Updated August 19, 2017
Interview and photos by Kara Chin
One thing is for sure: Master Pastry Chef Jacques Torres loves chocolate. His wife is none other than Beverly Hills chocolatier Hasty Torres, also known as Madame Chocolat. He has won numerous accolades for his work, being named the James Beard Foundation Pastry Chef of the Year, Meilleur Ouvrier de France Patisserie, the Chefs of America Pastry Chef of the Year and Chartreuse Pastry Chef of the Year. Priding himself on quality of his product above all else, Torres was the first artisan chocolatier to make his own chocolate straight from cocoa beans.
No one can deny the role that chocolate plays in his life, but it is not the sole aspect which makes Mr. Chocolate fascinating. He is a true adventurer who continues to explore the furthest corners of the globe and digs into local cuisine, even if he doesn’t speak a country’s native language. His biggest hobby, besides chocolate, is riding a motorcycle and spending time on his boat, where he feels most at peace. He is a giver, known for being active in children’s charities and personally handing out lollipops in his shops. The day prior to the interview, he was at a graduation ceremony at the International Culinary Center (ICC). He is the Dean of Pastry at ICC, where created the course curriculum, and gives demonstrations throughout the year.
Before sitting down in the meeting room, Mr. Chocolate flipped on the switch, explaining that it will brighten up over time. He uses the same energy saving LED lights in his stores. “You never have to change a light bulb anymore. It’s unbelievable,” he says. We agree that technology has improved for the better, and then begin:
The Chefs Connection (CC): When did you first know you wanted to become a pastry chef?
“Very early, actually. About 15 years old. I didn’t know I wanted to become a pastry chef, but I knew that I want to try that profession. My brother was a chef, and he advised me that there was no good restaurant in Bandol, but a good pastry shop. So he advised me to try. So I went to a pastry shop, I tried, fell in love with pastry and became a pastry chef. So pretty early in life.”
CC: I feel like you eat, breathe, live chocolate. How would you describe chocolate in five words?
“I would say. Hmm, five words. Chocolate takes you to ‘haven.’ And ‘haven’ can be a little place in your mind, somewhere. To me, chocolate takes me not to heaven, but haven. It takes me to a place where I feel good, where I feel secure, where I feel relaxed. Basically, chocolate is a mood elevator. Chocolate makes you feel good. In a world where things are pretty hectic, people say smell a rose. The same concept would be eat a piece of chocolate. Just stop a moment: enjoy it and keep going.”
CC: What do you love most about your job?
“It’s interesting, because my career was divided in different things that I love. When I was in France, I loved to create and compete. I became one of the youngest M.O.F. (Meilleur Ouvrier de France Patisserie) in the profession. So I loved to compete and I love to learn and create. Then I left for the U.S., and I still create, but I learn more about marketing and was more exposed to the media. So that was the second stage of my life.
“Then the third stage is becoming a business owner. So I still create, but less. I still talk to the media and all that, but maybe a little bit less than when I was at Le Cirque. But I run a business. And the business is pretty happy today. We are close to between 80 to 100 employees, and we have all those locations. I am the CEO of the company, so it’s my responsibility, from coming here to talk to my business partner Ken and the chefs, and talk about new products. And then visit my store and talk to the store manager, and tell them what I want to change to the accounting people, and decide how we’re going to function for that month. So my career changed. This is the third stage. I don’t know if there’s going to be a fourth stage, but this is where I am today, basically.”
CC: You mentioned that you love to learn. Is there something that you’ve learned recently?
“You learn every day. Every day. Especially when you run a business, you learn every day. Actually, I’m going to take a course in a couple of months about business. A business course with a little bit of accounting. So I think, life is like that. You’re always going to learn from simple things, such as this is a new restaurant at this location to something that is going to change your life. Life is like that, and you have to realize as early as you can. When you are younger, you figure that you already know everything, but as you age, it’s helpful to realize that you’re going to learn every day.
“And today, we’re in a world where marketing and social media are so present, that the way you work isn’t the same as two years ago. The way that you communicate is not the same as two years ago. And things are changing so fast today. You’re going to have something new that you never heard about. For me, that was Twitter or Facebook.”
CC: And they’re still new.
“Maybe for you, they are not that new. But for me, compared to my age, it’s very new. And then you hear about things like tweet, and [you think] ‘Oh, I don’t need that.’ And then suddenly, you don’t jump on it and then you realize, ‘Oh my god, I’m on the back wagon.’ So fortunately, I did come to it and we have 20,000 people, I don’t know exactly how many. But what I mean is, you have those new things coming out and you think, ‘Should you spend time, should you not spend time on it?’ You know, it’s how much R&D can you work? And everything changes all the time. So it’s better to realize that you need to learn, no matter what. The world is changing.”
