I’m not sure why, but there’s something engagingly romantic about the story of a middle-aged man who pauses mid-journey in order to take a step backward and re-live what is in essence a childhood fantasy. It seems to matter little whether this moment is as fleeting as a midnight craving for sweets, or if it manages to endure throughout the second half of his life. What is most important is the actual taking of the step, and the fact that it can create a clarifying moment that belongs only to that man, even if the action itself generates confusion from all those around him.
When a man begins working at an early age and slowly surrenders nearly every pleasure that he discovers through his early years, there comes a time later in life when stepping back and doing something that might be labeled “crazy” is more than inevitable; it is necessary to breathe, to continue living. For some, the simple purchase of a luxury sports car or an emboldened heads-first dive out of a perfectly good airplane will suffice. Quitting a corporate job to open a restaurant is the answer to some people’s dream, while ironically escaping from a restaurant’s grasp is others. For François Payard, one of the most famous and successful pastry chefs in the world, the rediscovery of a lost passion began when he was a boy, when he began earning money at what was supposed to be a summer job at the age of 13 for a man named Charles Ghignone.
“Ghignone gave me 500 francs a month, which was big money at the time, and every month he used to give me a little bit more. I bought a moped, and then I bought a motorcycle. I asked my dad to stay there and I liked it. My dad said, ‘But pastry is no good because you’ll be like your brother.’ ” François developed a passion for motorcycle riding and motocross racing in his spare time, but even at that age his work soon began to take precedence over his boyish hobbies. “In December we were supposed to start at 2:30 in the morning, and I started at midnight. I think that your work ethic comes from your parents, from your background. It’s something you have inside you.” Ghignone blessed him with a nickname, “Crazy Horse,” a name that Payard still cherishes to this day. He claims the name was given to him because he “has a lot of built-up energy,” but he also alludes to other possible origins: “I was a very difficult kid. I think boys sometimes are difficult, but somehow I was more difficult.” Payard wound up staying with his first mentor for five years, until he turned 18, and Ghignone turned the difficult child into a talented chef. “He took me, I would like to say, almost like his son.”
Payard would continue working in various locations throughout France where he quickly gained a reputation as a hard-driving, loyal and virtually tireless worker with a free-wheeling creative side. Although he was working mainly at Michelin-starred restaurants, his classically-trained abilities at times clashed with his rebellious nature, and at 24 he moved to New York City. New York, as it turned out, was a good place for him to utilize his creativity. It was also a good place to ride a motorcycle again, primarily as a means of getting around easily, and without having to worry much about a parking spot.
“I loved the bike, because it’s more like a freedom. It’s easier to go everywhere in the city. It was not about saving money, but getting to meetings on time and getting through the traffic, or outside of the traffic.”
His first career break came when he began working at the restaurant considered to be the best in New York at that time; Le Cirque, with pastry chef Jacques Torres, chef Daniel Boulud, and of course Sirio Maccione. But the work environment was quite different from the kitchens in France that he was used to. “It was the biggest shock for me when I came from the French three-stars to Le Cirque. Why? Because the kitchen was very noisy, the chef was screaming, the waiters were screaming and everything; it was a shock. I used to love to work with Jacques, I love Jacques, but maybe it’s the difference of the restaurants I had worked in; I like things more like a three-star restaurant. It’s quieter; everything is synchronized, everything is focused; everything is precise, and no hectic, screaming kitchen, you know.” But besides dealing with the decibel level, Payard soon found himself in the middle between two men he admired greatly; Jacques Torres and Sirio.
“Sirio is an incredible restaurateur, and he knew how to play the game,” Payard says. “Every time Jacques left, Sirio used to say, ‘Okay, mon petit, mon petit, let’s do something tonight.’ It was like I was his new toy!’” Payard seemed to know instinctively what Sirio liked and wanted. Once in a while, while his boss Jacques was away, Payard’s creations would find their way onto Le Cirque’s menu, which was unique in that it had Torres’s name on it – a tribute to Torres and a first for a New York pastry chef. “Jacques was getting mad at me, and I said, ‘Look, Sirio’s asking me, you know, he’s the boss.’ Even if I was outspoken, you can get very impressed by Sirio because he’s such a legend, and I was impressed.” Although he loved working with Maccione, Daniel Boulud, and Torres, after six months he made the decision that Le Cirque was not for him, and told Torres that he would like to move on.
