John Granen
Thomas Haas and two assistants oversee a batch of dark chocolate/cassis bonbons working their way down the conveyer of the enrobing machine.
magnify Click image to view more.

The Two Chocolatiers

Judiaann Woo, Angela Murrills - April 2006

Heralded pastry chefs Thomas Haas and Jacques Torres made bold moves away from the big-time restaurant world to become thriving chocolate makers. Angela Murrills and Judiaann Woo discover that more than a continent divides their approach to the business.

Over a chocolate-colored background, a slim ribbon meanders through the precisely lettered name "Thomas Haas." The logo says it all: here is a chocolatier/pastry chef who employs the right and left sides of his brain.

A fourth generation pâtissier from Germany's Black Forest region, Thomas Haas, 38, worked as the pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and then as the opening act at Daniel in New York City. He returned to Vancouver in 2000 to open Sen5es bakery and consult at Diva at the Met in the Metropolitan Hotel (both owned by Canadian hotelier Henry Wu) and to lay the foundation for Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates and Patissierie. "I had done everything else, but I hadn't done this," he says of starting his own business.

After years of working first out of his basement and then out of a rented mini kitchen, he expanded his handmade chocolate business to its own site a year ago. "I knew from the beginning that I didn't want to take on financial partners, so my start-up cost was very small," Haas says, volunteering $25,000 as his initial outlay for what's now a profitable enterprise. "I also knew I didn't want a mom-and-pop shop in which it's hard to find the balance between production and efficiency. There's a limit to what every artisan can do successfully without giving into mass production. I think we've found this balance by maximizing production without sacrificing standards." And then he grins: "My accountant says we're a role model for young business."

Certainly Haas was clear on what he wanted when he set up shop: a large cooking space instead of a chic storefront. And besides, he notes, "Retail wasn't the focus of the business." Even more important, his new venture had to be close to home, he says, recalling the lengthy commutes of his New York days. Still, even if his year-old production facility stands five minutes from where he and his family live in North Vancouver, the space he eventually bought raised eyebrows for its out-of-the-way location. His new neighbors--employees of local light industry, clients of a luxury spa, and private high school students--all rub shoulders in his petite store with chocolate aficionados happy to make the trip over the Lion's Gate Bridge from Vancouver and nearby suburbs. Even on a rainy Monday morning, there's a steady stream of customers, with lines out the door common during holiday seasons. Most seats are occupied with people sipping coffee and nibbling on pastries oftentimes dispensed by Haas himself in the role of the happy chatty barista.

Haas' chocolate factory joins a European emphasis on equipment and technology with a West Coast regard for light, lifestyle, and environmental awareness. Faced with what was essentially an empty box, Haas thoughtfully orchestrated the 3,600-square-foot space, opting not to use an architect but instead spending endless nights drafting and making models. He designed it with his eyes on the future and was realistic about the considerable upfront investment required. "I believed I could not afford to build something that's not the best it can be," he says, recounting how contractors kept proposing cost-cutting alternatives. Besides, he insists, "Building something well doesn't cost that much more."

Take, for example, his vision of a seamless, highly durable floor for hygiene. "There are no cheap versions," he says, pointing out the single gray-speckled expanse of poured epoxy/stone compound in his workshop. Pristine conditions are essential to Haas in both his shop and his factory, hence his floor drainage system in which water is mopped toward a narrow slit that runs almost the length of the factory floor. This is standard in Germany, he says, for cleaning ease and speed.

In early 2004, he hooked up with Vancouver designer Marc Bricault to collaborate on the retail component, which Haas envisaged as clean, simple, efficient, and sensuous. Crimson brocade wallpaper covers a ceiling shaped to simulate the underside of a chocolate box lid. German translucent lamps hang like water drops. Seeming to float above the ground, the marble-topped African walnut wood counter supports glass boxes with integral cooling units that provide low but constant airflow for the jewel-like little pastries they hold. A centrally placed unrefrigerated box holds his viennoisserie. Haas and his team bake brioches, Danishes, and 10 kinds of croissants, including a twice-baked almond version and "pull-aparts," rings of croissant dough mingled with fresh fruit, nuts, and/or cinnamon and sugar. He goes through 350 pounds of butter a week, its fragrance underlying the deep essence of chocolate that perfumes the store.