CC: And that you should learn.
“Right, and you should learn. Of course. That’s what makes life interesting.”
CC: So I’ve read that you spend most of your nights on a boat and you love fishing. Can you tell us about that?
“You know, when you have the type of life that I have, with the stress that I get, you need a place where you recover a little bit. And to me, the water is something that is going to help me to recover. When I’m on top of the water, I feel more grounded, and I feel my stress go away. So I lived [for] six years on the boat. And the boat was a little north of the Statue of Liberty. The view was unbelievable. You feel nature.
“I feel more alive when I’m outside. So between the boat and driving a motorcycle, my life is a little bit like in the south of France. I love, especially starting now, taking the boat and spending the weekend, somewhere in Sandy Hook or in the south. You can anchor somewhere, take your dinghy, go to the restaurant, and you spend the night. It is an amazing, amazing life that to me has no price. No apartment, no house would make me more happy than doing that.
“Unfortunately, last summer, I sold the boat to build this manufacturing plant, so eventually, I’m going to come back … Actually, I’m looking at a boat today. But a small boat, something just to go fishing. My boat was a larger boat. So I’m going to look at something big to go fishing, but eventually, I will come back to it, when I have funds to buy a bigger boat. Then I’m going to have something really nice. So, to me, I work for my family, of course, but also, one of my goals is to live the life I want to live, meaning I’m a craftsman. I create, and I make things with my hands, I run my business. But I want to have my boat. So eventually, I will have another boat. That’s the goal. Let’s say that.”
CC: That’s wonderful. And you enjoy fishing as well?
“You know, fishing is something that … You know, I grew up in Bandol in France. There aren’t many things to do over there, except enjoy the surroundings, tourism, and fishing. So after class, I used to go down in the ports with a little fishing rod and play with little fish, and spend a lot of time just doing that: just nature and fish.
“So that always stayed in my mind. I lived in New York for twenty years, away from the water. And this is when I realized, New York is an island. What’s going on in those waters? I learned that there are actually very rich waters. You can find whales, you can find sharks, you can find dolphins. I mean it’s unbelievable! New York is an amazing place. Immediately when you pass the Verrazano Bridge. But even in the bay, in the harbor, you will find big striped bass. It’s crazy! People don’t know that.”
CC: So you catch big striped bass off your boat?
“We catch big striped bass. They just arrived. Striped bass migrate from Carolina all the way to Maine in the spring.
[Jacques Torres takes a call from his wife. He returns.]
CC: That’s Battman’s rule. He always picks up for his wife.
“Oh yeah? Always?”
CC: Yes. So speaking of your wife, she also works in chocolate?
“She used to have a store in Beverly Hills and a manufacturer. She closed the store and moved the manufacturer downtown. We [will try] to have a family, but eventually, she will go back to [to work]. She loves to have a store. She loves to create. We are of the same, let’s say, disease. We love what we do.
“And what she does is very different than me. I’m very masculine in my work. She’s very feminine. She loves packaging. She loves beauty. And she’s talented for it. She has some good results. So eventually she will go back to it.”
CC: Do you ever think about working together? Or because you work differently, you want to keep it separate?
“Yes. And you know, I have a big business. It’s difficult to bring someone else at that level. I think we are so different in what we do that she better to accomplish her feeling and her desire and her own things, and that’s where she’ll excel. Otherwise, she will have to fit into my company, and that’s kind of putting fences around her. I prefer for her to do what she likes, and what she’s talented for. It’s certainly better.”
CC: So you have kids?
“No. We try to have a family now. My wife is younger than me, so hopefully, it will work.”
CC: Okay, fingers crossed!
CC: Do you think it was kismet that you were both interested in chocolate?
“Yes. It’s very strange. I mean, she worked with me, worked for me, so it makes sense that she has the same passion. And you know, it was something that certainly made us to be together. And life [is] sometimes like that. I got married very late. I got married when I was 46 I think. So you know, pretty late. And meant to be. I think that’s pretty much what happened.”
CC: So do you have a favorite item that you like to pair with chocolate?
“You know chocolate usually pairs well with wine. This is one of the things that I like. To me, having a glass of wine in the evening and a good piece of chocolate, it’s like have good wine with a good piece of cheese. I don’t eat food with cheese like people do in the U.S., but I love cheese with wine. And I will do the same with chocolates. So that’s my pairing.”
CC: And you have chocolate every day?