He applied for a job at Le Bernardin and was hired – two months before Eric Ripert arrived there. “François was one of the first and best pastry chefs to come here from France,” said Chef Ripert. “He’s very creative and is an excellent technician, and above all, he has an incredible personality.” Payard remained at Le Bernardin for two and one-half years, and earned a number of positive press write-ups while he was there from reviewers such as Bryan Miller of the Times. “Working at Le Bernardin I think is where people recognized what I did. I don’t make toys, I make food. Everything is about food. It’s about flavor and texture and how to combine ingredients together; it’s not about making pretty food.”
When we visited François Payard several days before our interview, the topic of conversation drifted around to his upcoming schedule, and he mentioned that he would not be available on Sunday at the restaurant because he was taking his new racing bike to a motocross track in Long Island. Recognizing the potential for a spontaneous adventure, we asked if we could come along. Although I sensed a little hesitation, Mr. Payard agreed. We wouldn’t discover until the next day that this trip was not a monthly or yearly ritual - in fact, he hadn’t been on a racing bike since he was 16 – a 24-year hiatus! As we planned the trip, I could sense the excitement in Payard, but somehow I sensed an incongruity. Payard was a pastry chef, with a figure that was not exactly svelte, and although he looks strong and said that he works out at the gym often, Motocross racing just didn’t seem to be something I could picture him doing. But Johnny Iuzzini, one his past apprentices from his days at Daniel, and himself the owner of an Italian retro-style muscle bike called the Ducati Monster 900, is not surprised by any of it. “François and I have never ridden together, but I think it would be fun. I’m sure he has the same fearlessness on the track as he does in the kitchen. Now that I think about it, maybe I shouldn’t ride with him!”
Iuzzini worked under Payard for three years at Daniel, before helping him to open Payard Patisserie & Bistro in 1997 and moving on to Jean Georges. Iuzzini remembers that Payard had an expression, “push like a machine,” which meant that if Payard was the chef and he was pushing hard, they all should push as hard, or even harder. “He definitely led his team by example; through cleanliness, speed and efficiency. Yet he is still old-school French and feels he must use intimidation and scare tactics. But that’s just his style; I don’t hold it against him!”
Payard remained at Daniel for four and one-half years, and during this time his name became even more recognizable - even though at times it seemed that Boulud kept the media spotlight on himself more often than not. Payard likes to tell the story of the time Al Pacino came into Daniel’s for dinner, and his boss asked the famous actor to sign his “gold book,” which was reserved for special guests and celebrities. “I still have a photocopy of the page,” Payard says, laughing. “And Pacino wrote, ‘Thank you so much for the great dessert.’ And Daniel said, ‘Fuck! What about the food?’ ”
As I arrived at the Long Island Motocross track in Yaphank, New York, an industrial area in Eastern Long Island, a whining chorus of engines could be heard above the sound of my SUV as it weaved along the muddy gravel entranceway. It was an unseasonably spring-like day in January, and it was my first real visit to a motocross race track. My first impression was positive; everyone was friendly and all the riders looked incredibly professional. It was mandatory to wear a helmet, goggles, long sleeve shirt (most, like François, wore a one-piece racing suit), gloves, pants and boots. Most everyone had additional protective gear such as chest and knee protectors. The range in age was also surprising; François wasn’t the only 40-something on a bike, not by a long shot. Most of the riders were young men, yet I also saw some very young children whose school chums might be home watching Barney. It didn’t take long before we ran into François – he wasn’t difficult to find. The chef was bright-eyed and decked out like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights, missing only the Wonderbread logo. He was still preparing his bike and getting used to it, and his first words were a warning to us – “I’m really not very good at this, you know.”
Payard at times seems a paradox; he’s proud of his accomplishments and his work, yet at times he’s still not confident that he has done well enough. Although he has worked amazingly hard and long hours to make his first restaurant successful, he still insists that it is his mentor Daniel Boulud and his chef Philippe Bertineau who deserve much of the credit. “I don’t want to say that I’m very smart, I’m not smart. But I have a very good IQ, and I’m street-smart,” he says. When he told Daniel of his dream to open his own establishment, his friend not only supported him, he became his financial partner. Payard eventually bought the remaining shares of the restaurant back in 2000. Although the partnership was sometimes not a comfortable one, the two men remained close friends, and Payard’s restaurant continues to be a successful, profitable Upper East destination with a dedicated clientele. Payard has learned many lessons during his nearly 10 years as a restaurateur, and the most important one was to know his customer.