While his pastries are pitch-perfect with any in Paris, Haas creates his own variations, layering, for example, lemon cream and lemon custard on a tart. The popular upside-down chocolate soufflé of his restaurant days has morphed into signature "sparkle" cookies he compares to baked chocolate truffles. The latter, along with homey loaf cakes, are displayed in a Tekna cooler at one side of the shop, chosen, Haas says (thinking ahead again), because it could double as a freezer if he ever decides to make ice cream.

The notion of Haas-made ice cream fuels fantasies, given the range of chocolates he makes in his factory, on view in his shop both through a porthole and through the clear blocks that punctuate a glass block wall permitting kids of all ages to spy on the enrobing line. "What can you do to make your workplace fun?" Haas, a father of two, wonders. His answer: linking workspace and store, four swivel wall pockets allow staff to deliver impeccably fresh chocolates to sometimes unsuspecting onlookers.

While priding himself on creating his chocolates by hand rather than by using molds, Haas is not averse to technology. One key purchase was a Stephan vacuum emulsifier from Germany more commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry to make facial creams, he says, explaining how the machine extracts air to prevent oxidation of fats, thereby helping to lengthen his preservative-free chocolates' shelf life. At the same time, increasing density intensifies flavor.

Haas uses the emulsifier on the first day of production, when chocolate, butter, and flavorings--spices, liqueurs and liquors, fruit, etc.--are mixed in 13-pound batches, then poured from the emulsifier into custom-made Plexiglas trays, leveled with a stainless-steel, squeegee-inspired gadget that Haas invented, and left to set overnight. The next day, the flavored centers are hand-cut into squares, rectangles, and variations thereof, 25,000 a week, each separated by hand so that their exteriors will dry a little and adhere more perfectly to their coating. On the third day they're enrobed in chocolate and decorated by hand.

"In the future, we want to buy two more tempering units," he says, eyeing the steady stream of chocolate flowing through an LCM continuous tempering machine, his most indispensable piece of equipment. Haas calls his 22-by-11-foot walk-in freezer "the foundation of first-class pastry production. I'm maximizing efficiency in order to sustain the best quality." As he points out, "I cannot layer a cake with three different textures if I only make 10 at a time. I have to do 250 at one shot," which is where the freezer comes in. The freezer is also essential, he says, "to set Italian meringues and certain kinds of creams, mousses, and custards properly to achieve the required texture and to unmold them successfully." He makes 50 batches of pastry dough at a time and pulls them from the freezer as needed, again--to use one of his favorite phrases--"for maximum efficiency."

Having worked in artificially lit kitchens, Haas is aware of natural daylight's effect on staff esprit de corps. He installed double glass doors at the rear of his facility and a 16-foot wide window to link chocolate and pastry areas. A porthole reveals, on one side, a yellow-tiled "spa" that holds the pot washer, custom-made both to fit the space and to offer programs suitable for everything from Plexiglas to stainless steel. On the other side of the workspace, an identical porthole looks into a room, tiled in red to counterbalance its cool temperature, that is used for crystallization and packaging. Haas ships 25,000 chocolates a week as far away as the Cayman Islands and to some of North America's premier hotels, whose identities remain a proprietary secret.