“Pretty much. Pretty much. You know, I come here and we always try something. When I come here, Ken will ask me, ‘Jacques, let’s try this, let’s try that.’ This is a time when decide on a new line. We always try things. It’s part of what we do.”
CC: Where do you find inspiration for new designs or new products?
“You don’t find inspiration in one place. Inspiration is something that will come. You cannot see that and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to be inspired.’ Inspiration comes at the strangest time of the day. You’re walking to work and you pass a tree and see a beautiful leaf and think, ‘Oh, my god. Maple syrup and fall colors and nuts and caramel, I need to do something with that.’ And then your brain starts working. But you need a trigger. And the trigger can be anything. Spring is beautiful. At the beginning of spring, the color is yellow and green. The light is very different now than fall, as an example. So that’s going to trigger something else. And if you look at our line for Mother’s Day, it’s bright colors. Why? Because everything is bright. This time of year, everything is bright. So we go for bright. Bright pastel, into that direction.
“And then you get the summer with maybe, first you get the cherry, you get the strawberry, then you get the peaches, the apricots. Summer keeps going and you get figs. So all those months change to something different. Every year, it’s the same, but some years are going to talk to you a little bit more than others. And then you’re going to go to the market and buy, I don’t know, a persimmon. And when you bite into that persimmon, and you get transported, and you say, ‘I have to share that with my customers. This is crazy. This would be really good.’ And so you start to work with persimmons. And so on. And travel.
“Travel usually brings a lot of inspiration. You go to, I don’t know … Asia to me is one of those continents, a part of the world where it takes me out of my comfort zone, because a lot of the products are unknown to me. So going to Japan, going to Jakarta, going to a lot of those places, make me learn about different cultures, different products. And it’s a culture pretty different from where I come from. So I will learn. I will learn for sure.”
“I go to France every year. So I will get inspired too by what I do. So inspiration can come from anywhere, from daily life to traveling to season. I don’t know, name it. Anything.”
CC: I know you travel a lot. Do you have a favorite place that you like to go to?
“Home. Home is certainly my favorite place. I love [anywhere where] banana trees and coconut trees grow. I’m going to Hawaii in three days for a chocolate festival. One of the advantages of what I do is traveling. I love to travel. I love to be on the plane, because the phone is off and the computer is off … ”
CC: No one can reach you!
“[Laughs] And no one can reach you! So you know I love that.
“And then when you arrive, you are somewhere else. You discover. I love to discover. You meet new people. You meet new culture. You meet new food. And this is what I love.
“Last time when I went to Hawaii, I went to visit a macadamia plantation. And I saw those trees and they’re all the same and I’m thinking, ‘What are they?’ And there are macadamias on the floor. And I’m thinking, ‘My god, they’re macadamias!’ I start to break those macadamias and taste them. They taste delicious.
“I think when they pick them, a lot of them fall on the floor. And there was a time when the macadamia was on the floor.
“So those experiences are uncommon. It’s great! And Hawaii is pretty far. And I’m lucky that I go to pretty much to any part of the world.”
CC: Is there somewhere you haven’t been yet that you’d like to visit?
“China. I’ve never visited China.”
CC: I lived there for eight years!
“You lived there? I want to visit China. I never went. I went to a lot of different places in Asia, but never China. Otherwise, the Middle East. South America, I don’t know much about South America, but I love the islands. So I hope life will be long enough for me to visit whatever. But if I have my boat, I know I will go to some pretty places. It will be time for me to take the line out and go. And the boat that I want, I can go anywhere with it. So hopefully, I will be able to do that.
“How was your experience in China? Did you enjoy it?”
CC: Oh, I really enjoyed it.
“You know that there’s a big Chinatown here. With my business partner Ken, we went to a Chinese restaurant. We went with members of the staff and we stopped in a restaurant and it was unbelievable. We can give you the name. You know, Chinese food is like French food. You can eat at a restaurant that’s no good and then you eat at one and you’re like, ‘Oh, my god!’
“In France, we say that we are the same as Chinese people. We will eat anything with four legs except tables and chairs. But anything else with four legs, we eat it! We have the same culture. We can eat anything. And when you eat snails, just imagine.”
CC: You have to go. I think you will enjoy the food. It is spicy though!
“You know, [when I was in Malaysia], I wanted to go eat along the water, because I heard that’s where a bunch of restaurants were, where the natives eat. So I went there. I go in the restaurant, a big table of eight to ten people. I was very early, so I sat by myself and I ordered eight main courses. I know I won’t eat everything, but I want to taste everything. So I remember that one of the [dishes] was crab roasted with pepper. And people were looking at me [as] I was tasting the food [because] it was hot! And I sweating, because [of] the heat of the food. My god!”
