is very important to find the littler farmer. Then you will get something very special. I had a pear tart over 10 years ago at Chez Panisse, just flaky dough, pear and a little sugar, I still think about it. Food does not have to be complicated.

I love the fact that a recipe as simple as a dried fruit compote made it into the book. I think people might be surprised to find it there.
Ah, yes the Fricassée of Winter Fruit. This was a favorite of Daniel [Boulud, French chef and owner of Daniel]. The customers at Daniel had money, they were well traveled; they know their food. The customers wanted to experience food and have them matched with wine. You must think about what will excite you. It is the flavors of the fruits coming together, the textures; they will excite you. You don’t have to be showing off when you can have a bite of something that simple, but that incredible.

As I’ve looked through the book, I see how it might be overwhelming for the home baker as the recipes have so many components, but if you look closely you can see how they are made up of basic recipes that can be used very successfully on their own. Like the Brown Butter Roasted Pear with Maple Syrup and Vanilla-Prune Ice Cream. There are six components for the way you might plate it in a restaurant, but within the recipe is a simple roasted pear with a maple syrup sauce that anyone could make.
Components! Exactly! You know, sometimes someone like you can say what I want to say so much better than I can say it! Yes! People can make this pear, and there are just five ingredients and it is simple. The pear gets incredible caramelization. Then if you want to make another component, the almond pastry is to die for! It is not complicated. Yes! Use that in your explanation of the book!

Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
No, I don’t. A pastry chef is like a painter and as artists, we like the moment, and then we get tired of it. We are allowed to create things, then we move on. We are always looking for something new. Pastry chefs can show you how to do many things. The book is a little advanced; I hope it gives ideas. I am happy when I inspire people to create.

What are the three most important things that you think the home baker should know?
1. Find and buy right ingredients. Become like a chef hunting for the best. I have people tell me, “I don’t buy this chocolate because it is $1 more a pound than this other.” Please, give me a break! In the end, the cake might cost you $8 to make? But it is the best you ever made? Wasn’t it worth buying the best chocolate? I use Valrhona and Guittard for different purposes because they are good and they work. Think about main dishes! Chefs spend $18 a pound on tuna! Pastry chefs have to spend money on ingredients, too. And don’t tell me you can’t find it in America! You can.

2. I don’t request crazy tools, spray guns and things like that. You don’t need too many tools, but what you do need, buy the best. A KitchenAid mixer, a good food processor, a blender, maybe an ice cream machine. Less can be more! And buy a Silpat [silicone baking sheet]. We use them a lot. The pans and knives, you should have already. Then as you like, you can add specialty items like a cookie press, but then you won’t just use it for cookies! You can make chestnut vermicelli!

3. Know that every time you read the book that the recipes work. If they don’t work, it is because you have made a change. You might want to change an ingredient. Do not change nothing! Follow it or don’t make it.

Tell us about what you are doing currently.
Focusing on the book. It is beautiful; I give much credit to Tish [Boyle, co-author].

You know, when I am making the book I was thinking about all the desserts I have made over the last 25 years. Every chef in the world takes an idea from someone. Home bakers, it can be the same thing. Take my ideas, take one component, like the Rice Crispy Disks [a combination of the cereal with melted chocolate and praline paste] and add it to your favorite chocolate cake recipe. Press it into the bottom of the pan. It will add a different dimension to your cake. Not everyone thinks like this, but you can! Look deeper! There are recipes for all levels.

What do you hope to do next?
I am working on a cookie book with cookies from many different countries. Everyone in America loves cookies. There will be 100 cookies or so; Italian, cookies you can serve at Passover, flourless, gluten-free, classics and things that are a little different.

With gluten-free being so ubiquitous and other food allergies seemingly on the rise, how do you address allergies in your retail shops?
There is a book in every shop that lists all the ingredients of every item so someone can reference it. We are not a gluten-free facility, but we say, “look,” then you can make an informed decision. Every General Manager knows every recipe because it has become more and more prevalent with customers. I never think of [gluten allergies] when I create recipes. I think of produce or an idea and make it to be the best it can be, then if it ends up being gluten-free or kosher, then fine. I make a meringue because it is good and then I say “aha!” it happens to be gluten-free, so it will be listed as gluten-free.

Francois, thank you so much for your time. It was wonderful hearing how passionate you are about ingredients and even simple recipes. Readers might be surprised.
Madame, thank you! Yes, tell people about the components! And it is easy to bake if you have great ingredients!


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