For eleven years, he served as the Executive Pastry Chef for New York's famed restaurant Le Cirque, before leaving to open his renowned wholesale, retail, and e-commerce chocolate company, Jacques Torres Chocolate. He is the author of three recipe books:
Jacques Torres' A Year in Chocolate: 80 Recipes for Holidays and Special Occasions. (Check out the end of our interview for a recipe from this book)
His long list of achievements includes: participation in "Merci Julia," the world's top culinary professionals' salute to Julia Child; James Beard Pastry Chef of the Year; Chefs of America Pastry of the Year; Chocolatier Magazine's 10 Best Pastry Chefs; The Masters of Food & Wine' Chartreuse Pastry Chef Award. He is a member of the Academie Culinaire de France, and the Dean of Pastry Studies at New York's French Culinary Institute.
Story Photo Credit: John Ortega
Ying Zhu: I love the story of how you got a job at the Hotel Negresco-one of the fanciest hotels in the south of France: you bet your girlfriend that you could walk into the hotel and walk out with a job. You won the bet and worked with Jacques Maximin for eight years.
Jacques Torres: Yes.
YZ: It was very gutsy!
JT: Very gutsy and lucky too. [smile]
YZ: Would you say that this is where you refined your skill for pastry making?
JT: That's definitely where I learned about "Gourmet", gourmet food, quality food, high-end; the world that I was not exposed to before, because it's a world, at that time...that was how many years ago? Thirty-two years ago, and thirty-two years ago, to be a part of that world, you needed to be rich. Today, "Gourmet" is exposed to a lot more people. Quality food with television and stores are exposed to way more people. Education is exposed to way more people. Thirty-two years ago, that was not the case.
YZ: How do you think your experiences differed from those of people who are starting out today?
JT: I think it's a question of personality, what do you want in your life, how far you would like to go. I believe that if you put your mind to something, almost anything is reachable. Don't give up, strive for quality, strive for the best product possible, in the best place possible. And I think whether it was my time, this time today, it's the same. It's just that there are more people in the profession now, so maybe the competition is more.
YZ: You had presidents, celebrities, kings, and even the Pope come and taste your desserts at Le Cirque. You have achieved the highest awards in your field. You are passing down your craft to the next generation, and you are running a very successful business. Are there any other goals in your life?
JT: Certainly growing Jacques Torres Chocolates, focus a little more on my personal life; I love boating; I love fishing; I want to have a family. So I'm focusing a little more on that. I did not have much time before because I was building what I built. But maybe now I want to focus a little more on what I want to do outside of the chef's world.
YZ: At what point did you decide to devote your time to chocolate?
JT. I opened my first store ten years ago--so about eleven years ago I decided to jump to open my own business, and I had always loved chocolates!
YZ: Can you tell us a little about your chocolate making process and how it differs from the process used for mass-market chocolates?
JT: What small makers do is to make chocolates from scratch, because not many people will make it from scratch. It's a lot of investment, and it's a lot of work. Most of the time these chocolates will cost you more than the mass-market chocolates you buy, because when you buy cacao beans, if you buy 40 tons of beans, which is a container, the price will be significantly lower than buying ton by ton. So I buy ton by ton, and I pay the higher price, then I bring those beans, and of course I clean them, and look for any stones or anything, but usually at the price I pay, they are clean.
I put them in a roaster, roast them to an exact stage, and we taste them. We taste them at every level, until the cacao beans are exactly the way I want. We put them into a machine to cool them fast and stop the roasting. Then we put them in a winnower that removes the skin, the shell from the cacao beans, and we are left with something called the nibs. The nibs are the insides of the cocoa beans when they're roasted. Then I put them in a machine called the MacIntyre, and the MacIntyre breaks them down to what we called a cacao paste or cocoa liquor. At this time, we taste it, and see, are these beans good at 40%? Now let's try 70%, 75%. I try to see how much sugar we need to add. When the quality of the beans is not as good, you have to mask it a little with sugar. Sugar basically removes the flavor of the chocolate! The better the beans, the less sugar you are going to put on.
