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Q & A with Jacques Torres

Jacques Torres doesn’t just love chocolate, he lives it.  Beginning his career at France’s Hotel Negresco, Jacques has traveled the world to perfect his craft, a chocolate passion that has led to numerous cookbooks, television shows, and the coveted title of top pastry chef for France’s prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier competition.  Despite all of his experience, Jacques has only increased his desire for learning and discovery, incorporating fresh and seasonal flavors into a line of innovative chocolates that is straight out of Willy Wonka.  At any of his three New York locations, customers can cool down this summer with a smooth, dark iced chocolate, huge chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches, or the “Love Bug,” a white chocolate truffle with a key lime center.

Married for less than a year.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a diver, a carpenter, and I ended up being a pastry chef. That was quite unexpected because I wanted to be a savory chef like my brother.

What was your first job in food?
I was a waiter at a restaurant. I was 13 or 14, and during the summer on my days off I would work. That’s how I discovered the world of food.

Which kitchen tool do you always keep on hand?
It is difficult to say. Kitchen tools are like fingers-no one is more important than the other. Every tool is important. But I would say good knives are a must. 

Many countries are famous for their chocolate- which country’s chocolate do you love the most?
Today we travel all around the world-it used to actually be exotic to travel to Europe. Now the countries don’t have the boundaries we used to have. What I love about America is that there is a lot of innovation-right now I think Vosges is doing something with chocolate and bacon. Only in America will you find that.

What did you learn while working as the pastry chef at Le Cirque?
I learned a lot about people. I learned how to communicate with the customer. I cooked for the pope, celebrities, presidents…there was a group of people out there who knew a lot about food who came to Le Cirque. I also learned about public relations, press, and really making a name for yourself. It’s important to make the customer aware that you exist.

What compelled you to open up a chocolate shop in DUMBO?
The least expensive and closest place to Manhattan, and that was DUMBO. I was very lucky because three years later DUMBO became very expensive. I had one of the best deals.

What characteristics should one look for in perfectly tempered chocolate?
Shiny, smooth, and the texture is hard and crunchy. THAT is tempered chocolate.

What aspects of chocolate have prompted you to share your passion with others in both your cookbooks and your television shows, Dessert Circus and Chocolate with Jacques Torres?
Chocolate is a magic product. It used to be the food of the gods. Chocolate used to be the beverage you drank when you spent the first night with your wife. Chocolate was the drink before you went to war to give you courage. Chocolate today is a mystic product. When you’re in an elevator, and you have to say one word that will capture everyone’s attention-young and old – say “chocolate” and I guarantee everyone will stop what they’re doing to look at you. It’s a universally loved product. At the time I started, there was really no chocolate in New York. So I thought, “I’ll have no competition” and I’ll be the Mr. Chocolate of New York. 

You’ve received many awards, including the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France Patissier competition of which you were the youngest to ever win. How have these achievements affected your passion as a chocolatier?
I was 26, and at 26 you need to keep learning. But with that title, you can’t take any courses. That’s why I decided to get out of France and attack another challenge, not just live off of my title. And that’s why I came to America.

In 1980, you began working under Chef Jacques Maximin at France’s Hotel Negresco, and have been able to travel around the world as a result. How have you incorporated your international experiences into your current chocolates?
Traveling is one of the most important parts of my chocolate making. A lot of my research, a lot of inspiration, comes from traveling. When I travel, I love to go to Europe and see what’s going on. I went to Oaxaca, Mexico to try spices and I was immediately hooked. In Germany and Switzerland I would look at new equipment and try even more products.

How has your chocolate factory changed and developed since opening in 2001?
We reflect what people want. I discovered that you can’t do what you want, but you have to do what the customer wants, though you can still play a little bit. Every day we look at what our top five most popular items are. Cookies are always there-I would never expect that cookies would go in front of chocolate. Still, I but the cookies next to the cash register because that’s what the public wants.

How do you go about choosing new flavors to add to your chocolate collection?
Traveling is one of the most important things. You can’t change your line of products every month; with inventory it’s impossible. You have your standards and then you have one or two things that you can play with. Taking a seasonal approach is very important too.

What is your favorite chocolate on the menu at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven?
It’s a question I get a lot and a question I cannot answer. If I go behind the counter and try something, only to not like it, I’ll remove it. Every one of them has a reason to be on the menu. What I can tell you is that we work with a lot of fruit and alcohol and plenty of butter. No compound, no flavoring. Only fresh raspberries, lemon, coffee – everything is real. When chefs are young and just starting out, they think creativity is putting a lot of stuff together – it’s very complicated. The more experienced you get, the more simple things are, but with higher quality. Therefore, I’ve been “cleaning” and “trimming” my recipes for a long time to perfect them.

What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
I discovered you need to learn to fail more, to try more. I remember falling in love with the scent of this particular tobacco – a mixture of leather and hay. So years later, I bought the tobacco and decided to make an ice cream with it. That thing was…disgusting. That was so bad; your throat was burning and you could get sick off of it. If it doesn’t work, you have to be honest with yourself.   

What culinary trends do you embrace?
Don’t try to stay French, don’t try to stay American. I like it when chefs embrace the flavors of the world, not just the flavors of their country. I love it in fact.

What culinary trend do you wish would just die already?
I love history. You need to know what happened yesterday in order to feed the knowledge of tomorrow. You can always take something from yesterday. I don’t mind anything as long as it embraces history. Then, there’s a group of people that hates this new form of micro-cooking. But I love it. If it’s good, why not?

What is your favorite junk food?
It’s funny but, like my cooking I’m eating cleaner and cleaner. Now if it’s in a bag, I rarely eat it. I used to be able to eat burgers, French fries, six cookies… if I’m going to eat something with a lot of calories, it’d better be good. But really, I try to eat better.

Do you consider chocolate a junk food?
Chocolate? No, no. Nice, dark, 70 or 80% chocolate is good for you and tastes good. I would compare it to pleasure. I read a joke last night: What is the difference between men and chocolate? And the answer was, chocolate brings you pleasure every time. Bad for men but good for chocolate.

Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
I’m looking to extend to Vegas or to a place like Dubai where things are moving fast. In New York City, another two stores. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, or where, but definitely two stores. I don’t want to reveal too much.

Flagship Location
Address: 350 Hudson St., at King St.
Phone: (212)414-2462

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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