The Prince of Pastry
Eric Levin / December 2010
François Payard is a big man in every sense. He's got the heft of an NFL nose tackle, the noble tête and mane of a Napoleon, the piercing blue eyes of a Sinatra, and the reputation to back it all up. But put this world-class pastry chef and chocolatier next to Miss Canada, Miss Venezuela, and Miss Spain, and he is reduced to giggles.
Standing amid the construction dust and still-wrapped machinery of what will be the production kitchen of his big new bakery in New York City, Payard passes around his cell phone, on which are snapshots of him standing next to several Miss Universe contestants. "Look!" he exclaims, pointing to the picture of him standing next to the extremely tall Miss Canada in her sash. "I look like a midget next to her!"
It is August 2010, and he is just back from Las Vegas, where he has a Payard Pâtisserie &amo; Bistro at Caesars Palace. For a number of chefs and the Miss Universe contestants, who were in town for the 59th edition of the international pageant, he put on a baking demonstration that included his famously ethereal Parisian macaroons. "All the girls were so skinny, nobody wanted to touch anything," he says, quite incredulous. "I said, ‘Don't be shy, have a macaroon!'" Naturally, none of the chefs needed encouragement.
Fortunately for Payard, as for his father and grandfather in France before him, most people are more like the chefs than the Miss Universe contestants when it comes to willpower and the pastry arts. That's why the new François Payard Bakery at 116 West Houston Street in Greenwich Village, which opened in September, has a beautiful retail shop up front with tables and chairs. There patrons can eat panini, sandwiches, and pastry and sip coffee and gaze through plate-glass windows at a small army of artisans turning out cakes and tarts and macaroons, among other Payard temptations.
It's all part of a 7,000-square-foot facility spread over two floors in what used to be the headquarters of a catering company. Thanks to his new partnership with Marlon Abela, head of the Marlon Abela Restaurant Corporation, Payard was able to create a facility the likes of which few pastry chefs in the world enjoy. Replacing a small production kitchen in Harlem, the bakery has become the commissary supplying bread and pastry to all of Payard's present and future operations in New York City and his exquisite chocolates to the FC Chocolate Bar in Manhattan plus his emporia in Japan, Korea, and Las Vegas. Houston Street turns out goods 24 hours a day, in three shifts.
"I've always felt there is a lack of real high-end French bakery and pastry shops in New York City," says Abela, "and I can't imagine anyone better than François to fill that gap.
"We bring some infrastructure, management, and capital, but we and François have a similar ethos and view of how things should be. We don't take shortcuts when it comes to quality. I guess that's why the whole thing jelled as well as it did and why we were able to partner so quickly."
The large kitchen, known as the bakery, which faces the plate glass of the 750-square-foot retail shop and mini bistro, has two Doyon convection ovens, two Doyon three-deck ovens for bread, two other ovens, big mixers, a stove, and other cooking equipment--plus a machine rarely seen in the United States, a Fermento Levain by Autofrigor, which makes large quantities of perfectly consistent bread starter.
To the right of that room, yet also visible from the little shop/bistro is an enormous Doyon retarder proofer, several machines for making ice cream, and Payard's pride and joy, the macaroon machine. This wonder, quite compact compared to earlier models, is officially a Polin Multidrop Compact Pro-Fast. It is a depositor that, depending on the nozzles or molds applied, can lay down trays full of macaroons or cookies in all conceivable shapes and all ready for the oven. Payard, demonstrating with his hand the action of the wire cutter in the machine, says, "Drop, cut, drop, cut, drop, cut…" Except, with his thick French accent, the "r" in drop rolls and cut rhymes with put.
Actually, the pride and joys keep on coming. Behind these front rooms, still on the ground floor, are four large ("humongous," says Payard) walk-ins, a separate room for preparing and shaping bread dough, and all the way in the back, a dishwashing room. ("Keeps the mess out of the way.")
Downstairs, the 16,000-amp electrical service box is as big as one of the floor-to-ceiling Doyon convection ovens. "These big machines suck a lot of juice," Payard says. "That was the biggest surprise."
Downstairs is the chocolate production area, comprising a walk-in just for chocolate and two production rooms with conveyer belts. Payard points to a small machine, the Stephan Robot Coupe, that essentially sucks air out of the interior of filled chocolates, extending their shelf life, he says, to eight weeks without use of sorbitol or other preservatives.
All compressors, heating, air conditioning, and other support equipment are relegated to their own rooms downstairs "so that repairmen don't have to come in the middle of the bakery to fix something." Also on the lower level are a conference room that will double as a photo studio and offices, including a large office for the boss himself. "I never had such a big office," Payard says. "I don't like it so big. You don't make money in the office."
Money, of course, is why Payard, 44, finds himself on Houston Street at a critical moment in his career. Payard was already a budding star when he came to this country in 1990 after learning his trade in his native Nice and working in Paris at La Tour d'Argent and Lucas Carton. In New York City he became pastry chef of Le Bernardin before helping Daniel Boulud open Daniel in 1993. The James Beard Foundation honored him with the Outstanding Pastry Chef award in 1995. Then, two years later, in partnership with Boulud, he opened his own restaurant, Payard, on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Payard, an evocation of Belle Époque Paris, enjoyed a 12 year run on Lexington Avenue. But in the summer of 2009 Payard closed Payard. Why? "Because I lost the lease and I wasn't ready to pay $60,000 a month in rent." The increase, he says, was to more than double what he had been paying, $28,000 a month.
During his run on Lexington Avenue, the now-famous baker had gone international. There was not enough production space, necessitating the opening of the Harlem facility. Wholesale orders were taken by the same clerks who staffed the retail shop, delaying service, and irritating Upper East Side customers, who don't take kindly to waiting in line.
So the loss of his lease presented the opportunity to start fresh, and Payard's new partnership with Abela gave him a clean slate on which to draw. In addition to the bakery on West Houston Street, the partners plan to open a high-end French pastry and chocolate shop on the Upper East Side by spring 2011. "It will have a salon de thé feel," Abela says. In the same time frame, they also plan to open a second François Payard Bakery downtown, though the production will still come from West Houston Street.
During the search that culminated in the space on West Houston Street, Payard looked in Harlem, New Jersey, and Long Island City, but ruled those out because of the notoriously congested bridges and tunnels that would have to be crossed to deliver goods. "It's OK if you're just doing bread, because bread is easier to ship," Payard says, "but pastry is more fragile and more sensitive to the weather."
After a six month search, he found the space on Houston Street, which had become a white elephant. It's across the street from a church that houses a nursery school, and under New York City law no liquor licenses can be issued to businesses directly across the street from same. Impossible for restaurants, but no problem for Payard and his menu of pastries, sandwiches, chocolate, and coffee. He wound up with about twice the square footage he had had on Lexington Avenue for less than he was paying before the price hike.
Bidding and construction moved quickly, taking only about six and a half months start to finish, including some delays owing to slow permitting. Four designers were asked to submit proposals based on Payard's concept. The winner, Josh Held, had worked with Payard on the Lexington Avenue restaurant when Held was with the Rockwell Group.
"François is a wonderful, passionate, and energetic person," says Held. "He knows exactly what he wants, and he's very aware all the time of what's going on. It led to fewer modifications in the plan, because anytime you put something in front of him, he knew functionally whether it would work or not. So there was not a lot of going back and forth. As a designer, it's ideal when that happens."
Payard even has space he isn't using yet. Downstairs, next to the employee locker room, there is a spare room. "I don't know what I will do with it yet," Payard says. "You never know in life what will be next." But between his partnership with Abela, his dream production facility, and his spare room, Payard is ready.