“There are two kinds of restaurants in the world. In France, or in America, there are restaurants like Le Bernardin, Daniel or Ducasse. There you go in to have an experience; and you go in to try something. You may not try everything, but your mind is set up for different things, and your wallet is set up for different things, too. Then you have a restaurant like Payard, and the food maybe is amazing. The chefs aren’t pretty, but it’s a restaurant more like a neighborhood. People are coming, and they want to come back to the same things over and over; they love what they have. You can change a few things, but without twisting them too much. And I think you have to know these two worlds before you understand what you do. My clients are very loyal, but they’re not really adventurous. Every time I create something a little too complex, it only fits into a very small percentage.”
After watching Payard run a few test drives in a warm-up area, we talked with him and his racing partner, executive pastry chef Nicolas Néant, about their bikes. We discovered that Payard had just bought his racing bike a week before on e-bay! But other than some tinkering here and there, he seemed comfortable on it. We also found out that afternoon about his 24-year absence from motocross racing. They had planned this day for over two months. Initially they were going to go racing around Christmastime, but Payard nixed that idea. “I said to Nicolas, ‘if something happens to you or to me, it’s not good timing.’ ” They spent the next six weeks planning what bikes they would buy and where they should go, and finally, the day arrived.
Payard may well be the poster boy for a restaurant owner control freak. His endless supply of energy and his desire to be in the thick of things in his kitchens keeps him fully engrossed in his work. But his tendency to need constant control is common in the world of fine dining, and the cast of characters he has spent his career with tend to worship control as much as he does. These days, his typical routine begins in the morning at his chocolate factory in upper Manhattan, where he goes over orders and peeks over the shoulders of his staff members there. He spends most of his day at Payard, and then ends his evening at his new downtown restaurant, InTent.
“You know, most chefs think I’m crazy. I worked 7 days, 30 days in a row for Christmas. Every day, I’m here, even yesterday, when I wasn’t feeling good - I’m here. The pastry world is very different. Some chefs can make ten times more than me or maybe fifty times. But I don’t really care what people make. My wife sometimes complains that I should make more money, but I don’t work for money. My idea and my dream was to create something, and I think I did it.”
When they first arrived at the motocross track, Payard was a little nervous when he saw the field – he thought that it might be too difficult for Néant. “But he did pretty good,” Payard told us later. “He stayed in first gear.” But was Payard scared?
“The bike has so much power that every time you accelerate, it pushes you up, but that’s okay. I’m not afraid to fail. I think everything is interesting in life. Riding in the city is interesting. Crossing the street is interesting. Racing is dangerous, but you know what? It’s still dirt. If you fail, you go pfft, then you can get up. It’s okay.”
Being unafraid of failure can be one of an entrepreneur’s most valuable assets, and being fearless is one of Payard’s best qualities. Not many pastry chefs can claim to have the global following that he has developed, and he made a point of letting me know what, besides his gut, drives him. “I’m not better than other people; I just have something different than other people. I have a drive that other people don’t have. I go and do things, and maybe sometimes I have no limit. But, the person I have to thank for everything in life, and everything I did is my wife, because she’s the one pushing me to do all the things I do, and to be behind me. Sometimes it is not easy, because to be with a guy like me is very difficult, because I have a strong personality!”
At the track, as Payard became more comfortable with his new bike, he became more daring. He revved the engine a little harder during straight-aways, and pushed the bike up the smaller hills, sending him a bit higher every repetition. Even when he was sent airborne for just an instant, that single moment must have sent him back to a time when days were long and life was more carefree, filled with more dreams than worries.
“It was the best day, it was like freedom - it was a day out of the city. It was a beautiful day, and we did something we never did for a long time, and it was incredible. We had so much fun, you can spend $10,000 and you won’t have the same fun - it was fun that you cannot buy.”
Two days after the day at the track, Payard came into work to meet me for our final interview. He was seated in his office when I arrived, and I’m willing to bet that he stayed there well after our two-hour interview. His body had not yet fully recovered from the beating it had taken. “The last laps I made, I realized my arm was killing me, and my legs, and my ass was burning. I go to a gym four times a week, and I was thinking I’d be sore a little bit, but not like that. I’m very sore - I cannot even get up the stairs.”
I asked Payard if he will be going back again. He thought about the question, as if he had to mull over a dozen different scenarios and complications in order to accurately answer it. “I think my problem is, I don’t make enough time for me to enjoy pleasure. This made me feel like I just rediscovered pleasure.”
After 24 years, it’s about time!