That's why I always have a low sugar content for my chocolates. After we decide on that, we run a batch for 72 hours, which is a long time, a lot of energy, a lot of electricity, a lot of time into the machine. But, by doing this, I have a chocolate that is very round in flavor, very natural and good tasting. I don't put anything else other than cacao beans, sugar, a little bit of cocoa butter, sometimes vanilla, most of the time not. I use a little bit of lecithin, which is a natural product, to bond the molecules of fat and the molecules of water. So that's about it! That's all we use! It is different from the mass-market chocolates where sometimes they use essential oils to mask the flavor and they add lots of sugar. Our chocolates are very carefully crafted.
YZ: You have traveled to many countries to learn about chocolates, can you share one of your most memorable experiences?
JT: I think that every country brings me something. It's very difficult for me to tell you just one story...
YZ: Okay, well, in your wonderful book "A Year In Chocolate," you have a lovely introduction for the month of May, where you talked about how spending time in Oaxaca, Mexico inspired you, and helped you come up with your own hot chocolate. In honor of Cinco de Mayo, can you share an experience you had in Mexico?
JT: Yes you are right! Oaxaca was one of the discoveries for me. I went to Oaxaca, because I wanted to go back to the origin of chocolates. I wanted to see if there was anything people before me had missed that can be developed today. And I fell in love with Oaxacans. Those people are unbelievable! They are hard workers and talk about "Green." They don't trash anything, there is no trash in the streets; they recycle everything! I was amazed by that!
The food is excellent there and chocolates or cacao beans are very deep in their culture. I found beautiful cacao beans in their market, but you cannot get them. You can buy them there, but you can't get them from there to here. They keep those cacao beans for them. I saw them roasting the beans over a fire--not even a stove--they put together some wood and they have a little fire and they roast the cacao beans, and then they made chocolates in front of me, which is a very long process, because they grind the beans by hand. What I really like is that they use ancho and chipotle chile in their food, and even in hot chocolate! So I learned about ancho and chipotle, and when I came back, I did a product called "Wicked Hot Chocolate," a hot chocolate with spices, spices that are not hot but tickles your palette and warm you inside. In the winter, you crave for that, you want something to warm you up from the inside, because it's so cold, and New York gets cold! So that worked well for me and I learned that in Oaxaca.
I think every trip brings me something; every trip brings me an idea. I went to Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Spain...I mean all the countries where you can talk about chocolate, they all have something to offer. So I think traveling is one of the most inspiring things I do for my business.
YZ: Also in your book, you talked about how you enjoy thinking up specialty chocolates for Mother's day as much as you enjoy thinking up bunnies for kids on Easter. Over the years, you have helped people wow their moms with Chocolate Jewelry boxes, pairs of chocolate Manolo Blahniks, and a purse to go with it. What did you create for your own mom this Mother's Day?
JT: For my mom--Mother's day in France comes two weeks after the one in America-I usually send her a care package. The problem with that is that I cannot ship fragile things to her. I cannot put a chocolate shoe, or one of the chocolate purses...we just came up with a gorgeous necklace this year made up of chocolate truffles, and I cannot send that to her either. It's too fragile! So I'm limited in what I can send her. But she loves chocolates, so I put chocolates in a box and I send that, and I call the florist in France; it's spring there, so I find out what she has and we fill the delivery truck. It's quite funny, one time the flower lady delivered a few pots of flowers to my mom, and my mom said "thank you." The lady said, "we are not finished," and then she brings pots and pots and pots until the front of the house is all in bloom. Then my mom calls the gardener and the gardener plants them all over the yard.
YZ: Awww that's so sweet!
JT: [smiling] And my mom is so happy you know; she opens the window and she sees all the flowers. So that's what I do for Mother's day: it's some chocolates and a lot of flowers, because she loves that.
YZ: That's wonderful! What special item will you make for next year's Mother's Day?
JT: I don't know, every year is different, we look at the trend, this year the trend is bold colors. If you go to the village, and that's what I do, I take my motorcycle or my bike, and I ride around, look at the shop windows and figure out what is the trend this year?
