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September 18, 2014

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Inside the Las Vegas kitchen with pastry master Francois Payard at Uncork’d

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Sam Morris

Francois Payard describes the preparation of a tart crust as he readies for his cooking class Saturday, May 12, 2012.

Francois Payard Cooking Class

Francois Payard makes a tart crust in preparation for his cooking class Saturday, May 12, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Francois Payard tries to take the fear out of pastry.

"A lot of people don't do cooking classes, because they think it's too hard," Payard said Saturday during the setup for his pastry demonstration, one of the most sought after tickets at Vegas Uncork'd. "People think pastry is hard, but they come here and they will learn everything the way I know how to do it."

Some of his techniques, such as how to avoid burning sugar, were taught to him by his grandfather.

Each year of Uncork'd food festival, Payard's small "Master Pastry" class is the first ticket to sell out. This year, it took 30 minutes for tickets to disappear after they went on sale in February.

Part of Payard's popularity as a teacher stems from the meticulous preparation that allows him to move fluidly move from one recipe to the next.

Payard spent three hours Saturday overseeing details, from which plates were used to how to lemons were sliced.

"The preparation is the most important part," said Payard, who is French. "I speak very slowly, because I have a pretty thick accent. But I move from one recipe to another and that can hold their attention. This isn't like television. There are no cuts."

Payard's class culminated three days of culinary work for the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, including preparing one of the master dinner series meals on Thursday night, which also sold out, followed by Friday's Grand Tasting. Payard's black truffle macarons at the Grand Tasting even drew raves from fellow chef Guy Savoy.

The way Payard helps take the mystery out of macarons and other pastry recipes is showing techniques that don't necessarily need more than your hands, like cooking sugar without a thermometer.

"People are afraid of cooking the sugar, because they are afraid of burning it," Payard said in the kitchen adjacent to the chocolate and coffee shop named for his near the convention center at Caesars Palace. "I show them how my grandfather did it."

"We have all the technology available, like thermometers, and we use them," he said. "But if you show people how you can do it if you don't have anything, it feels simpler to them and they're more willing to try it."

Payard inspected dishes and rolled out and sliced a tart crust an hour later. Each ingredient for the recipe is prepared in advance, so the chef doesn't have to look for it and break the pace of the class.

As Payard explained steps in the kitchen, he finished sentences with a flourishing, "voila!"

"The macarons must sit for 30 minutes," he said. "Well, you don't want people sitting around for 30 minutes waiting on that, so you make it beforehand. And voila!"

Payard's class moved from the simple to the more complex. He started with a chocolate pudding cake that takes 10 minutes to make, followed by a lemon tart and then the macaron.

"If you need to stir something for 10 minutes, I do it for a few minutes now to save time," Payard said. "I do a bit of each step in advance, but I will always finish it off in front of the class, so they see how I do it."

Payard's prep includes having each step done three times. He will show how to roll out a tart crust but had another ready and then the finished product, all made Saturday.

The class appeals mostly to home cooks, not professionals, Payard said, so he wants them to be able to make his recipes for friends and family.

"That's why it sells out so quickly every year," he said. "They know they can leave here and do it. Because they know what I know."

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