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Crème de la Crème

François Payard provokes squeals of laughter from family and friends gathered hastily for one of his lightning visits from New York City. The scene is the terrace of his parents' villa high above Nice on the Côte d'Azur. The Mediterranean twinkles in the distance; hairpin switchbacks etch the steep hills in the foreground. "I'm thinking of having some work done so I look better on television," says Payard, 33, indicating the gap between his two front teeth. More laughter. This group of intimates will only indulge his vanity by saying that the gap is charming.

Two years ago, with the opening of the Belle Époque-flavored Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro on New York's Upper East Side, François Payard became the most famous dessert man in America. The sugar-coated road that led him there included stints as executive pastry chef at the Paris restaurants Tour d'Argent and Lucas Carton, when both had the top Michelin rating. In New York he held the same job at two of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, Le Bernardin and Daniel.

Celebrity runs in the Payard family. Payard's maternal grandfather, Charles Henry, who founded the modest Au Nid des Friandises pastry shop in Nice in 1947, was a much loved and relied-upon town figure. The city's mamies, or grandmothers, depended on him at teatime for Coco Mamie, a luscious tart of fresh pineapple, finished with a macaroon-like layer of coconut. When the baton was passed to Payard's garrulous father, Guy, his buttery pound cake filled and topped with juicy apple wedges earned Au Nid des Friandises a second wave of fame. Sold recently to an ambitious young Niçois who has worked for both Guy and François, the shop, with its terrazzo floor and chrome cash register, looks much as it always has.

François has survived fame, too. Even after multiple TV appearances on Martha Stewart Living, and a guest column in the New York Times, he impresses his Côte d'Azur coterie as unchanged—generous, uncomplicated, kinetic, lovable to the point of squeezable, a third-generation pastry chef whose vast talent is too easily explained by DNA. With Coco Mamies and apple pound cakes filling the streamlined mahogany display cases at Payard Pâtisserie, the chef's parents feel quite certain of their son's incorruptibility.

Payard's successes place him in a pantheon that includes Antonin Carème, the early-19th-century provocateur who introduced colossal architecture and baroque fantasy to the pastry arts; Gaston Lenôtre, whose string of Paris shops launched in 1957 proved high-end cakes could be democratized; and Pierre Hermé, who's known for high-wire creations using non-Western fruits and flavorings such as litchi and rose, and who will open his first tea salon under his own name next year. Payard's membership in this group is based on the absolute Frenchness of his creations so far from home. Like the flavors of a great savory dish—a poule au pot or a foie gras—those of his pastries are unambiguous and honest. Rambouillet, a trompe l'oeil basketwork sponge cake with sabayon and meringue, has a precise, engineered beauty emblematic of Payard's best work. And all his cakes definitely gain something from being tasted among the balloon-whisk sconces and croissant friezes at Payard Pâtisserie.

Considering the company he keeps, Payard seemed like the perfect person to design a tour of the four top pastry shops in Paris—Gérard Mulot, Fauchon, Ladurée, Lenôtre—and one school, École Gastronomique Bellouet Conseil. Armed with his list, I ventured out to discover who is setting the gold standard for modern French pastry—and where to appease a sweet tooth.

Since pastry is a luxury, it follows that the better the neighborhood, the better the cakes. At the crossroads of the Sixth and Seventh Arrondissements, the Gérard Mulot pâtisserie is as central to St.-Germain life as are the Jardins du Luxembourg and La Hune bookstore. Mulot bakes many of his pastries fresh every few hours, and regulars stop by as many as four times a day—in the morning, at noon, at teatime, and in the evening. (Paris has a substantial population of gourmands who don't seem to work.) It's a routine that courts death by buttercream.

"Gérard is an avant-gardist," says Payard. "His textures are amazing. I never go to Paris without stopping by to see what's new." Most pâtisseries force their on-the-hoof clientele to awkwardly deal with their purchases on the sidewalk. But snuggled into a corner of Mulot's shop are upholstered stools beside a wraparound counter. It's so pleasant, one is lulled into ordering a succulent three-fruit clafouti, and a rustic galette À l'orange (a fluted crust plied with candied orange and meringue), and a coeur frivole (a marbleized cylinder of chocolate-almond sponge cake with milk- and dark-chocolate mousse).

The shop is what every young French pâtissier aspires to: lots of glass, marble, fake flowers, and assault lighting. Salesclerks in dainty pastel uniforms are well-bred, if occasionally rude. Madame Mulot is easy to spot: she's the one with the ready smile, rhinestone brooch, and carpet slippers. Her husband is the slight, reticent, elfin man who looks more like a Voltaire scholar than someone who stays up late reinventing the apple tart (mission accomplished with a marvelously brittle caramel topping). Born in the Vosges region of northeastern France in 1949, Mulot says simply that pastry captured his imagination because "when I was young, my mother always made me the most delicious cakes." In 1971 he joined Dalloyau, the old-guard Paris pastry house, where, as a floater, he learned every aspect of his métier.

The success of Mulot's own shop has inspired him to explore his country's great regional specialties, such as the Alsatian kugelhopf, a round, crunchy-yet-tender ribbed loaf that is more bread than cake. Mulot's version loads the batter with sugar, yielding an almost doughnut-like texture. The Bordelais region is represented on Mulot's map with rum-scented cannelés. These small ridged cakes are baked in copper molds that ensure deep caramelization. Their deliciousness depends on the contrast between the near-toughness of the exterior and the near-doughiness of the interior. Cannelés are too weird to appeal to everyone, but for fans, Mulot is a precious resource. Unfortunately, success also seems to have overwhelmed Mulot. He should be fined in pastry court for his abuse of almond extract and reliance on green food coloring to suggest pistachio.

Sébastien Gaudard is a last encouraging link to Fauchon's golden years as the greatest food emporium in Paris. In recent years, the Place de la Madeleine landmark has shifted its target customer from learned gastronome to Monsieur Tout le Monde. Gaudard's often intellectual pastries are one of the remaining things that keep the old Fauchon connoisseurs coming back. Chocoholics go for his classic Megève, which plays satiny mousse off crispy vanilla meringue. Tart-lovers incline toward his happy marriage of toasted hazelnuts and glassy lemon cream. Fruit enthusiasts line up for his Douceur, a heroic dessert in three acts: macerated cherries, mascarpone cream thickened with honey, and milk-chocolate sponge cake flecked with nougat. "When Sébastien talks about pastry, it's as if he's talking about sex," says Payard. "He has a love affair with pastry."

The point is often made that Gaudard's good looks are wasted on his profession. He has dancing blue eyes, a magnificent beauty mark on his left cheek, and hair that he combs back in the manner of a tortured 18th-century composer. He was born in 1970 to a couple of pâtissiers in Pont-À-Mousson, the birthplace in Lorraine of choux À la crème—cream puffs. Gaudard carried out his military service in Paris, baking cakes for two French prime ministers. Hired by Fauchon in 1993, he stepped into the very large shoes of Pierre Hermé four years later when Hermé left for Fauchon's competitor Ladurée.

Nothing speaks louder of Fauchon's investment in Gaudard than the recent transformation of its most prized swatch of real estate, the ground-floor area where fruit and vegetables were sold, into a tearoom under his direction. In the new salon, Gaudard extends his hometown's reputation for choux pastry with a model paris-brest, a ring filled with buttercream, pastry cream, almond praline, and hazelnut paste and topped with almond shards and confectioners' sugar. The cake was created at the end of the last century by a pâtissier whose shop was on the route of the Paris-Brest bicycle race. The pastry, which takes its shape from the bicycle wheel, was sold to spectators. Gaudard's chou pastry is a rich toast color, smooth (a craggy surface indicates a too-hot oven), and crackly yet moist. Unlike the cream in many paris-brests, his is not overly sweet. "I use sugar as a seasoning, as one uses salt," he says. The salt in his doughs is fleur de sel from Brittany, the finest variety on the market, which he prizes for its herbal notes. And since nothing mutilates a paris-brest like the side of a fork, Gaudard recommends using a steak knife.


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