The Village and Soho are extremely inspiring because this is where some of the trends come from. So look at the window, they'll talk to you. This year, it's bold colors and short clothes.
YZ: HAHA...Short clothes?
JT: You will see lots of mini skirts and mini shorts this summer. I kind of like that you know. I love to see that. [smile]
YZ: You have said that chocolate tasting is similar to wine tasting. There are ways to tell if it's a good piece of chocolate and there are methods to enhance the pleasure of the experience. Can you tell us about these methods?
JT: Basically when you taste chocolates, real chocolates, you look at the piece, and see if it's shiny. If it's shiny that means that the chocolate is well tempered, well handled. Then you should smell the piece of chocolate, and that will tell you the percentage of content, if it's a semi-sweet or bitter sweet, if it's over 70% or under.
YZ: How can you tell if it's a higher percentage?
JT: The acidity, and it doesn't smell as sweet. Then you are going to break the chocolate, the chocolate needs to have a snap, that means it's well tempered. Then you need to look inside the break, and look at the structure of it, it should be smooth, it shouldn't have little pieces separated, everything should be together. Then of course you need to put it in your mouth and chew it a couple times and let it melt, that will tell you if there is enough cocoa butter. If the fat coats your palette, it's fake chocolate. Now you can start to analyze all those flavors that come to you, what's the first flavor? Is it vanilla? Is it citrus? Is it chocolate? Is it whimsical with a lot of complex flavors on the chocolate? That will tell you the origin, most of the time. Then of course you will swallow your chocolate. What remains in your mouth? Is it grainy? Is it smooth? Is the chocolate well refined? Well crunched together? Then you have the after flavor, you have the acidity coming back. Do you get vanilla, citrus? Those again will tell you the quality of the beans. That's pretty much how I like to test chocolates.
Drinking chocolate, for tasting, I like to use warm water or an extremely light tea, very light tea, because you don't want the flavor of the tea to go over your palette. Warm water works very well, warm water will wash off the cocoa butter right away. And you are ready for another tasting. Warm water is not that pleasant, but it's going to help you analyze those flavors.
YZ: You have been living in New York City now for twenty-two years right? How has this city inspired you and contributed to your creativity?
JT: Yes, about twenty-two, twenty-three years. New York City helped me because you are in the middle of the fashion industry, everything high-end is in the city. But what New York City gives me first is "Energy." New York City is unbelievable, it's like an energy grid or electrical grid, that when you touch it, you become a part of it, a part of the pulse of New York, this pulse makes you run around, makes you want to be creative, want to make things happen, want to argue with people, want to fight, want to love, want to do all those things. And this is why I get addicted and why people get addicted to New York, the energy grid feeds you, and I like that, New York is electric!
YZ: What are some of your favorite places, formal and casual, to eat in New York City?
JT: That's a tough question because it really depends on the season. You don't eat Swiss fondue in the summer, but in the winter I crave for it. Yesterday, I went to a place called Socarrat Paella Bar, a Spanish restaurant, and I loved it! I love some French restaurants like Jean Georges, Daniel. But I also enjoy some one-dollar pizzas around 42nd street, because it's light and it doesn't have much cheese on it. I hate those thick cheesy pizzas! But I love all kinds of food.
YZ. I have a personal question. I have one thing in common with Julia Child. We both hate cilantro. What are your feelings towards cilantro?
JT: I hate cilantro!
YZ: You do! That's wonderful! [huge smile]
JT: Cilantro is one of those things you either hate it or you love it, there is no middle ground. To me Cilantro is over-powering, it over powers everything, and I don't like the flavor. I love basil, it's one of my favorites! I like thyme, and rosemary. In the south of France, you can pick the thyme and rosemary during the peak time, you come across some huge rosemary bushes, bigger than me, it's unbelievable! I love those flavors, because it's home.
YZ: Would you call yourself a voluptuary, a person who is devoted to luxury and sensual pleasure?
JT: Yes, but carefully. I'm not someone who dresses in luxury; I'm not someone who lives in luxury. Luxury is limited to a few things in my life. Food is definitely one of the most luxurious things I experience. Now pleasure, yes I definitely look for pleasure, but I'm not a fan of expensive shoes and watches.
