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Hanging Out At The (Garden of the Gods) Pool With Francois Payard

“My dream is to make the most beautiful pastry shop in the world.”

How refreshing is a statement like that to hear?  Not the biggest, the most profitable or even the most talked about…but “the most beautiful.”  The legendary Francois Payard had me at hello when I recently got to chat one-on-one with him in the exquisitely beautiful Garden of the Gods pool area at Caesars Palace.

Chef Francois Payard with Chefs from Caesars Palace

Chef Francois Payard with Chefs from Caesars Palace

On a blue-skied, sunny Thursday afternoon, the fine folks at Caesars Palace and Vegas Uncork’d hosted a media preview of the brand new Garden of the Gods pool complex, which will in turn play host to the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting Gala event on May 7th.  If you have ever eaten a piece of food and said, “Hey, I kind of like this,” then the Grand Tasting is a can’t miss opportunity.

Featuring 50 of the top restaurants in town along with a whole slew of wineries and other delectable food and beverage outfits, the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting event offers unprecedented access to rub elbows with our universe’s culinary greats.  If you’ve ever wanted to fist bump Jöel Robuchon or pinch Bobby Flay’s ass, then there is no greater opportunity than this event!

Garden of the Gods at Caesars Palace

Garden of the Gods at Caesars Palace

Introducing both the Garden of the Gods and highlighting the great event that is the Grand Tasting, Master of All That is Flour Eggs Sugar and Chocolate, Francois Payard, talked about how meeting these culinary giants isn’t only special for us fan boys and girls, but also for the chefs, young and old.  Chef Payard spoke of the joy he gets introducing his own young chefs to colleagues such as Alain Ducasse or Guy Savoy.

Francois Payard Speaks

Francois Payard Speaks

After Chef Payard’s brief statement and a photo-op with an army of chefs at Caesars Palace, I had the privilege of speaking one-one-one with him for along side the sparkling waters of the Garden of the Gods aquatic cathedral.  Yeah, my life didn’t suck at all at that point in time.

I followed up on Chef Payard’s sentiment of the Grand Tasting being a special event for the young chefs, to which he explained that while some of the chefs may work for him, they may have others for idols.  This to me spoke volumes of Chef Payard’s humility, as the guy is a pastry thoroughbred stud.  Before opening up his own much-celebrated shop in New York City in 1997 and at Caesars Palace some 10 years later, Payard worked at La Tour d’Argent, Lucas Carton, Le Bernardin and Restaurant Daniel.  He’s got the resume, reputation and requisite thick French accent to say he is the Be All, End All when it comes to the macaron, yet through that accent you hear a tone of respect when he speaks of his more savory, protein-centric colleagues.

We then talked at length about the State of Pastry in America, to which Chef Payard was both enthusiastic and hopeful.  His goal of having the most beautiful pastry shop in the world goes beyond just looks, but a genuine desire to show the world that the very best of Paris can, will and does happen in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  He encourages his (now) fellow Americans to not look for just large portions, but to seek “something exclusive.”

How much I totally adored the “something exclusive” line I can’t quite properly put into words, but it struck a chord in my personal being.  That’s how I grew up; the pursuit of happiness was through the pursuit of large portions.  It wasn’t until my own evolution over the past six or seven years (about 23 years too late) that I gained this appreciation for the exclusive things, the special things.  Obviously I’m not one to stray away from the All-American Pig Out from time to time, but it is now the pursuit of the exclusive that my true joy of food is now found.  Sure, slurping down a dozen Krispy Kreme might be good for the soul every now and then, but it could be just one Chocolate Strawberry Macaron that will be a flavorful memory you’ll savor for the rest of your life.

Merengues, Macrons & Cakes, Oh My!

Merengues, Macrons & Cakes, Oh My!

With this much needed food education that needs to happen throughout America, I asked Chef Payard his thoughts on what he does to bridge the gap between Little Debbie Middle America and Hoity-Toity Parisian Frou Frou Bites, and his answer was to take familiar flavors and present them in the more sophisticated French way.

Payard recounted a recent request to his patisserie at Caesars for S’mores to be provided for a business meeting.  First of all, I’m not even going to speak of the balls of asking Francois Payard to cook you up some S’mores.  I mean really, what’s next, asking Jöel Robuchon to plate up some Beans and Weenies?  But in the efforts of providing the customer what they wanted, yet still staying true to his integrity as a chef (and as a man), he developed a graham cracker macaron with chocolate ganache and a marshmallow inside.  The customers wound up loving it, Chef Payard can go to sleep at night and a whole room full of people just gained a greater appreciation for something on a slightly higher ground than melted Hershey’s on a stick.  Payard now wants to apply this principle to the Oreo Cookie, although some may argue to not screw with the American Institution that is the Oreo Cookie.

What Mushroom Vol-au-Vent? I don't see no Mushroom Vol-au-Vent!

What Mushroom Vol-au-Vent? I don't see no Mushroom Vol-au-Vent!

Chef Payard wasn’t in Las Vegas just to tell us all about the wonders of Vegas Uncork’d and to show off Caesars fancy parade of pools, he was in town to accept an award from UNLVino at an event just a few hours from our conversation.  Chef Payard resides in New York, which gave me a golden opportunity to ask about the life of an absentee chef, which Las Vegas has cornered the market on.

As a matter of fact, the upcoming Grand Tasting will feature most of our famous absentee chefs, including Payard himself.  Payard told me that he tries to come to Vegas to check on things once a month (much more than many of the men with their names on the door do, by the way).  He also has his front of the house manager send him photos of the patisserie’s showcase once a week on his Blackberry so he can “check the focus of the food.”  Payard said that while from these pictures he might not be able to taste for salt, he can see the shine on the ganache, and that is an indicator to how the kitchen is going.

Payard went on to say how while he might not be there all of the time, Resident Pastry Chef of the Payard Patisserie and Bistro in Caesars Palace, Gregory Gourreau, has worked along side him for years and also has had a great deal of experience specifically in Las Vegas, so not only does he know the moves that Payard would make, he also has his finger on the pulse of Las Vegas.

As others in the media wanted to get their crack at talking with the Pastry King, our conversation came to a close.  This was just one conversation with one great chef next to what is just a breathtaking setting.  It’s estimated that 70 chefs will be at the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting on May 7th.  Can you imagine the conversations we can all have then?  To see a full list of the attendees and to order tickets, visit here.  To learn about the other events of the 4-day festival, visit http://www.VegasUncorked.com and follow Vegas Uncork’d on Twitter at @VegasUncorked.

Garden of the Gods, Home of Vegas Uncork'd Grand Tasting

Garden of the Gods, Home of Vegas Uncork'd Grand Tasting

Many thanks to Erika Pope with Vegas Uncork’d, Celena Haas with Caesars Palace and Marina Nicola with Wagner/Junker Agency for putting this preview event together and of course much appreciation to Chef Francois Payard for both his time and his candor.  Hope to see you all again at the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting Gala on May 7th!

—–
Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeDobranski.

Follow Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas.

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