Master pastry chef François Payard is a third-generation pâtissier with five eateries in NYC.
Payard’s artistic treats come in a variety of flavors, including (from left) orange mandarin, caramel pecan and gingerbread.
Hurt III handling the delicate pastries.
Pastry genius and chocolatier François Payard’s brand-new Upper East Side bakery/cafe/wine bar/tea salon, FP Patisserie, has both chocophiles and sweets lovers in a dither. Harry Hurt III spent the day with the French master to learn the intricate—and, apparently, orgasmic—art of le chocolat.
I’m salivating with a three-pronged fork in hand inside renowned pastry chef François Payard’s chocolate production room at 116 W. Houston St. To my left, a tray of 1-inch ganache squares is passing through a box-shaped steel machine that drips Valrhona dark chocolate imported from South America. The white-jacketed Payard is standing opposite me on the far side of the conveyor belt, his azure eyes narrowing with intense concentration.
“Make sure your hands are dry,” he admonishes as the tray emerges from the machine, apparently demonstrating that Like Water for Chocolate isn’t a film he’d recommend. “Chocolate’s worst enemy is water because it will make it too thick.”
I wait with anxious anticipation as Payard, 46, uses his own three-pronged fork to trim excess drops of Valrhona from two of the squares. “Pastry is a science,” he explains. “We must make sure that each square is the right size or they won’t fit into the box.”
Born and bred in Nice, France, Payard is a third-generation pâtissier who honed his skills at world-class eateries like La Tour d’Argent in Paris and Le Bernardin and Daniel in New York. He now owns five pastry shops in Manhattan, one in Las Vegas, two in Japan and five in South Korea—including one in the very same Gangnam District made famous by YouTube-record-breaking singer Psy. A 50-piece box of Payard’s premium chocolates retails for $75.
As a born-and-bred chocoholic, I’m awed by the way Payard combines culinary passion with surgical precision and artistic flair. The weeklong, multistep process of making his chocolate candies begins dark and early on Friday and Saturday mornings with the preparation of the soft ganache center. After giving the ganache a day of rest on Sunday, he and his three-man team spend Monday and Tuesday cutting and separating it into squares. Thursday is boxing day, when the finished pieces are arranged in bright orange packages that are then wrapped with artisanal stitched brown ribbons.
I happen to be apprenticing with Payard on Wednesday, the crucial juncture at which the squares are enrobed with dark chocolate coverings. A typical FP Patisserie box features an assortment of milk and grand cru chocolates with accents in flavors ranging from salted caramel and sesame almond praline to Key lime and jasmine tea. I get the unique privilege of helping to coat fresh ginger-flavored squares of 66 percent grand cru Caraïbe chocolate.
I watch as Payard lays a 13-by-10-inch plastic transfer sheet on top of the squares. The downward-facing surface is spread with identifying cocoa butter designs. Following Payard’s lead, I flip over my fork and rub the convex backside of the prongs across the sheeted tray.
“Pastry is very delicate,” Payard reminds me as he demonstrates the proper side-to-side fork strokes. “We must be very, very gentle.”
Miraculously enough, I manage to complete this deceptively tricky task without piercing the transfer sheet or squashing any of the chocolate squares. Having taken the risk of allowing me to work in his production room, Payard invites me to join him for the ultimate reward—a chance to taste our chocolaty creations.
I feel a slight titillating resistance when my teeth bite into the grand cru Caraïbe square. Then the ginger explodes across my palate in ever richer, reverberating waves. I see Payard’s azure eyes widen and gleam in triumph as he exclaims, “It’s like an orgasm, no?”
I can’t reply because my mouth is full, but the answer is, “Yes, yes, yes!”