CC: So I know that you have cookbooks and you used to have a TV show, “Chocolate with Jacques Torres.” What tips would you give someone making or working with chocolate?
“You know, always the same: do what you love, stick with quality, be true to yourself. Take time. Don’t think that things arrive fast. It took me 40 years to be here today. I hope that if I have kids that they will take that and bring it somewhere else. But if it doesn’t happen, I hope that someone will take that brand and grow it. It’s a stepping stone and the stepping stone sometimes disappears, and sometimes the stepping stone helps to go a little bit higher.
“But time is the essence. Things don’t happen from one day to another. And I know that when I was younger, I was pretty impatient. And I never realized I would have to build my career over all those years. But I’m happy. I did something. I made something. When I come here in the morning and I see this [manufacturing plant] or any of my stores, I feel good. I feel pretty accomplished. I think, ‘Wow, you’ve been pretty focused all your life and you’ve built something, you went somewhere.’ So this is something. And luck. Luck is part of it. I have to say, ‘I’ve been very lucky, very fortunate in my life.’ So remember. Enjoy the moment.”
CC: You’ve served presidents and kings. What was that like?
“This is related to my work. Working at, working at Hotel Negresco, I have pictures with a lot of well-known people, including the Pope. I have a picture with the Pope. I have pictures with the last four or five presidents. It’s crazy, you know, the people that were going to Le Cirque when I was there. It’s amazing. But again, this is part of luck, part of putting yourself in a situation where you’ll be exposed to it. I really think that luck is a big part of it. I was at the right place at the right time.
“What I want people to do is: don’t take anything for granted and be thankful for it. And I try to remember that, because it’s important. You get that luck? Be thankful for it. Enjoy every day. That’s important.”
CC: Where do you enjoy French food here? Do you cook at home or go out?
“I have so many friends that do French food. Yesterday there was a good piece on CNN about Anthony Bourdain andin Lyon. And I look at that and think, ‘My god, I’ve got to go to Lyon this year.’ Because they were in Lyon and talking about Paul Bocuse and all those big chefs.
“But in New York, you can find anything. You can find very decent cheese. You can find good wine. And very good French restaurants, from very high ranks from Parigot on Grand Street, next to Broadway. They have all the French classics, cassoulet and Coq au Vin – very French classics and I love it. It’s great. In New York, you can find anything.”to Daniel Boulud, all the way to a little bistro. Last time, I went to a bistro called
CC: It’s true. I think your product has to be good, or you won’t survive here!
“Again, be true to yourself, work with quality. Be a good technician. French craftsmen are about techniques. This is what we learn. It’s like a sport. You’re going to do the same movement 200 times to excel in it. This is what we do. We’re going to do things 200 times to excel in it, and try to understand how things work. So do that. Realize it’s what it is. You’re not going to succeed the first time. You’re not going to be the best, because I don’t know if you can ever be the best. You can be the best, maybe for five minutes, but eventually somebody is going to be in front of you. Try to embrace that and go in that direction and enjoy it. Enjoy it! That’s what’s important.”
[Battman enters and they get to talking about the changing state of the culinary world.]
Battman (B): “I always say I’d rather be lucky than good.”
Jacques Torres (JT): “I think you need both. Have luck and be good.
“Longevity is the hardest thing though. I mean, how many chefs come out of TV and are so high and such a big name, and two years later, nobody talks about them any more?
“They become so big, so fast. Their ego blows up. Longevity is the hardest thing. Someone like Jacques Pépin. They’re in the market for 50 years and they’re still big. I mean, how do they do that? It’s hard.”
B: “I think it’s easier then. It’s like the old actors, you know, the glamour actors. For some reason, there will never be someone like that. I do the Firefighters Calendar. I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. And the guys at the beginning had a lot more class. It wasn’t for their ego. They didn’t get in [the calendar] for their ego. It wasn’t [like] TV.”
JT: “[My friend] yesterday [was talking about] the new generation. We’re talking about 20-year-old chefs today. The new generation doesn’t have respect for their peers, like for Daniel, Jean-Georges, for those guys [that are] classical trained real chefs. For the new chefs now, she said it’s becoming crazy. That those guys went up so fast, that they feel they are on top of the world and they don’t give any help to schools or other places. We are losing that … I have a lot of respect for my peers. I come from a place where people teach me, and I need to teach other people, the new generation. I mean, the older generation always complains about the new generation.”
B: “They don’t appreciate what they’ve got.”
JT: “Anyway, I hope that this will change. Because that’s a little sad for this profession. It’s a great profession.”