A Conversation with Celebrity Pastry Chef Jacques Torres

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A Conversation with Celebrity Pastry Chef Jacques Torres. This interview took place shortly after the release of Jacques' book Dessert Circus while we was at le Cirque 2000.

Jacques Torres grew up in Bandol, France, a small town in the southern region of Provence. By the time he was 15, he decided to try the world of baking. During his next vacation, he began an apprenticeship at La Frangipan, a small pastry shop in his home town. After two years, he completed his apprenticeship requirements and graduated first in his class. He continued his practice in La Cadiere d'Azur while waiting for his obligatory year of military time.

In 1980, on a bet with a friend, he approached the Michelin two-star chef Jacques Maximin at the Hotel Negresco and innocently inquired for a job. Maximin gave him an hour to return to work with a chef's coat. A relationship grew from this encounter that would last eight years and take him around the globe. During this time with the Hotel Negresco he worked on refining his skills and nurtured his intuitive sense of confectionery artistry.

1980-1983, he was back to school on his days off to earn the dress of Master Pastry Chef. Then he taught pastry at a local culinary school in Cannes from 1983-1986. Always using the time to enhance his abilities, he honed his skill in preparation for the infamous Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) competition. In 1986, Jacques was awarded the prestigious MOF medal and became the youngest chef to earn this distinction.

In 1989, the legendary Sirio Maccioni invited Jacques to work at New York's most famous restaurant, Le Cirque. He used a $100,000 custom-built pastry kitchen to entice Jacques (it worked). During the past six years, Jacques has served presidents, kings and celebrities in his everyday work at Le Cirque. He donates his time to many national charity organizations such as the American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, God+'s Love We Deliver, New York's Hard of Hearing Association, Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center, the Association to Benefit Children and many others. He serves as Dean of Pastry Studies at New York's French Culinary Institute.

His list of achievements during the past six years includes participation in -"Merci" Julia the world's top culinary professionals' salute to Julia Child; Julia Child's Master Chefs television series; James Beard Pastry Chef of the Year; Pierre Franey's birthday celebrations; Chefs of America Pastry of the Year; Chocolatier Magazine's 10 Best Pastry Chefs; The Masters of Food & Wine' Chartreuse Pastry Chef Award; member of Academie Culinaire de France; and Cunard+'s Culinary Crossing on the Queen Elizabeth II.

Some of Jacques' culinary awards and achievements include consulting and product development for Cointreau and Valrhona; participation in the rededication ceremonies for the Stature of Liberty honoring French President Francois Mitterand and United States President Ronald Reagan; Le Figaro's Culinary Cruise; recipient of the gold medal of the Japanese Pastry Chef Association; winner of the 1986 French Championship of Desserts; culinary weeks in Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne and Spain as well as participation in many other competitions and culinary events in France.

Jacques Torres was nice enough to talk with Fabulous Foods from his pastry kitchen at New York's famous Le Cirque 2000 restaurant.

{pagebreak} Interview

Fab Foods:
When you were fourteen or fifteen and decided to pursue your now career, were you as creative as you are now?
Jacques Torres: No, no, not at all. I just work hard, very hard and tried to learn everything I could. It seems as if there was always something new that I wanted to try. I love to work with my hands and to create. I think I am doing the same today....

Fab Foods: Your parents must have been so instrumental with encouraging you.
Jacques Torres: They were wonderful. You know, sometimes you just don't realize how very special your parents are until you get a little older. They have been with me every step of the way. I miss them.

Fab Foods: After reading and cooking from your book "Dessert Circus," I have the feeling that you are having fun. There is a lot of personality in the book.
Jacques Torres: Listen, I truly love what I do and I think that comes through. You know at first I was a little worried that this book just might be confusing, but with the help of the most wonderful person that I share my life with, Kris (she writes, I cook), we both feel that this book is an eye opening adventure in the art of pastry cooking.

Fab Foods: Talk to everyone about Kris.
Jacques Torres: Well, I can tell you that Kris cannot cook, however if I am making something and she doesn't understand a step or the reason why, she points out ,and rightly so, that if she doesn't understand what I am doing that the people that are using my cookbook probably wouldn't. I need that. She is my support system and the calm I need in my life. Like occasionally she will say that it is time to go away for a vacation. You know we just got back from vacation and while I was gone I was thinking of new things to create, that is just how I am. I feel that the cookbook project as well as others projects that have been done just would not have been completed without Kris.

Christina Wright has been a driving force with her energy making my creativity come to life. She is the co-writer of this book. She has actually tasted every recipe and she is the associate producer of the television series. She came into my kitchen about five years ago to volunteer her time as an apprentice. She is a graduate of Peter Kump's professional baking and cooking program and has spent many years in the pastry kitchen at Le Cirque.

Fab Foods: I must tell you that the photography is just magnificent throughout the book.
Jacques Torres: Thank you. I have another wonderful person to thank for the work. His name is John Uher. He is a very talented photographer and I feel very fortunate he joined our project.

Fab Foods: Do you have any tips that you would share with our readers?
Jacques Torres: Well, I think, especially if you are interested in the art of pastry cooking, you need to have fun with it and you need patience. Remember you are creating something.

Fab Foods: In your book you do tell people that it is alright to make a mistake. If something is not working...start over.
Jacques Torres: Oh, I make so many mistakes...but you know what, that is just how I learn. Especially if you are trying to create something new, you have to fall, but you are better because of that experience. No one can create anything perfectly the first time they try. So, clean up and start over. I am a teacher and it is important for me to see how things work so I can share the end results with the people. So from beginning to end I also am trying to learn to enhance the way I teach, so some where along the line there will be mistakes...it's alright!

Fab Foods: Do you have a favorite utensil?
Jacques Torres: Actually all of equipment is good. For instance, I don't have a lot of knives at home, I have a couple of great knives, that I take care of. The same goes for pots, you cannot cook well with a pot that does not distribute the heat correctly. The same goes for ovens. You know, you need to think about buying good quality equipment that will last for a lifetime. It is an investment but it is well worth it.

Fab Foods: How is the new Le Cirque doing?
Jacques Torres: It is wonderful. I have the most beautiful pastry kitchen. It is just amazing. I have nine people working with me, which is a lot of people but everything is coming together beautifully. We are so excited about it.

Fab Foods: You have a new T.V. show, "Dessert Circus with Jacques Torres".
Jacques Torres: Yes, it is an all new 26-part national series for public television. I think it will be different and fun. There will be friends that visit like, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Sirio Maccioni, Mimi Sheraton, Robert LaFosse and children from the audience. The show will feature from the fun to the fabulous, however everything can be created at home.

Fab Foods: You have a Web site where people  can write to you and ask questions or just leave comments.
Jacques Torres: Yes, we have been getting a lot of response from the Web site. Kris or Tina or myself will answer back. For me I don't write English that well, but it is fun. (Author's note: believe me, Jacques communicates extremely well!!). I also help you find specialty tools or ingredients that may be hard for you to find. People can also write me in care of Team Torres, P.O. Box 303, New York, New York 10101-0303. Jacques Torres Web site address is www.jacquestorres.com.

FabFoods: What is in the future for you?
Jacques Torres: Definitely more of the same but I am already thinking about the next cookbook..but I want to keep communicating with people, creating and teaching...I love it!

If you are in New York City and want to visit Le Cirque 2000, call (212) 794-9292. The address is 455 Madison Avenue, New York 10022.