Q+A: Jacques Torres

French pastry chef, chocolatier, and judge on Nailed It!, Chef Jacques Torres has made a name for himself in the culinary world. Also referred to as Mr. Chocolate, Jacques Torres is the authority on all things related to this confectionery delight.

DYK: Jacques got his start right here in Dumbo!

He opened his first-ever chocolate shop on Water Street in 2000, and the rest is history. In honor of his twentieth anniversary in the neighborhood, we sat down (virtually, of course) with Jacques to talk chocolate, his experiences in the kitchen, and how fear of the subway led to running a marathon and ultimately, led him to Dumbo.

{This interview has been edited for length and clarity.}

You must be called "Mr. Chocolate" for a reason. What got you into chocolate?

My family likes to work with our hands. My dad was a carpenter, one of my brothers was a chef, and my other brother was a carpenter. We are craftsmen. We love to build and we love to make things.

When I was I think 14 or 15, I told my brother, “Okay look, I don’t want to stay in school. I want to be a chef.” In France, you can leave school at 16. And he told me, “Look, there is no good restaurant here in Bandol {Jacques' hometown}, but there is a good pastry shop– maybe you should try that.” So I went and talked to the owner, and he told me to come on Saturday and on Sunday, and that if they liked me, they would hire me for an apprenticeship. I went and I tried it, and from day one I fell in love instantly. I mean what’s not to fall in love with, you know? The food, the goodies, the smells, the croissants and the brioches coming out of the oven in the morning. I just love it.

When I became a pastry chef, we worked with chocolate right away. I love the fact that when you work with chocolate, you don’t have to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning. You can start a little bit later.

We are craftsmen. We love to build and we love to make things.

You've been working in kitchens since you were 16! How did you go from working in a pastry shop in Bandol, to owning  your own chocolate empire?

When I was still in France, I did the "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" competition, the "Best Craftsman in my Profession" competition. I won that competition in 1968 and got the MOF medal in Pastry. In 1988, I decided that I needed another challenge. And what better challenge than to leave your country with a couple of suitcases and start over? So I said, “You know what. I’m 28, let’s do it.” So I got some suitcases, I contacted the Ritz-Carlton, and ended up in California, and then Atlanta, as their corporate pastry chef.

A year later, the restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, the owner of Le Cirque, called me and said, “We’re looking for a pastry chef. How do you feel about moving to Manhattan?” It was just before Thanksgiving. I came to New York, and had an interview with Daniel and Sirio. Sirio was really magical. He was charming and everybody just loved him. He convinced me to come to Manhattan.

Before I left Atlanta, the guys there told me so many scary stories about Manhattan! They told me that if someone talked to me, I shouldn't talk back with my accent, because they would kill me. They told me not to take the subway too. I was so scared! So when I got to Manhattan, I ran everywhere. For months, I never took the subway! A year later, I heard there was going to be a marathon in New York, and I entered it since I was running everywhere everyday anyways. Eventually I discovered the subway, and oh my god, no more running! That was great. I ended up working at Le Cirque for 11 years.

What better challenge than to leave your country with a couple of suitcases and start over?

From Le Cirque to Dumbo must have been something of a shock. How did that come about?

After almost 20-something years of doing pastries, I decided I wanted to work in chocolate, so I decided it was time to open my own business. At first, I didn't think about a store; I was just looking to build a kitchen. That was 2000. New York was booming. There was a lot of construction and the economy was good. I wanted about 4,000 - 5,000 sq ft. of space. I looked all over Manhattan, I looked at Queens, I looked all over, but I couldn't find any space that I could afford. Then, it occurred to me to look at Dumbo. When I was training for the marathon, I would often run over the Brooklyn Bridge, run through DUMBO, and cross the Manhattan Bridge to come back. One Sunday, on a long run, as I passed through DUMBO, I got to thinking, “This neighborhood is going to explode. It’s going to be popular because it’s so easily accessible to Manhattan. There are two bridges, there’s a subway. There’s no reason why this neighborhood would not get developed.”

