When Cupcakes Grow Up

You won’t find gooey chocolate chip cookies the size of your fist at Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro. No cutie-pie cupcakes with a poof of buttercream on top. A pastry from Payard is a sophisticated temptress, more Cate Blanchett than Dakota Fanning.

“I am not a fucking bakery,” says François Payard as he plunges a fork into the heart of a Manjari chocolate tart. He attacks the bite, pronounces it too cold to eat, turns the pierced tart over, examines the underside, and declares the golden-brown crust—that would look flawless to most—slightly under cooked. The verdict: it was baked 12 hours prior, rather than fresh that morning, which is just not good enough. “I want perfection,” he says.

For eleven years Payard has given New Yorkers something to lick their lips about. Two massive mahogany doors provide entrance to the duplex honey-lit space with the famed pastry and a coffee bar at the front end and two levels of dining tables for those who’d like a savory bite before the sweet finish. While the Bistro collects positive praise year after year, it’s the pastries that most people come for. A few classics include the Louvre made from chocolate and hazelnut mousses atop a hazelnut wafer, angelically light macaroons that easily rival any near Paris’ Place de la Madeleine, and éclairs that define the genre.

Dozens of pastry chefs tinker around the clock to create Payard’s collection of indulgences. From start to finish, it can take a team of two to three pastry chefs 20 hours or more to make one cake. The batter must be mixed, baked, and cooled; and, depending on the cake, dacquoise spread and solidified; fillings gelled; mousses fluffed; ganache liquefied; chocolate tempered, shaped, and molded; fruit candied; sugar caramelized; and finally, the cake is built. Considering the cost of an individual cake is often a buck or two more than a venti latté at Starbucks, a labored-over confection from Payard is perhaps one of the sweetest deals in the city.

A third-generation pastry chef from Nice, Payard honed his skills as a sugar artist at Paris’ three Michelin-starred La Tour d’Argent, and then in New York at Le Bernardin and Restaurant Daniel. Seven years after arriving in America he opened Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro, bringing the grandeur and levity of a polished European café to the Upper East Side.
That said, those who come only for a sugarcoated pick-me-up in the afternoon are missing out on chef Philippe Bertineau’s eloquent bistro menu. Often cited as one of the city’s most talented unsung chefs, Bertineau has shared a kitchen with Payard since before the pâtisserie existed—he was the sous-chef at Restaurant Daniel during Payard’s tenure. His bistro menu delivers French classics like croque monsieur and cheese soufflé alongside seasonally inspired dishes rife with local produce, cheeses, and farm-raised fowl. Bertineau visits the Union Square Greenmarket several times a week and delivers his cache 60 blocks north via taxi. While he appreciates and supports local farmers, his eyes get sparkly when he speaks of Québécois foie gras and chanterelles flown in from Canada or the Continent that also make guest-star appearances.

The seasons pass in the pastry case too: Of the 30 cakes available on any given day one-third are seasonal interpretations that change every three months. This winter, in addition to his modern take on the bouche de Noël, the chocolate-frosted log of Christmastime (though you won’t find tacky elfin meringue mushrooms on his stump), Payard pays homage to the pumpkin in the Cendrillon, his twist on Cinderella’s stagecoach, a pumpkin sponge cake punctuated by cranberry gelée and pumpkin mousse.

The 24-hour kitchen is divided into stations, like the flour room and the chocolate room, where chefs focus on one component, such as dough, for several months before switching to another, say cake construction. Though he now operates pâtisseries on three continents, Payard’s pastry chefs are not latchkey children left to their own devices. Payard personally keeps an eye on his crew six days a week.

“He understands that we’re the next generation of pastry chefs,” affirms Vincent Attali, a native New Yorker and six-month Payard disciple. Fueled by dreams of cheffing in their own kitchens, Payard’s underlings hope to one day be the next Johnny Iuzzini (Jean-Georges), Herve Poussot (Brooklyn’s Almondine), or Joanne Chang (Flour Bakery in Boston), all Payard grads.
Payard likes to push his pastry crew as well as himself. “We do difficult craftsmanship,” says Payard, “I’m not happy making things over and over again.” At the moment, he’s toying with tofu (in a vegan chocolate mousse), açai berries, and hibiscus. “To make money, it’s easier to change nothing,” he adds. “It’s much more work to debut a new collection” of cakes, tarts, and ice creams. While he could keep his menus identical from country to country, shops in Vegas, São Paulo, Seoul, and Tokyo, all offer a few different items for devotees.

“People think I’m crazy—I’m not crazy. I just care about what I do. For me, it’s not about making money. It’s about keeping the image of something special.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell