Join us on a dessert quest designed by star New York pastry chef François Payard. Oven-warm apple tart, lemon-scented madeleines, or napoleons, anyone?

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.

For Payard, the original 1862 Ladurée—a five-minute walk from Fauchon, across Place de la Madeleine—is "the quintessential Paris tea salon." (A second, larger Ladurée is on the Champs-Élysées.) At the flagship, Payard loves the almost absurd profusion of tiny round and rectangular tables that make it nearly impossible to move without overturning somebody's teacup. Mirrors have elaborate gilt frames, and the ceiling is gaily painted with ribbons, bows, and rosy cherubs in a dreamy cloudscape. The customers are as much an attraction as the décor. Between bites of Royal Chocolats (rum-soaked almond sponge cake and chocolate ganache), coquettish women of a very certain age redraw their bow lips and adjust the fluttering lace around their décolletages. Waitresses, wearied by one decade of service too many, barrel through in ruffled black aprons, rattling the Napoleon III-style silver plate that is a Ladurée trademark.

Even more of a trademark are the macaroons—lush, chewy, and achingly sweet. They are the meringue-like cousins of the Passover cookie of the same name, with ground almonds replacing coconut. Payard calls Ladurée's macaroons "the best anywhere." The conundrum is why, with every pastry chef using the same ingredients—almonds, sugar, and egg whites—no other macaroon places even a distant second. The sugar provides the only possibility for personal expression: Ladurée favors confectioners' and others use granulated; still others swear by a mixture of the two.

"Most macaroons are too airy—there's nothing to get your teeth into," says Philippe Andrieu, who was Pierre Hermé's right hand at Ladurée before replacing him as pastry chef. "What makes ours so special is that it melts in your mouth—but not right away." After meeting Andrieu and Gaudard, you become used to the idea that so much haute pastry rests on the slight shoulders of such young men. Like couturiers, Gaudard and Andrieu launch two "collections" of new creations every year, in April and October. Andrieu, who is 30, grew up on a cattle farm in the southwest, where he learned to make pain perdu (French toast) and crêpes from his mother. In Andrieu's precocious career, he has opened branches for Fauchon in South Korea and Hong Kong, worked at French restaurants in Uruguay and Argentina, and run visionary chef Michel Bras's pastry kitchen in Laguiole, in south-central France.

Andrieu also assisted at the controversial birth of a new Ladurée croissant. Finding the version the shop was selling rather leaden, Hermé and Andrieu changed the recipe, increasing the sugar and butter, and introducing fleur de sel. The result was lighter, fluffier, more layered and fragrant—all the qualities of a great croissant, only exaggerated. Partisans of the original pastry took the tinkering as an implied criticism of their palates. The protest was so loud that the croissant traditionnel was reinstated and sold alongside the "improved" croissant À l'ancienne. But neither is Ladurée's most popular croissant. The best-seller is the richer-by-far fourré, filled with almond paste and walnuts.

To visit a school that shapes top pastry chefs like Andrieu, Payard sent me to a far corner of southwest Paris. Joël Bellouet's École Gastronomique Bellouet Conseil offers intensive two- and three-day courses in tarts, cakes, and restaurant-style plated desserts. Although the school is geared to professionals, Payard, who studied sugar-blowing and -pulling here, also suggests it for home bakers. "The French have a saying 'The good begins with the beautiful,' " Payard says. "It wasn't coined for pastry, but it does apply. This school is the place to learn to make great-looking cakes. Bellouet is one of the top pastry chefs in the world, yet he couldn't be humbler." Not the pretty experience offered by schools such as the École Ritz-Escoffier in the Hôtel Ritz, Bellouet Conseil is rigorous, highly disciplined, and completely hands-on. (English interpreters are available on request.) The only thing that intrudes on the deadpan atmosphere is a dusty sugar sculpture of Folies-Bergère showgirls riding bareback.

After 34 years in the business, Bellouet acts as if every day of making pâte sucrée still carries the excitement of the first. And he does not doubt his school's importance: embroidered on his chef's jacket is a tiny map of the world with an arrow pointing to Bellouet Conseil. Part of the class I attended was devoted to madeleines—little lemon tea cakes that triggered Proust's memories of his childhood. The pastry occupies such a powerfully nostalgic place in French food culture that a formal madeleine society gives out bronze madeleine molds to those who promote the confection.

Bellouet's madeleines are everything one could wish—light, soft, moist, and delicate. But Payard was unsurprised when I reported back that I found a packaged version that was even better. St. Michel madeleines are made by the tens of thousands in a factory in northern France for markets as distant as the United States. "It's ironic, even humiliating, but no madeleine is as pillowy as St. Michel's," Payard says. "The only time mine are as good is when they're straight out of the oven."

Lenôtre's Victor Hugo branch in the 16th Arrondissement is even slicker than Mulot. Cakes are displayed in modules with huge Plexiglas cloches that allow customers to inspect the merchandise without breathing on it. A saleswoman in a sexy midnight-blue suit and silk foulard pushes a button and a cloche lifts: "VoilÀ votre gâteau, Monsieur." A nice bit of theater. Scattered around the shop are small tables, invitations to linger. The École Lenôtre pour Amateurs Gastronomes, screened off by a baker's rack in the bread section, offers baking classes that are friendly and leisurely. Each four-hour, tip-filled session—in French, though the recipes can be requested in English—focuses on a single subject: puff pastry, for example, or chocolate tarts.

The superior apple tart sold at Lenôtre has intense fruit flavor and a tender crust. It pays homage to the firm's beginnings in Normandy, French apple country. Under the tart's sliced-fruit dome, so perfectly round it could have been drawn with a compass, is apple compote.

"An apple tart is only as good as the apple you use," says Lenôtre's pastry chef, Gérard Gautheron, who never holds a meeting without wearing his chef's toque. He is forced to take it off as he enters a low-ceilinged conference room, but it goes right back on the second he sits down. And when Gautheron talks about pastry, it is with all the gravity of the French government minister pleading guilty in a graft scandal.

"My apple is the finest reinette, which retains its juiciness and shape no matter how long it is baked," he says. (In New York, Payard uses the widely available Fuji, which has similar qualities, plus a good balance of sweet and tart.)

Gautheron also scores high on other classics, including palmiers (elephant ears) and mille-feuilles (napoleons). Both hinge on pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, a building block with endless sweet and savory applications. It's made by wrapping cold butter inside cold dough, rolling out the resulting package, and then folding and rolling out the enriched dough a number of times. In the oven puff pastry swells, its many layers (mille feuilles means "thousand leaves") rising as the humidity in the butter escapes. No dough is lighter or flakier; few are richer.

Evoking the furled blades of a palm frond, a palmier is nothing more than puff pastry rolled out in sugar and butter, then baked. If only it were that simple. Puff pastry requires a surgeon's care and a nun's patience. Novice bakers have gone mad trying to master it.

Mille-feuilles are even thornier. They're vulnerable to sogginess, but Gautheron guarantees crunch by building his based on demand, replenishing stocks as many as four times a day. To avoid a massacre on the plate, he advises laying the pastry on its side.

No French person would ever serve you homemade mille-feuilles or palmiers. "In France," says Payard, "that's what pâtisseries are for."

  • Cool climates create an appetite for pastry. As a rule, the farther north you travel in France, the better and more sophisticated the cakes, and the greater the variety.
  • Rainy days are good pastry days. Since shops sell more then, cakes are generally fresher. Humidity, however, is the enemy of most pastry.
  • A window full of meringues is the unmistakable sign of a pedestrian pastry shop.
  • Darkedged fruit in a tart probably indicates canned fruit; fresh fruit caramelizes evenly.
  • The exterior of a welldesigned pastry should explain the interior. For example, if there's crunchy meringue inside, the outside might be sprinkled with meringue crumbs.
  • Ultimately, a pastry's fate lies in the hands of the customer. Nothing makes me happier than to see my customers carrying their boxed purchases with two hands at chest height, as the French do—not swinging them in a shopping bag.

Gérard Mulot 76 Rue de Seine (Sixth Arr.); 33-1/43-26-85-77.
Fauchon Salon de Thé 26 Place de la Madeleine (Eighth Arr.); 33-1/47-42-90-10.
Ladurée 75 Ave. des Champs-Élysées (Eighth Arr.), 33-1/40-75-08-75; 16 Rue Royale (Eighth Arr.), 33-1/42-60-21-79.
Lenôtre 48 Ave. Victor-Hugo (16th Arr.); 33-1/45-02-21-19.

Pastry Schools
École Lenôtre pour Amateurs Gastronomes 48 Ave. Victor-Hugo (16th Arr.); 33-1/45-02-21-19, fax 33-1/45-00-34-64.
École Gastronomique Bellouet Conseil 304-306 Rue Lecourbe (15th Arr.); 33-1/40-60-16-20, fax 33-1/40-60-16-21.

Payard, Past and Present
Au Nid des Friandises 18 Rue Barla, Nice; 33-4/93-55-37-74.
Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro 1032 Lexington Ave., New York; 212/717-5252.