So, I decided to look for a place in Dumbo I learned that David Walentas was the man to talk in Dumbo. Jed was just beginning to work with his dad, he was a kid at the time. David showed me a space, but then a little bit later he came back to me and said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you lost your space. We’re going to knock down the building. But the good news is, I have another space, in fact I’ll let you pick between two spaces." He showed me the spot here at 66 Water St, and I signed the lease. 

Building before Jacques Torres Store
Building before Jacques Torres Store

The space was completely raw. It needed everything. I talked to a contractor, and they told me it would be $600,000 just to clean the space, put in some sheet rock, and wire it for electricity! When I told them I have a budget of about $120,000, they just walked away!

The space at 66 Water Street
The space at 66 Water Street

I'm thinking: “Oh my god, what do I do now?” So with a couple friends, we tackled the work ourselves. My dad was a carpenter, so I could do that. And my friend was a chef who worked construction in the off season, so he helped. And he had a friend who was a waiter and was strong enough to carry things. So we said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot!”

The three of us started the construction, and when Jed saw us, he told everyone, “Those guys are just three chefs, they don’t know what they’re doing. The rats are going to eat them in the neighborhood. They’re gone, that’s it, it’s over.” And in the end he came to see us and said, “Look, you guys, you did good. You were actually better than I thought.” I was proud!

We definitely innovated for sure. When I was putting the tape down for the sheet rock, I didn’t do it with the tools that people usually use, but I did it with an offset spatula and a piping bag. Those are my tools. I’m thinking, "you know, it’s a little bit like a big wedding cake, and I can do that. So I tackled the the 5,000 sq ft. with my offset spatula and my piping bag! Everybody was laughing at me, but you know at the end of the day-it worked. It was fun and rewarding.

When I was putting in the sheet rock, I didn’t do it with the tools that people usually use. I did it with an offset spatula and a piping bag. Those are my tools.

What about the friends you left behind at Le Cirque, and in Manhattan? What did they think of your Dumbo adventure?

It’s funny: the other chefs were saying “That’s it, he’s gone. We won’t see him again. He left Manhattan. He opened in a place that nobody knows about. DUMBO. What is that?”

Nobody knew DUMBO at the time. And you didn't leave Manhattan, you just didn't At that time, no chef was going anywhere if they weren’t in Manhattan. Twenty years ago, you went to Manhattan–and you had all the lights of the world on you. But I left those lights and I came to DUMBO. Little did I know, the lights would follow me! People sought me out, and they made me a success. There was a line of people every weekend in front of my store. That was like a dream, you know? I would look at those lines thinking, “This is crazy!” People would recognize me. Brooklyn residents were coming to me and saying, “Thank you for opening here. It’s such a nice place!” Then I would reply back with, “Thank you for coming to spend your money with us!” I mean, that was such a magical moment for the first few years. It was absolutely unbelievable.

Jacques Torres Storefront Today
Jacques Torres Storefront Today

What was Dumbo like in 2000?

 There was the pizza place {Front Street Pizza.} There was Peas & Pickles. And there was us. There wasn't a lot at the time.

The beginning was pretty hard. We struggled. I was on TV at that time. I was on PBS, then Food Network, and a lot of tourists started coming to the neighborhood asking, “Where is the Jacques Torres store?” So the neighborhood told me, “We are tired of people asking us, ‘Where is Jacques Torres store?’ Please put signs around. We are tired of answering people!” So that was cute, that was always funny. It’s funny how it worked out.

"A pair of twenties." That was a word in Dumbo at that time.

"A pair of twenties." That was a word in Dumbo at that time, "a pair of twenties." Once, I received a machine from Germany, and they asked if I wanted sidewalk delivery or inside delivery. The difference in price was big enough that I said, leave it outside. So they came, they brought the machine, they dumped it in front of the store – and we cannot move that machine. That thing was too heavy. It was like a tank. Night is coming, and I’m thinking, my god, what is going to happen to my machine in Brooklyn? So I walked around the neighborhood, and there was a place down the street that made cardboard boxes, and I saw they have a forklift. So I went to the person who was working there, and I showed him a couple twenties, and said, how many of those will it take for you to lift the machine and put it on top of my stairs? Ten minutes, later he came with his forklift!