It's all very cut and dried. Where his right brain comes into play is in his passion for developing new chocolates. After more than a year in his new facility, he admits he still has a hard time focusing. "You get fresh cherries in, then peaches" he exclaims, "and eventually you end up with 50 different chocolates!" His current repertoire numbers close to 30, among them dark chocolate/pecan with fleur de sel and caramel; milk chocolate with green cardamom, almonds, and whiskey; and crème de cassis with a layer of fruit, topped with ganache. He continually thinks about rewriting the familiar. "You know the Mars Bar?" he asks, holding up a chocolate bar. "Well, this is the Haas Bar. Whatever we do, we're trying to be different and better, but not different," he's swift to amend, "just for the sake of it."

Haas works through 15 tons of chocolate a year, mostly Valrhona, although he recently added the Swiss brand Felchlin, including the "one and only couverture harvested from wild cocoa beans." Sourcing out the cream of ingredients, he buys Earl Grey French Blue tea from Mariage Frères in Paris, kalamansi (sour lime) puree from France, and locally roasted coffee beans. His liquor selection would do a high-end bar proud.

Encouraged by Vancouver's heightened environmental consciousness, Haas thinks hard about his packaging, using custom-designed thermo-formed plastic trays, their perimeters aroma-sealed to prevent flavor evaporation for bulk purchases such as party trays. Upstairs near the office where his wife, Lisa, works and surrounding the ping-pong table he uses as a physical diversion are shelves stacked with everyday packaging from Japan and custom-designed containers from France. Pyramidal wood boxes slide open to reveal three layers of chocolates. Once emptied, a cedarwood-ended chest in blue faux crocodile skin makes a handsome pencil case. A cube becomes a golden staircase for a chorus line of bonbons. Father's Day treats are packed in what appear to be leather-bound books. These are chocolate boxes designed for keeps, just like Haas' chocolate factory. "I don't want to blame myself five years down the road," he says. "You've got to look at the long-term." --A.M.

Like a kid in his own candy store

Jacques Torres just advised me to "sleep with the lady before marrying her," or, in my case, the man. Fresh from testing out a fleet of speedboats in Tennessee (and, not coincidentally, the patience of one particular boat dealer), the always matter-of-fact Torres asks: "How can someone expect me to buy something without trying it out first?"

His exacting sensibility makes plenty of sense. The French, of course, are noted existentialists. And if the quality of one's soul hangs in the balance of some agonizingly tough choices, why should the quality of one's chocolate be determined through any less rigorous a process?

Indeed, while guiding a tour of his Manhattan factory, Torres tells one story after another about how he came to select each of the tools now used in the production of his renowned chocolates. He recounts with particular relish the three days he spent in Switzerland getting to know his trusty one-shot depositor before deciding to take it back to his shop, which, when the chocolatier in him is speaking, might as well be a boudoir. For Torres, this was just another wise investment that has aided his ascent in the often fickle and risky business of the food industry.

But hindsight has a way of making such success stories seem inevitable, especially when its 20/20 nature confirms that the subject had pretty good vision from the outset. When talking about Torres' present-day empire--a multimillion dollar retail, wholesale, and online operation with outposts in Brooklyn and Manhattan--it's important to remember that his path was far from clear six years ago when he struck out from the luminous glow of Le Cirque 2000 and its predecessor, where he served as executive pastry chef for nearly 12 years. What was clear, however, was that Torres needed to make a change.

For a man with his own television show, a couple of cookbooks under his belt, and a high-profile post as dean of pastry arts at The French Culinary Institute, the frustration of being consistently overshadowed by an executive chef gnawed at Torres. "It's the chef who is in charge of the kitchen," he notes. "As a pastry chef, it's very difficult to make your name in a restaurant. Rarely do we even know the name of the pastry chef behind the big chef. If you're a pastry chef, eventually you have to leave if you want to control your destiny."

What's more, Torres saw that all his peers had already left. "I was 40. I was feeling in shape. I'd just run a marathon, but there was no pastry chef older than me in any of the four-star restaurants. They were all kids. That tells you how much energy you need for that kind of work. You have no life! You're getting called back to the restaurant all the time. Where is your family when you work 16 hour days? It's crazy how demanding it is, the pressure, the strain."

