Grilled In a Minute: Jacques Torres
Julie Mautner / May 29th, 2012
Born and raised in Bandol, France, with no formal training but a three year apprenticeship, “Mr. Chocolate” landed his first job in 1980, with Michelin two-star chef Jacques Maximin at Le Negresco hotel in Nice. In 1986, at age 26, Torres was awarded the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), the youngest chef to earn this distinction at the time. Two years later, he came to the United States, to be corporate pastry chef for Ritz-Carlton. The following year, Sirio Maccioni lured him away to be pastry chef at Le Cirque. During his 11 years at the legendary New York restaurant, Torres produced a 52-episode public television series, Dessert Circus with Jacques Torres, and two companion cookbooks. He also hosted a Food Network series, Chocolate with Jacques Torres, for three years. (A third cookbook, A Year in Chocolate, came out in 2008.) In 2000, Torres opened his first chocolate factory, in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, and became one of the first artisan chocolatiers in the U.S. to craft chocolate bars from the cocoa bean stage. Four years on, he opened his second factory—this one 5,000 square feet—and a flagship store on Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan.
Today, Torres’ chocolates and other high-end confectionery treats are sold at his two workshops, in his three New York City boutiques (Upper West Side, Chelsea Market, Rockefeller Center) and by mail. Torres regularly appears on Top Chef: Just Desserts, Chopped All Stars and other shows. He is a member of the Holland America Line six-chef culinary council and supports numerous charities, including the American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Since 1998, Torres has served as dean of pastry arts at The International Culinary Center (formerly The French Culinary Institute). He lives in New York City and often spends nights on his beloved 3988 Bayliner motorboat, docked on the Hudson River. He is married to Hasty Torres, a fellow chocolatier, who owns Madame Chocolat in Beverly Hills. For more info: mrchocolate.com
Who or what was your very earliest culinary influence?
Gaston Lenôtre. I was given one of his books early on, when I was an aspiring pastry chef. I fell in love with the techniques and the wealth of information within it. Later on in my career, I had the opportunity to work with him, and it was a highlight of my professional life.
And what about a mentor? Did you have one? In what ways did he nurture you and your career?
He wasn’t a mentor, but Jacques Maximin was the person who pushed me the hardest. I was hired with him at Le Negresco hotel in Nice, and he’s the one who pushed me to be who I am. I owe him big. I think if he hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He didn’t teach me pastry but rather a certain way of working, of never being satisfied, of never taking no for an answer.
What part of your daily work do you dislike the most? Love the most?
I hate getting up in the morning. I love eating, tasting, and smelling chocolate all day long!
Do you ever get tired of chocolate?
Chocolate is a magical food beloved by every culture, gender and age. It can be found in myriad forms and combined in infinite flavor and textural combinations. How can you ever get tired of it?
In 1986, you became the youngest pastry chef in history to earn the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF). Why did you succeed when so many other chefs fail? What skills contributed most to your success?
One thing that really helped me succeed was that my peers made that competition look so out of reach…so I tried harder. The consequence of that was succeeding; I definitely think that’s a big part of what happened. Other than that, there’s always a certain element of luck in any competition…and it was a good day for me. Plus, I trained very hard, and what I did pleased the jury! That’s pretty much my recap of why I was successful.
You must taste scores of new and interesting chocolate all the time. Any great discoveries lately?
I look not at one product but more at a direction. Meaning, for example, I love the look of those twist-wrapped round truffles, the ones that look like a candy wrapper that’s twisted on both sides. It’s beautiful and when you open it, it’s soft inside. I’m not doing them now, but I’m thinking about it, and I think we can make them really good. Also, we’re starting to make our own molds and have hired an artist to work with us on various things. For example, for Mother's Day we did a Chanel-style bag and high-heel shoes. Then we made a mold, and now we’ll start producing them. We’re always trying to come up with new things. We don’t always succeed, of course. Usually 10 ideas and one success, that’s the ratio.
You transformed yourself from a pastry chef to a huge retail and manufacturing success. Any tips for other pastry chefs interested in a similar path? How did you gain all your business skills?
Follow your passion, follow your heart. I didn’t become a chocolate maker with money in mind...I did it because I love it. And the business skills? I’m a logical person more than a business person, by nature. I love math, and math is logic, and that has really helped me. If something makes sense, I follow it.
What was the very worst day in your culinary career?
There have been lots of catastrophes, but at the end of the day we try to save the day. One example? Making a wedding cake that won’t fit through the door of the room…I did that a couple times. When it happens, you lift the cake, remove the table, pass through the doorway and lower the cake. But maître d’s hate to do that because you risk breaking the cake. So before this particular wedding, I called the maître d’ at the hotel ahead of time and asked him to check the size of the doorway. He came back and said “it’s fine.” So there I was assembling the cake in the work area in front of the ballroom and my sous chef came to me and said, “Jacques! The cake doesn’t pass the door!” So instead of telling the maître d’ about the problem, I told him I had a date and went home. And the next day when I got to work, of course he was standing there, waiting for me. He had known how to solve the problem but was not happy about it at all. And that wasn’t the worst one. Things happen all the time.
And the very best day so far?
The day of the MOF results, probably, or the first time I had my parents come and taste my desserts. You don’t forgot those moments. They’re special. Or perhaps the time I made dessert for the Pope when he was in New York. How many times can you do that in your life?
What's the strangest chocolate request you've ever received?
People ask us for things all the time. Recently we had to do 28 Stanley Cups, weighing 50 pounds each. And we did it, in five days.
For an eating trip, where in the world would you go right now and why?
Spain is really the destination right now where you find better and better food. It’s quite amazing. Spanish cooking is ready to be discovered by the world, and there are some unbelievable chefs there. I’d go to Spain first, Italy second.
What’s the one thing you’d like most to change about yourself?
I’d like to be better at what I do. I’d like to know a little bit more about business...I think then it would be easier for me. It’s difficult to be a craftsman and run your own business.
What's the next big trend coming in the world of chocolate or chocolate desserts? Quality. Green. Flavor. Everything quality is becoming bigger. Today people want to eat local, want quality food, want to be sustainable. They want real and pure and that all falls under the word quality. And health, also. I just read that Hershey’s is going to do less-fattening chocolate. So every big company is trying to say quality and health: we can do it. This is the big trend.
And finally, if not this, then what? What career would you have chosen if not this?
I would definitely be a craftsman and most certainly a carpenter. My dad was a carpenter, and I make a lot of my own furniture. I made the counter at our Chelsea Market store, I made all the furniture in my first store in Brooklyn, in my ice cream store, and in the pop-up we did. I love to do these things.