YZ: What is your own recipe for a pleasurable day?
JT: To me, a beautiful day starts with good weather; it starts with not getting up at four o'clock in the morning; it starts maybe with a good croissant and quality coffee. It can be simple; it can be watching a good show on the television.
I live on a boat. My boat is in Liberty Landing Marina. I love to wake up on a boat. I love listening to the water; I love having my breakfast looking at Manhattan, and thinking, "wow! From Bandol to here!" I love to get out of the boat, take the bicycle, or maybe a walk around the park next to me. Then have lunch, maybe at a restaurant looking over Manhattan. And even if it's a burger, it doesn't matter. Afternoon can be a ride on the boat. Can be fishing, and then relaxing and taking a nap. You know, I came from a place where we nap in the afternoon. I love that!
Friends, kids around, I mean, all that is pleasure.
YZ: People have asked you for tips and advice on cooking up something good. Correct me if I'm wrong, I have heard you say:
1) You need the right tools, and good equipments, like a pot that distributes the heat evenly, a scale, good knives, a good mixer, a good oven.
2) You should get the best ingredients you can afford.
3) Think about what you are about to make, if you are following a recipe, read it a few times and fully understand it before you start.
4) Don't be afraid to make mistakes, have fun and be creative.
Did I leave anything out?
JT: Techniques. I'm a technician. I think techniques are very important. And when I say read the recipe a few times, I mean understand what's going on, give it a couple of days, let things take place in your mind. Try to analyze it; maybe you have to change something. If you are going to do a dish that calls for four hours of cooking on a stove, maybe you want to bring the color up, and the flavor up, so you put it in a slow cooker for eight hours instead of four hours on the stove. You can, a lot of times, enhance things just by analyzing and understanding techniques. And of course you need to start with good ingredients, if you get a green tomato, or a tomato that is not ripe, you cannot make a good Bruschetta. Same for chocolates, if the recipe calls for chocolates, you need to have good chocolates. Simplicity means quality to me. If you start with an ingredient that is not so good, you are going to mask it with a lot of things around it, that is the only way to make it taste good. So this is not simplicity. Simplicity is one main ingredient, and little things around it to maybe enhance it, but not too much; that ingredient is the star. So simplicity to me is important.
YZ: What's your recipe for a happy and fulfilling life?
JT: Do what you love; do what keeps you calm. Learn to deal with stress. I think stress is a part of our culture today. And I have to deal with stress, but I'm realizing more and more that I cannot fight it, I have to accept it, it's a part of my life.
I have to realize what's really important. At the end of the day, it's only chocolate, it's not that important. But it's very difficult; you have to remind yourself all the time.
And have pleasure, those little pleasures of life, it can be food, it can be sex, it can be feeling the sun on your skin, feeling the wind while riding a bicycle, it can be anything--smelling the grass. So many little things bring pleasure. Sometimes I wake up because the birds are singing next to the boat, and I say "Wow!". All that is pleasure, and you have to realize that it's pleasure. Some people don't feel the sun or hear the birds. I feel sorry for them. Pay attention, it's beautiful.
Chocolate Hot Tamale
Generous 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
2 cups cake flour
1/4 cup almond flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup powdered sugar
Pinch ancho chili powder
1 large egg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine the butter and flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Set the mixer to medium speed and mix just until combined. Add the rest of the dry ingredients; almond flour, cocoa powder, salt, sugar, ancho chili powder.
Add the egg and mix just until combined, about 30 seconds.
Remove the dough from the bowl and pat into a disk. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough about 1/4-inch thick. Use a knife to cut a square about the size of the mold. Press the dough into the mold. Be sure to press firmly so the impressions of the mold are transferred onto the dough. Remove the dough and place on a parchment paper lined sheet pan.
If you do not want to make a mold, you can also use cookie cutters. To do so, roll the dough to the desired size on a lightly floured work surface. Press the cookie cutters into the dough. Lift the cutter and place the cookies on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes.
Jacques Torres Chocolates
350 Hudson St
New York, NY 10014