Still, with several different options open to a pastry chef striking out on his own--from pastries to wedding cakes to confections--Torres was once again forced to make a choice. This one, thankfully, was an easy call: he quickly settled on starting up a chocolate shop.

With Kris Kruid, his life/work partner, and Ken Gotto, his sous chef at Le Cirque 2000, Torres leased a 4,500-square-foot property in what was then the very industrial DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood of Brooklyn. Moving forward was a process of trial and error. In just their first month, the trio realized they needed to double their real-estate purchase. "Five people and the store was full," Torres recalls. "For our first Valentine's Day we had people lined up around the block."

Outside investors were all too eager to get involved and would have gladly helped Torres fund the additional space he needed, though the proposed price of a partnership came at too high a cost. "They wanted more than 50 percent of my business. So I had to open my own business with my own retirement money, with Kris and Ken. From the sheet rock to the furniture, we had to build it ourselves--from the floor to the ceiling, and everything in between. It took us three months to build the first shop."

Torres reveals that his father was a carpenter, saying: "Building a boat or building a cake, it's all the same. Different medium, but building is building. I come from a small town [Bandol, France], where I know the fisherman, the butcher, the farmers who grow the vegetables, and the people who make the wine. You get to know the people behind the product. When I came to America, I realized that nobody knows the person behind the food. The closest you can get is to know the chef. I wanted to bring a little of that back."

He's done that with Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven in Manhattan, which opened in 2004 and now handles the bulk of his production, with the DUMBO facility used mostly for fabricating bonbons. Although the cocoa bean–shaped shop boasts a large curved counter, an ornate hot chocolate bar, and several seating areas, the real star of the facility is, unmistakably, Torres. A series of flat-screen monitors play looped footage of the chef transforming his chocolate from bean to bar. And people delight in seeing Torres in person, even if it's from behind the Plexiglas barrier that surrounds and separates the production area from the sales floor. Beneath the sparkle of chandeliers that highlights the chocolate and spice tones of the building's interior, the combined effect is of a space conceived by a more aesthetically refined Willy Wonka.

Finally, just to make sure he wasn't making things too easy on himself, Torres decided to make much of the chocolate on his own, instead of merely melting down and molding the fruits of someone else's labor. "The first 10 or 20 batches went into the garbage," he admits. "I ate a lot of bad chocolate when I first got started. I'm so happy when I'm roasting my beans and messing with the refiner. The chocolate that I buy is less expensive than the chocolate that I make from scratch, but it's so much more fun to make it myself."

It's understandable why Torres would want people to see him at work, since he's a master technician as well as an artist--that rare combination of craftsman and businessman who can integrate time-saving production "tricks" into the demanding schedule of chocolate-making, all without sacrificing quality or resorting to artificial flavorings or preservatives.

Accordingly, Torres starts preparing in June for the December holiday rush that accounts for 25 percent of his business. Though conventional wisdom has it that fine chocolate isn't so fine only a week after being made, Torres has figured out how to freeze and defrost chocolates while steering clear of the confections' two mortal enemies: heat and humidity. Without giving away all his trade secrets, Torres notes that his precise thawing process takes three days and three temperature changes to complete; he brings the vacuum-sealed product back to room temperature so gradually that the chocolates don't have a chance to break a sweat and ruin their shine.

Today, Mr. Chocolate, as Torres is known on his Web site, produces close to a hundred different products for retail sale: over 30 classic and seasonal bonbons and truffles and 14 different varieties of signature bars, including his 60 percent cocao House Blend and 72 percent cocao dark chocolate Ghana Origins, and a hefty 2.2 pound tablet known as the Big Daddy Bar. Both flavors of his hot chocolate--Wicked, featuring a blend of allspice, cinnamon, ancho chile, and chipotle chile, and Classic, for the more faint of heart--are available for take-out or to sip on location. Even Torres seems surprised by the popularity of his chocolate chip cookies and chocolate/chocolate chip Mudslide cookies. "We sold 29,000 cookies last year, and they're only available at the stores."

