Jim Poris / April 1999
Food Arts present the Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jacques Torres, the ebullient Frenchman who blazed the path to media stardom for pastry chefs working in the United States. At Le Cirque and now Le Cirque 2000, he grand stage he's occupied in New York City for 10 years, Torres' whimsical desserts—one part Gaston Lenôtre and one part F.A.O. Schwarz—have compelled diners to take applauding notice of the cook spinning sugar into gold and transforming chocolate into ambrosia.
Torres' success opened the floodgates for pastry chefs, some of whom now bathe in as much public recognition as their counterparts on the savory side of the kitchen. Much of what pastry chefs enjoy today—a separate menu under their own name, dedicated kitchen space and equipment, media opportunities, and critical acclaim—can be traced to Torres' elevation of the dessert course into a serious component of a meal in an American restaurant rather than a sweet afterthought.
"Today, the quality of pastry is much higher than 10 years ago because the customers know about things like fruit and chocolate," Torres notes without taking any credit for contributing to the public's embrace of the pâtissier's craft. "And the range and quality of ingredients you can get now is enormous."
Torres' work combines the inscrutable logic of a craftsman and the never-say-can't spirit of an action hero. His training in France—apprenticeship in a pastry shop in his hometown of Bandol, in coastal Provence, and in culinary school, where he earned a master pastry chef's degree—provided him with a strong foundation. Too strong for him, it turns out, because Torres believes the French are trapped by archaic rules like those that say "you can't mix lemon and chocolate."
Luckily, in 1980, he went to work for the iconoclastic Jacques Maximin when he ran the kitchen at Chantecler in the Hotel Negresco in Nice. "Maximin's big point was to forget technique and just be yourself and take things as far as you can," says Torres, who came to public prominence at Chantecler by winning the Meuilleur Ouvrier de France competition in 1986, making him the youngest chef to win the distinction. "He never wanted to hear that something couldn't work. He'd say, 'Find a way.'"
Torres also discovered that devil-be-damned attitude in the United States when he arrived to work for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in 1988 and then a year later was seduced by Sirio Maccioni's new $100,000 pastry kitchen at Le Cirque. "Americans can take things farther because they don't have any traditions to hold them back. You have the freedom to do things."
Torres has used this license to construct a signature line of playful desserts: a clown's head constructed from a layered mold of white chocolate mousse, bittersweet chocolate mousse, and génoise; a chocolate stove harboring a hazelnut/coffee buttercream cake and sporting chocolate pots of fruit sauces; and a ladybug with a raspberry mousse/génoise body and chocolate/white chocolate face, spots, and antennae. "I put attention on the decorations, but never to the detriment of the taste," he says.
Torres is always in motion, whether roller blading to work, training for a road race, racing downtown to teach at the French Culinary Institute (where he's the dean of pastry studies), or digging a six-foot hole in search of water for a pond on the 40-acre property he owns in northern Michigan with Kris Kruid, his "partner in life and business" for 11 years. "I'm not the type to wait for things to happen," says Torres, two months shy of 40. "Sitting around is tough to do."
More guests were added to the whirlwind last year and this with two public television series and the publication of two companion books, Dessert Circus: Extraordinary Desserts You Can Make at Home (William Morrow, NY, 1998) and Dessert Circus at Home: Fun, Fanciful, Easy-to-Make Desserts (William Morrow, NY, 1999). With Kruid and Tina Wright, his collaborators on the projects, he has formed Team Torres to direct his interests outside of Le Cirque 2000. "I'm a builder—I build on relationships, I build on my profession—and I know things take time," Torres offers. "It's important to be happy and to have a lovely companion like Kris. To tell the truth, life's been pretty good."