With his singsong accent, the occasional well-placed joke and an endless list of easy recipes to make at home, Jacques Torres has been introducing America to high-quality chocolate for 16 years. Defending excellence and skill in a country often associated with the Big Mac, he champions natural products free of additives and preservatives, and with a minimum cocoa content of 60%.
When Jacques Torres opened his very first New York store on a Saturday morning in December 2000, he was pleasantly surprised. At 9 am some 15 people were already queuing along Water Street, in front of the chocolate factory inaugurated a week before in a former warehouse in Brooklyn. “Good grief, what are they doing here?” he thought. The Frenchman rushed to the kitchens to prepare mugs of hot chocolate. Standing together on the paved street, he told jokes and handed out steaming cups of cocoa to his first customers.
Cooking shows are in vogue in the United States. Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain and Jacques Pépin are just a few TV chefs who have won the hearts of the nation. Both friendly and approachable, Torres embodies the typical French foodie living in the U.S.A. Willy Wonka with a southern French accent, if you will. The chocolatier became Mr. Chocolate on American television, and has steadily racked up his number of media appearances. He was a judge for Top Chef in 2010, then for Cake Boss in 2014, and presented his own show, Chocolate with Jacques Torres, for two seasons on the Food Network channel. The audience adored the character, and the press published rave reviews. Torres also once went on a fishing trip — his second passion — with a journalist from The Wall Street Journal, and spent a Sunday with a reporter for The New York Times for the newspaper’s “Sunday Routine” column. And if that wasn’t enough, his video tutorial “How to make chocolate lollypops” lasting 4 minutes and 24 seconds on YouTube currently has more than 1.6 million views.
Torres now has nine chocolate shops in New York, a chocolate factory in Brooklyn, a fishing boat in Jersey City, a duplex in East Harlem, and a Rolex Submariner on his left wrist. But the chocolatier has kept his friendly, simple manner. He regularly bikes around the city to check on his stores, and is the first to hand out free samples of chocolate, ice cream and crêpes in the street. Smiling passers-by recognize the pâtissier, and often stop for a photo or a casual fist bump. “My life in New York is like my life in my hometown of Bandol,” says America’s favorite chocolatier, who grew up in Southern France.
A Boat in Jersey City
Torres was born in Algeria and grew up in Bandol in the Var département. Fascinated by chocolate from a young age, he began an apprenticeship in a small patisserie at the age of 15. After graduating top of his class, he joined the five-star Negresco palace-hotel located on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. At just 26, he became the youngest pâtissier to be awarded the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Hungry for new challenges, he set off on “an adventure to the United States” and arrived in Palm Springs in 1988. The young man worked for hotels in the Ritz-Carlton group in California, then in Atlanta, before being hired by the restaurant Le Cirque in New York, managed at the time by Daniel Boulud. Torres was at first terrified by the vast city. He refused to take the subway, and instead preferred to run to work. He spent six years living on his boat, a 39-foot Bayliner “with a barbecue on the rear deck” anchored in Jersey City.
Torres began to tire of working in the kitchens, and left Le Cirque with his colleague Ken Goto to invest their “pension fund” in a chocolate shop in Brooklyn in 2000. The store was the “first business on the street with a front window,” located in the former industrial district of DUMBO in Brooklyn. “The other chefs thought we were crazy to set up in Brooklyn,” says Torres with a smile. Today the neighborhood is trendy and upmarket, the renovated warehouses have been transformed into lofts and art galleries, and artisans have rushed in to open their businesses. Jacques Torres intends to open more stores, first in Boston, then in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
250 Tons of Chocolate Every Year
On the sixth floor of a vast warehouse, Mr. Chocolate himself strides purposefully through his factory in Sunset Park, South Brooklyn, which was inaugurated two years ago. The 30 employees are all New Yorkers and the fully-automated machines were imported from Switzerland and Belgium. Some 90% of the raw chocolate is purchased in Belgium and the rest is produced on-site using cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Madagascar. The chocolate is first melted before being transported through the different production workshops via a maze of pipes running along the ceiling.
In a bare-walled room, two employees wearing white jackets and plastic hairnets cut out disks of peanut butter, which are then placed on squares of unleavened bread and coated in dark chocolate. With Valentine’s Day and Easter out of the way, the Heart, Bunny and Chicken molds have been tidied away and the chocolate factory is gearing up for Passover. “Our expertise is French, but our recipes are hybrids,” says Torres, now an American citizen through naturalization. Countless pretzels are whizzed along a conveyor belt, passing through a liquid curtain of dark chocolate. The chocolatier enjoys blending different influences, and his stores offer up chocolate pretzels, caramel-coated popcorn and cookies alongside key lime ganache, Port-infused dark chocolate, and champagne truffles.
The American public’s tastes are changing and becoming more sophisticated. They are increasingly hungry for finer chocolates with more complex flavors. Torres’ creations contain at least 60% cocoa — compared with just 11% in Hershey chocolate bars — and are guaranteed additive and preservative free. The milk, butter and eggs are sourced from Upstate New York farms; the almonds are imported from California; the pistachios come from Italy and the oranges from France. Whether in his recipes or in his stores, where wood and glass are preferred over plastic, Torres adores authenticity.
As well as being a scrupulous artisan, Torres is also a daring businessman. “If the Americans don’t like what you do, being French or a Meilleur Ouvrier de France won’t help one bit,” he says. Rule number one: “Get the after-sale service right.” Two people at the Brooklyn chocolate factory are employed full-time at the end of the production line to ensure deliveries run smoothly. “New York is an excellent showcase, but the Internet means you can go international without having to pay the costs of a physical store,” says Torres, who wants to make his website the Amazon of the chocolate world. Some 12% of the 250 tons of chocolate produced every year are sold online, and the chocolatier wants this figure to reach 30%. There are also a significant number of corporate orders, including chocolate skyscrapers for the inauguration of the One World Trade Center, miniature chocolate Buddha figures for a chain of Asian restaurants, and chocolate corks for a famous French champagne brand.
Rule number two: “Offer affordable prices.” There’s no need to be snobbish to introduce the American public to sophisticated chocolate, warns Torres, whose reasonable prices have set him apart from other European brands in the United States. “I’m trying to be the best chocolatier in the value-for-money market,” he says, while inspecting the stacks of boxes labeled for New York, Connecticut and California. “I want to sell for less, and in bigger quantities. That’s our strategy.”
Last but not least, rule number three: “Be nice and media-friendly.” Whether on television shows, on YouTube, in his stores or in his seminars at the International Culinary Center in New York (where he has been the Dean of the pastry school since 1996), Torres has made a trademark out of his cheerful nature. “Cooking is a very closed world, and you need to know when to chill out”, he says with a laugh. “I make people smile, but I stay professional.”
Article published in the May 2016 issue of France-Amérique