New Yorkers hardly need an excuse to think about chocolate, but it’s even more prevalent at the holidays. In this week’s One on 1, Budd Mishkin introduces us to the dean of pastry studies at the French Culinary Institute — a man who has come to be known as “Mr. Chocolate."
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If you want to do a story with Jacques Torres, you'd better be willing to sacrifice your diet in the interests of journalism.
Welcome to the world of Jacques Torres’, Provence's gift to New York chocolate lovers. With dark chocolate flowing in his stores in the West Village, Upper West Side and DUMBO, Torres is playing to our desire to eat healthier and have our chocolate, too.
“Today, if I eat a piece of chocolate, instead of eating something full of calories, I will take something with a lot more flavor and smaller," he says.
Through the Î90s, Torres was the pastry chef at Le Cirque, making desserts for the privileged few. But you couldn't really watch him at work.
At Jacques Torres Haven of Chocolate in the West Village, much of the process can be viewed from the street.
"This is a real product. This is a New York product, actually. Even if I have a French name, this product doesn't come from Europe. We make it here and we show it,” says Torres.
Explaining why chocolate is good is a bit like explaining why a joke is funny. The end result needs no explanation, but there is plenty of science involved in the process.
"Everything is about temperature and how do you roast your beans. Also, how do you locate, where do the beans come from? South America? Venezuela? Or do they come from the Caribbean? Do they come from Africa?" says Torres.
Torres has his hands in every part of the process — every part.
When Torres and some friends built his first store in DUMBO in 2000, he actually used his kitchen utensils.
"Putting the mud over the sheet rock is like putting pastry cream or butter cream over a wedding cake,” says Torres. “So I take the piping bag and put the mud exactly over the tape and I take my rubber spatula and run it and it becomes very smooth."
There’s science and building and of course, Torres's imagination.
“We also work with texture,” he says. “We have plastic sheets with texture that gives different texture to the chocolate and texture will reflect the light, so it makes them more shiny.”
But occasionally his imagination has run a bit too wild.
“The most disgusting thing that I did was ice cream with tobacco,” he says. “It’s disgusting!”
Hard to believe, but Torres says his customers will actually voice an opinion when he samples something not to their liking.
"New Yorkers tell you right away they like it or they don't like it. If don't like it, change it fast Îcause you'll lose them. So, listen to them, do what they like and they will come back,” says Torres.
Torres is actually accustomed to creating on demand, from his old job. But the requests of the ladies who lunched at Le Cirque were slightly different.
“One of them has parts enlarged and she asked me if I could make a cake of her parts enlarged, so I make that cake and that was beautiful, that was grand!” says Torres. “And Serio brings that all over the restaurant and everyone was clapping. That was very funny."
But now Torres' hopes and dreams are a bit more kid-friendly.
"I would love to build a Willy Wonka factory, with all those big pipes and the chocolate running and those big machines and those big lollipops coming out of the floor and, you know, that would be so fun doing something like that,” says Torres.
So how does a guy from the south of France come to be known as New York's Mr. Chocolate?
Perhaps the journey started when he saw his father lose three fingertips in a carpentry accident.
“It's tough when you are a kid and you see your dad hurt. And I want to be a carpenter, I want to do something with my hands, but my dad scared me,” says Torres. “He told me how dangerous those machines are."
Torres says he liked to eat and cook and work with his hands. So he wanted to be a chef, talking his way into a job at one of the best hotels in Nice.
He was the youngest chef ever to win one of the most prestigious awards for pastry chefs in France. But eventually, America beckoned.
He contacted the chef at a Ritz Carlton in California who happened to be on vacation in the south of France and Torres arranged for the interview to be held at the beach.
"I picked a nude beach so like that, when he was talking to me, he was more looking at the ladies at the beach then listening to what I was saying!” said Torres. “So I get hired on the spot! You have to do what you have to do."
He came to California, rented a big house, and discovered the un-French, American phenomenon of roommates.
"So I picked to live three ladies,” says Torres. “I love it! That's God Bless America, that's great. Swimming pool, tennis court, I mean, I just love it. I buy motorcycle, I was 28, I was on top of the world.”
Eventually, the owner of Le Cirque convinced him to come to New York. He spent 11 years at Le Cirque, serving presidents and celebrities, and even the pope.
To prepare, Torres visited the place where the pope stays in New York and by chance found himself alone in the room.
“So I’m thinking this will never happen to me again. I'm going to be able to sit where pope sits,” says Torres. “So I went and I sit on the pope's chair. That was great. I think I’m going to go to hell after that.”
But at 40, he claims he was the oldest pastry chef in a four-star restaurant, and he tired of the hectic pace. And so he followed his passion — chocolate — and went to a place where few other businesses had gone.
He says he was scared to death because he was using his own retirement money.
“What's even more scary, is to hire someone — when you hire someone and you know you have to pay entrance, you have to pay taxes, you have to pay the person. It's frightening because you’re thinking, now that person depend on me. What if I cannot pay?” says Torres.
In 2004 he opened Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven in the West Village, and now on the Upper West Side.
Despite all of this, at our first interview, he said he didn't consider himself a success because he didn't have a family. Shortly thereafter, word came that he'd gotten married.
He lives on a boat in the Hudson River, he’s an avid fisherman, has run the marathon and bikes between his stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Physically, he left the south of France a long time ago. But only physically.
“When I was growing up, I knew the person who catch the fish, the fisherman, I knew the butcher, I knew people who grow vegetables. I can put a face on every product. That’s something I want to reconnect, at least at my level. So when you come here, and you see the product, and you see me walking, and if you have a question, I will answer it,” says Torres.
Torres still savors an experience his customers know well. He has never lost that love of the first bite.
"I love praline and that's something that, still today, I go behind the counter and I pick one and I bite in it, you know, and I see myself when I was a kid because I loved that flavor,” says Torres. “I make that because I love it from being a kid."
— Budd Mishkin