You know the Sweeney building, the big building on Main and Water? Before it was apartments, it was offices, and the city was renting that place. One day, they were moving out, and there were all these desks, filing cabinets, and chairs. Some were being taken away, but some where also going into the garbage. So I went to those workers, and I said, I have some twenties and I need a couple desks, I need a few things for my office. And then, on his lunch break, here comes two guys with desks and chairs!

Then there was the time Meg Ryan shot a movie on the Brooklyn Bridge {Kate & Leopold, in 2001.} Everyday, the construction workers for this movie shoot would come to my store to have a cappuccino. I went to see what they were doing, and they built a cityscape from the 1900s! And they built everything with wood. I used to go everyday to Home Depot, I know the price of wood, it’s expensive. And I needed to build shelves in the basement. So-- I told those workers, let's make a deal. You can have free cappuccino and free croissants while you are here, but when you leave, don’t trash the wood, give me the wood that I need to build shelves in the basement. So that's what we did! And you know, we become friends, of course we become friends, I become friends with everyone at that time. So the last few days of the shooting they take everything apart, and they came again with the forklift and they dumped all that wood in front of my store, and I was so happy because I had wood to build shelving in my basement to put all the packaging and stuff.

A lot of sweat equity went into the space on Water Street. We just made it happen, with a lot of help from everyone.

A lot of sweat equity went into the space on Water Street. We just made it happen, with a lot of help from everyone.

You're one of the things that put Dumbo on the map!

No, the reason is David Walentas. He had the vision to buy this neighborhood and to transform this neighborhood. I was a byproduct of what he did. When people tell me, “You’re a visionary”, I would love to answer, "Yes!" But the reality is that this was pretty much the only place that I could afford. 

We were just three people in those early years. I was the dishwasher, the business owner, the driver - I was even taking the subway to deliver chocolate. I mean, it’s crazy. David Walentas helped us a lot. He stopped by once, and I told him I needed to put a door in order to access the restroom, but there is a thick wall in the way. He said, “I don’t know how to do those things.” I said, “Okay, I’ll look around and I’ll find a way.” The next day, someone showed up and said, “I’m here to open the space because I heard you needed a door.” I said, “Who sent you?” And he said, “David asked me to stop by.” In less than half a day, he put something in to hold the bricks, and then he removed the bricks, and then told us, “Okay, now it’s secure.” David never charged us for it. That was very nice.

When we were negotiating my lease, and I said to David, “Look, I need more free rent.” And David was saying, “I gave you one year of free rent, nobody gives one year of free rent, what else do you want from me?” And I said, “Mr. Walentas, I need one and a half year.” Why? I don’t know why I said that. Go figure. But I knew that if I could get free rent, then eventually we could pay for construction and be able to sustain ourselves. And I really wanted to sustain this business. David agreed to give us one a half year of free rent, and then very low rent at the beginning.

I told my partner at the time, who was my dear friend and my sous-chef, “Look, if we don’t make it here, then we are three idiots. Because we have no expenses, and we have no loans. We should be able to make it, even if we have very little sales.” And that’s how we started.

We opened in December of 2000, and a year later September 11th happened. I never saw anything like that. On September 11th, we actually sold quite a bit. The next day, I think we also sold quite a bit. And then nothing. I mean, nothing, not one dollar, for I don’t know how many days. Nobody was showing up, nobody. We started to really worry, like, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” And I remember a friend of mine told all of his friends either via email or mail, “We need to support our friend. Please go visit Jacques Torres Chocolates.” I don’t know if that was what triggered the stuff, but for a month there was nothing, and then slowly the business came back. But we almost closed during that time. It was hard.

A lot of sweat equity went into the space on Water Street. We just made it happen, with a lot of help from everyone.

I think that residents are the people that really make your business. Define your business.

You helped bring Almondine to Dumbo, too, right?