That Torres is a populist at heart aids his relationship with the public. If chocolate-covered Cheerios are what sells, he's determined to produce the best chocolate-covered Cheerios on the market. "I'm not a businessperson but I'm very logical. I'm a pastry chef. I have to be logical."

To that end, Torres has a few words of advice for would-be chocolatiers. "I would not start a business without an enrobing line and a one-shot depositor, which deposits both the outer layer of the chocolate and the filling in one swift motion. It's extremely clean, it's fast, and there's no messing around. You can't do it better by hand. I started without a one-shot, and you have no idea how much time I wasted. When you make everything by hand, you make no money." That being said, he makes it clear that his hands and the hands of his staff are the best tools money can buy. "Without a brain the machines don't work."

Torres also counsels against becoming discouraged by naysayers, confessing that he himself was far too swayed by friends who initially warned him of tough days ahead. "Everyone scared me so much: ‘You'll spend every night crunching numbers. For 10 years you're going to be in debt and you'll never take a vacation.' The little trouble that I had was nothing compared to what I was anticipating."

With those molehill challenges long since vanquished, Torres now wants to test whether a satellite shop can operate in New York City without his direct supervision. "First, the challenge was, ‘Can I make chocolates?' Then, ‘Can I run a business?' ‘Is the brand big enough to support another location?' ‘Can the business work without me?' I'm going to open up a satellite store soon--much like the one in DUMBO but without the production--to show that it can work without me. A warm, happy location with a homemade feel, a bar, and a big couch. In Midtown, the Upper East Side, or Upper West Side. I'll set it up and let someone else be in charge. I need to prove to myself that the business can be successful without me."

No doubt he's being sincere, but those who've observed Torres' multifaceted career might be forgiven for calling it false modesty. -- J. W.

British born food and travel journalist Angela Murrills divides her culinary explorations between Vancouver and the deep south of France but will journey anywhere at the drop of a fork.

Judiaann Woo is a New York City–based writer and former pastry chef. She also serves as executive director and editor of PastryScoop.com, a Web site devoted to celebrating and supporting the pastry arts.

Haas Equipment
Vacuum emulsifier Stephan
Tempering, enrobing machines LCM
Pot washer Douglas
Mixers Hobart
Convection ovens Doyon
Blender Robot Coupe
Cooler Tekna
Sanitation systems Ecolab, M-chem

Torres Equipment
Cocoa bean roaster Carle & Montanari
Nib separator Lehman
Nib grinder Lloveras
Refiner Charles Ross & Son
Conche Carle & Montanari
Chocolate melter Savage Bros.
Tempering machine APV Baker
Mini tempering machine Mol D'Art
Enrobers Sollich, PCB Maya
One-shot depositors Knobel, Awema
Spinner Mol D'Art
Candy bar wrapper SIG
Dry powder depositor Per-fil
POS system COMCASH

Haas Equipment

"Angela Murrills"

Haas Equipment
Vacuum emulsifier Stephan
Tempering, enrobing machines LCM
Pot washer Douglas
Mixers Hobart
Convection ovens Doyon
Blender Robot Coupe
Cooler Tekna
Sanitation systems Ecolab, M-chem

Torres Equipment
Cocoa bean roaster Carle & Montanari
Nib separator Lehman
Nib grinder Lloveras
Refiner Charles Ross & Son
Conche Carle & Montanari
Chocolate melter Savage Bros.
Tempering machine APV Baker
Mini tempering machine Mol D'Art
Enrobers Sollich, PCB Maya
One-shot depositors Knobel, Awema
Spinner Mol D'Art
Candy bar wrapper SIG
Dry powder depositor Per-fil
POS system COMCASH