Meet Jacques Torres – The Chocolate King of New York

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Jacques Torres at the opening of the Chocolate Museum in Soho

Jacques Torres at the opening of the Chocolate Museum in Soho

 

Jacques Torres’ Chocolate Chronicles

 

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 tons of artisan high-end chocolate in his 40,000 square foot factory in Brooklyn.

Chocolates by Jacques Torres

Chocolates by Jacques Torres

 

I met this modern-day Willy Wonka in his natural habitat – a huge wonderful 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. The combination of hot and cold on the tongue is a novel sensation.  All around us are glass cases full of multicolored chocolate gems made of cocoa sourced from 10 different countries, a mouthwatering whimsical Chocolate Town full of tantalizing pairings of white, dark and white chocolate, pistachios, pomegranates, berries and spices.

 

Jacques Torres Chocolatier

Jacques Torres Chocolatier

Torres, 57, master pastry chef and chocolatier, likes to call himself the Chief Chocolate Officer of his company which has 8 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, teaching a whole new generation of chocolatiers.

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. In 2016, he was given the highest honor in France, The Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. And of course he’s cooked for no less a VIP than President Barack Obama at a $30,000 per couple dinner.

 

President Obama with Jacques Torres and other noted chefs

President Obama with (from left to right) –  Jacques Torres, Andre Soltner , Alain Sailhac and Jacques Pepin

So how did this Chocolate Universe come into existence and how did Torres become New York’s undisputed King of Chocolate?

He himself is imported from a long way off. He was born in Algiers but his family moved to the small fishing village of Bandol in Provence, France when he was very young. “My dad was a carpenter so I knew I would be a craftsman one day – not particularly a chef but doing something with my hands!” he says. “There was a small pastry shop in my town and I did an apprenticeship over there and loved doing the work.”

When did his love affair with chocolate start? “Like all kids, I loved chocolate and over the years I discovered more and more about it –chocolate has a history, a culture – there are so many things you can do with chocolate. And one day I figured I’m going to dedicate my life to it and make it my business.”

Torres worked at Negresco Hotel for eight years as pastry chef. In 1986 he received the prestigious MOF medal in pastry, which is the highest recognition for a craftsman. He also visited several countries for culinary events. He says, “I think one of the most enriching things in life is travel. If you spend your life in a small town it is much more difficult to educate yourself about the rest of the world. Traveling makes you humble and more accepting of other people and triggers a lot of innovation.”

A Jacques Torres treat

A Jacques Torres treat

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 and spent 12 years there as executive pastry chef.

One of his delightful signature desserts was a mini chocolate stove to cook on – with burner and a pot and it had a small cake in the oven – all made of chocolate! His other chocolate desserts – part fantasy and part sculpture – include the Manhattan Skyscraper, the Chocolate Eiffel Tower, Chocolate teacup and saucer, a chocolate gameboard, a painted chocolate palette – and even chocolate cornflakes! He recalls, “My specialty was serving a table of six ten different desserts –signifying abundance, happiness, and color. The theme from Le Cirque was the clown hat or head.”

One of Jacques Torre’s most memorable experiences was cooking for the Pope at his residence 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 because “you just don’t have a family life!” He decided to turn to the craft of chocolate making and opened 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 then 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 this way the product I sell is affordable.  In no way is it cheap but not ‘crazy expensive’!”

As his gourmet chocolates caught on, he went big with a 40,000 sq. foot state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Brooklyn: “We buy 150 tons of chocolate a year and we sell 200 tons of product with all the nuts, butter and caramels added on. There are 100 employees, a huge 5 ton melter and pots so large an entire family could fit into one of them!”

Inside the Chocolate Museum

Torres’ life has certainly been enriched by chocolate. Late in life, love found Jacques Torres and in 2007 he 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, billed as the Prince of Chocolate by Torres who wrote rapturously on Instagram: “By far the most precious creation I’ve ever made arrived on Friday morning, just when our warm chocolate croissants were coming out of the oven.” The adorable tot, known as ‘Little Bon Bon’ is part of  festive images on Instagram. As Torres exults, “He is what makes life special now and I want to do more!”

 

In the Chocolate Museum

In the Chocolate Museum

Torres takes chocolate very seriously and just this year opened “Choco-Story New York, Chocolate Museum and Experience with Jacques Torres”, the Chocolate Museum with his partner. He says, “I am an educator and I like to share my knowledge.”

Walking with him through the 5000 sq ft museum I did learn quite a bit about the past life of the delicious chocolates we eat, right from the earliest Mayan days when cocoa beans were used as currency to the present day chocolate factories across the world.  You get to see everything from ancient grinding stones to special cups invented by the French with an indentation for mustaches so one’s facial hair was safeguarded while drinking hot chocolate!

The museum is interactive right from chocolate-making classes to play stations for kids to everyone’s favorite – free chocolate dispensing machines where you get different variety of chocolate discs – white, dark and milk – to taste.

As scores of school children squeal with delight and check out the museum, you realize 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!”

 

Chocolates by Jacques Torres

Chocolates by Jacques Torres

 

Jacques Torres on Life, Love and Chocolate

  • I make my own chocolate, I grow my own beans and now I have something about the history of chocolate. I feel I try to go as far as I can into this profession.
  • I’m so passionate about all things chocolate that I can think of nothing better than having the opportunity to share my knowledge and its history.
  • To me, chocolate takes me to a place where I feel secure and relaxed. In a world where things are pretty hectic, people say smell a rose. The same concept would be to eat a piece of chocolate. Just stop a moment, enjoy it and keep going.

(This article was first published in India Today’s Spice magazine)

 

 

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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