Jacques Torres on life, love and chocolate-making
JACQUES TORRES IS certainly building up good karma. After all, what can be more life-affirming than making humanity happy by feeding it chocolate every day? Torres, who is affectionately known as New York’s Mr Chocolate, creates a massive 200 tonnes of artisan high-end chocolate in his 40,000 sq foot factory in Brooklyn. I met this modern-day Willy Wonka in his natural habitat— a huge chocolate shop in Soho to which is attached his latest sweet gift to New York City—an international chocolate museum which has just opened in Lower Manhattan. Ever the charming Frenchman, the celebrity chocolatier seated me at a table in his chocolate shop which was already buzzing with people and music at 11 a.m. in the morning, for a chocolate fix. He brought me a cup of his classic hot chocolate, dredged with ice-cold crystals.
Torres, 57, master pastry chef and chocolatier, likes to call himself the Chief Chocolate Officer of his company which has eight chocolate shops in New York besides his factory and museum. He’s been the executive pastry chef of the Ritz
Carlton and the legendary restaurant Le Cirque and has prepared dessert for kings, presidents and celebrities. He’s also the Dean of Pastry Arts at the International Culinary Center; he’s done a 52-episode public television series Dessert Circus with Jacques Torres, hosted the Food Network series Chocolate with Jacques Torres and is the author of three cookbooks. Little wonder that he’s been inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. And of course he’s cooked for former president Barack Obama at a $30,000 per couple dinner. How did this Chocolate Universe come into existence? Imported from a long way off, Torres was born in Algiers but his family moved to the small fishing village of Bandol in Provence, France when he was very young. “Like all kids, I loved chocolate and over the years I figured I’m going to dedicate my life to it and make it my business.”
Torres worked at Negresco Hotel in Nice for eight years as pastry chef. In 1986 he received the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) medal in pastry, which is the highest recognition for a craftsman. Two years later he ventured to America as an immigrant, he says simply, “I needed a new challenge!” He worked for a year with the Ritz Carlton as pastry chef and then was invited by the legendary Sirio Maccioni to join Le Cirque where he spent 12 years as executive pastry chef.
One of his signature desserts here was a mini chocolate stove to cook on—with a burner and pot and it had a small cake in the oven—all made of chocolate! His other chocolate desserts—part fantasy and part sculpture—include a Manhattan skyscraper, a chocolate Eiffel Tower, chocolate teacup and saucer and even chocolate cornflakes. One of Torre’s most memorable experiences was cooking for the Pope at his home on 72nd street. He says, “After lunch, he came out and gave each of us a rosary.”
When Torres turned 40, he decided to give up the hectic restaurant business and turn to chocolate making and opening his first chocolate store in Dumbo, Brooklyn. He was the first artisan chocolatier to start from cocoa beans to make his own chocolate in New York. It was a big hit and he opened seven other stores in Manhattan. As he says, “I wanted to position my company as the least expensive of the best makers of chocolate. So the product is affordable—definitely not cheap but not crazy expensive.”
As his gourmet chocolates caught on, he went big with a 40,000 sq. ft state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Brooklyn: “We buy 150 tonnes of chocolate a year and we sell 200 tonnes of product with all the nuts, butter and caramels added on.” Torres’ life has certainly been enriched by chocolate. Torres found love in 2007 and married the lovely Persian chocolatier Hasty Khoei who runs a chocolate shop in Beverly Hills under the moniker Madame Chocolat. Just last year the two became the parents of a baby boy Pierre, known as ‘Little Bon Bon’ as part of festive images on Instagram. Torres takes chocolate very seriously and opened “Choco-Story New York, Chocolate Museum and Experience with Jacques Torres” this year.
As scores of school children squeal with delight and check out the museum, you realise that children and chocolate are an integral part of Jacques Torres’ life. He supports several children’s causes and also takes his magic bag of delights to children in hospitals. “Making chocolate is a way of life, not a profession,” he likes to say. His philosophy is simple: “I like to go through life doing what I love to do. I do what I love to do and to me, that’s the biggest reward.”
Is there any parting sweet advice for readers? He laughs, “Life is short—eat dessert first.”
DESSERT ART: A look inside different cocoa pods at the Chocolate Museum (left); A box of assorted chocolates by the chocolatier (bottom left)