NEW YORK—Jacques Torres grew up in Provence, France, in a gorgeous climate and surrounded by world-class ingredients. It was this environment, in conjunction with his family’s inspiration, that started Torres on a culinary odyssey that would ultimately bring him to the United States and establish his reputation as Mr. Chocolate.
Torres’s father was a carpenter, and his brother was a chef. At first, Torres wanted to be a diver. Then he wanted to be a carpenter like his father. Ultimately, he knew he wanted to be a craftsman of some sort.
“I will create things with my hands, and I will see what I create, and hopefully sell it,” Torres told Humanity.
Becoming a Craftsman
There was a good pastry shop in Bandol, and his brother suggested that he try pastry making because he might enjoy it. He trailed another pastry chef in the town, and immediately was drawn to the art.
“I fell in love, and I look at those products and I say, ‘You know what, I’m going to do that for the rest of my life,'” Torres recalled.
Torres found it immensely satisfying to start off with basic ingredients such as flour, sugar, butter, and eggs and to end up with a beautiful finished product. For Torres, the second rewarding part of making pastries was seeing diners’ reactions to his creations.
Seeing them smile, seeing them happy, and seeing their attitude change after eating his pastries was a gift for him.
Torres started an apprenticeship at 16 years old at a pastry shop in his hometown. It wasn’t always easy, particularly when he saw his friends going to the beach and out at night while Torres would have to get up early in the morning.
“Friends were coming out of the nightclub and seeing me making a croissant. That’s not an easy thing when you walk into that profession,” Torres remembered. “But if you want to learn that craft, you have to go through that.”
When Torres graduated from his apprenticeship, it was a stepping stone to becoming a chef. At the time, he was required to serve one year in the French military. After his service, he went to meet his girlfriend in Nice.
The Big Break
He was strolling with his girlfriend through town when he passed Hotel Negresco, one of the best restaurants in the south of France. Normally, one has to have a contact or be invited to work at Hotel Negresco. However, the formality didn’t stop Torres.
“But when you’re 19, 20 years old, you’re kind of gutsy. So I just went to the front door and asked for a job, and they kicked me out and they said, ‘You cannot come through this door. If you look for a job you have to go in the back door,'” Torres said.
He went to the back door and met one of the cooks. The man was surprised to see him, but informed him that they might actually be looking for a pastry chef. He walked him into the kitchen, where he met Jacques Maximin, a revered chef at the time.
Maximin told him he had 20 cooks working for him. If Torres was good he’d keep him. Otherwise he’d kick him out. The ambitious, fearless 20-year-old Torres simply said: “Try me.”
Surprised at the way Torres spoke to him, Maximin kind of liked his attitude. He told Torres to return to the kitchen in an hour. Torres scrambled to find a chef’s jacket and pants, and about an hour later was back in the kitchen at Hotel Negresco. That would be the first day of an illustrious career.
Honing His Skills
From 1980 to 1988, Torres worked as the pastry chef at Hotel Negresco. Learning under Maximin was an invaluable experience for him.
“He kind of educate me into what was the high hand of culinary. He also teach me what it take to be a chef and to be well known into the profession, and to respect the profession, and to work harder than what you would normally do,” Torres said.
During this time, Torres was also attending culinary school one day a week. He graduated as a Master Pastry Chef in 1985. It was the third stepping stone in his career.
Torres also won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is the most prestigious craftsmanship award in the country. Furthermore, he was the youngest person to ever earn the distinction. After working at the prestigious Hotel Negresco, completing culinary school, and earning the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Torres decided to venture to the U.S. to search for a new challenge.
Coming to America
In 1988, he moved to the U.S. to become the corporate pastry chef for The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company. After a year, he got a call from another chef in France who told him that if he wanted to get more exposure, New York was the place to be. It just so happened that Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque in New York was looking for a pastry chef.
In 1989 he arrived in New York to work at Le Cirque. He learned what American tastes were. Moreover, he learned the adage “the customer is always right.” So instead of trying to impose his tastes on customers, he strove to make the dishes they’d like the best way possible. Trying to please the customer has always been a core part of any of his businesses.
When Torres first started learning how to make pastries, he discovered he had a passion for chocolate. He also learned he wouldn’t have to get up as early in the morning to make chocolates. There was another reason for his interest in chocolate as well.
“Everybody loves chocolates. Any gender, any age, any race, everybody loves chocolate, so that was making more sense to me,” he said.
Becoming Mr. Chocolate
While there were several pastry chefs in New York, there weren’t really that many chocolate makers. He was working at Le Cirque, but he knew he wanted to start a chocolate business. He was trying to figure out a website for his blossoming business plan. At first, he thought about jacquestorres.com.
“Who is going to be able to write that down? Jacques is very difficult to write. J, A, C, Q, U, E, S, nobody can spell that. So I’m thinking no, that’s not a good website. What can I do, What can I do? Then I’m thinking MrChocolate.com everybody can spell that,” Torres said.
So he called his girlfriend at the time to see if the website name was available. It was, and he took the name. He started putting “Mr. Chocolate” on his products, and it quickly became his title.
In 2000, Torres opened his own chocolate factory and shop in Brooklyn, New York.
Since then, he has opened seven chocolate shops including an ice cream shop.
“To tell you the truth, Willy Wonka is a fake. He’s not Mr. Chocolate. He’s not! He’s an actor! I am Mr. Chocolate,” he said with a chuckle.
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