With a massive new 40,000-square-foot chocolate factory in Brooklyn, and two new retail stores in Manhattan that will open their doors just in time for Valentine’s Day, Jacques Torres has certainly had a sweet start to 2014.
Could it be that he just can’t stand being pinned down to one place? “I don’t have time to wait,” he says in his charming southern French accent. Propped on his motorcycle, Mr. Chocolate, as he is known, weaves through the city back and forth from one store to the other, his keen eye never missing a single detail. “My chocolates are a reflection of me,” he says. “Of course, I want them to be delicious, but with an amusing, cheeky touch as well.”
There is nothing cheeky, however, in Torres’s meteoric rise. Born in Algeria, he made his first overseas trip at age 3 to Bandol, France, in the southeastern region of Provence, where he began his pastry apprenticeship at age 15. He quickly landed a job at the Hotel Negresco in Nice, and in 1986 he was the youngest chef to earn the prestigious M.O.F Meilleur Ouvrier de France (France’s Best Craftsman) medal. “I was immediately captivated by chocolate, this ancient, almost primitive product, the origins of which remain a mystery.”
At age 28 Torres set out overseas once again, this time to pursue his dreams in New York. He worked as Head Pastry Chef for the Ritz Calton, and then spent 12 years at the famous restaurant, Le Cirque. He worked hard and enjoyed himself, but above all he observed. When the time came to venture out on his own, Torres knew exactly what he wanted.
He was the first artisan chocolatier to set up shop in the DUMBO (short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood in Brooklyn, before it was teeming with hipsters. “You’re finished, chef friends would say to me.” But along with his partners, Torres got straight to work and built his first shop with his own hands. Given that his father is a carpenter, one could say the apple did not fall far from the tree.
The neighborhood was deserted. “Those first days we would make $10.” Little by little, though, word spread through the city’s foodie grapevine. To warm clients standing in line on the sidewalk, Torres concocted his famous dark, intense signature hot chocolates – one sweet, the other spicy. “The aim wasn’t to make French chocolate, but to adapt to the tastes of the country and offer the best products.”
Today Torres boasts four stores, and plans to open eight over the next two years. His two new stores are located in Midtown (110 East 57th Street) and NoHo (327 Lafayette Street). He has a 10-year lease for the former. His new factory is located in the historic Brooklyn Army Terminal.
The concept for his stores is simple: fine parquet floors and red painted walls create a festive atmosphere that is reflected in the bright packaging. Crystal chandeliers brighten the rainbow of orange logos, champagne truffles, candies, chocolate-covered cheerios and cornflakes, caramel popcorn, and chewy chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies as big as flying saucers. “For Valentine’s Day we created Do Not Disturb signs – made of chocolate of course – to hang on door handles.”
Although his humor is reflected in his creations, for the past 20 years Torres has taken seriously his role as Dean of Pastry Arts at the International Culinary Center, where he gives classes on how to work with chocolate and, more essentially, sugar. “Jacques Torres should be awarded the title of Teacher of the decade,” declared Dorothy Cann Hamilton, Founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center. “If there were a Nobel Prize for Pastry Arts, he would have won it. Students adore him because he knows how to handle complexity while having fun.”