Yeah, David Walentas approached me one day and he said, “I want a bakery.” I said, “Look, I don’t want to do pastries. I know it’s my forte but I don’t want to do pastries.” But he really wanted a bakery, and one day he stopped by to tell me he had lined up some Italians to open a bakery. That's when I gave in – I didn't want a bakery to open that might also sell chocolate! So I said, “Okay David, I’ll do it. I’ll bring a friend and I’ll do it.” I reached out to my friend Herve, he was leaving the place where he was working, and I told him, “Would you partner with me on the bakery? I don’t want a big stake, I’ll invest 25% of the cost, and I’ll be 25% partner, but I just want to help you. And then eventually, you can buy my share back.” So Herve came and we built the place together. I stayed there for the first 2-3 years, and then eventually I got out and Herve took over. Herve was a good choice, he’s a good professional. So that’s the story about Almondine.

We always say the best way to spend $3 in Dumbo is on a Jacques Torres cookie. What's the cookie origin story?

The cookies have been good for us, we sell a lot of cookies. We probably sell 250,000 - 300,000 cookies a year between all my New York stores. That's more than five million cookies in 20 years! In the beginning, I started just making one tray--a ten kilo batch, that gives us 100 cookies. And then I doubled the batch, and then tripled. Then my staff came to me and said, “Look, it’s too many cookies, our wrists hurt scooping the cookies.” So I looked around and I found a machine that could cut the dough. So I would 10 kilos of dough on the sheet pan, and that machine was cutting them into squares, and then we'd roll them into balls to bake them. Then we started to sell too many, and we couldn't keep up, so to make things go faster, we decided not to roll the cookies before we baked them; we'd just leave them square. And then guess what! We baked them square and they came out round! And then eventually, that machine was not big enough for us, so we bought another machine called Vemag, that cuts 80 cookies a minute. Now when we make them, we make about 8,000 cookies at a time, and then we bake them during the week and deliver it to the stores all together. Yes: we sell a lot of cookies.

We probably sell 250,000 - 300,000 cookies a year between all my New York stores. That's more than five million cookies in 20 years!

What has been the best change you’ve seen in the neighborhood since you’ve been here?

More people. Residents. I think that residents are the people that really make your business. Define your business. You have to kind of follow residents, and then they make your business. In the beginning, I was involved with everything: with the sales, with the decoration, with the making of the chocolate, with the packaging, with everything. And for one Valentine’s Day, I decided that I was going to paint angels and hearts on the window. So I take some watercolor and I start painting my window, and I was busy because I had to make chocolates for Valentine’s Day and I didn’t have much time. So every customer that came in, I gave them the brush and some paint, and I asked them if they could paint something on the window - a heart, initial, whatever they can paint. It doesn’t matter if it’s cute, a flower, whatever they wanted. And I tell them, “That’s your store. Do whatever you want.” So people jumped in the game and painted things. And that was a brilliant idea because people who painted things usually brought something for their their lover, mom, wife, or girlfriend, and then they brought them to the store to show them what they painted because most likely, their name was in it, and then those people painted something else, and bought something else, and it continued.

In the beginning, I was telling people, “Talk to me. Tell me what you want.” Especially at the start, when I didn’t have a line of products. So I told people, “Tell me what you want. What chocolate do you love? Do you love white chocolate? I’ll buy white chocolate! Do you love milk? I’ll buy milk! You want nuts, I’ll buy nuts. Tell me what you would like and I will make it.” Some people told me to make some Parisian croissants, an  pain au chocolat, and to make really good American cookies. So I made really good American cookies with chocolate. Whatever the neighborhood tells you, is what they want. And if you do something that the neighborhood wants, they will buy it from you. It makes sense.

The success -- it was not just us. It was Walentas helping us out. It was the advice we got from the neighborhood. The stars were aligned in the right way when we opened. You know, it was the right time, it was the beginning of cool Brooklyn, Brooklyn became cool after that. And DUMBO became really cool.

David was really a visionary. I mean, this guy is so smart, to think about Dumbo before Dumbo even existed. I have a lot of respect for Jed for building on what his dad started, but David was like, wow.

And if you do something that the neighborhood wants, they will buy it from you.

So, we have OG Dumbonians to thank for the existence of your "really good American cookies" - that's amazing. How else did the neighborhood influence your business?

 Gleason’s Gym–I have a good story about these guys. I’m fascinated with this place, because this place creates champions. You know, when you bake and when you make chocolate, not all your batches comes out well. Sometimes you mess up things.  I used to take croissants that was not up to the standard, or chocolate that was not up to the standard, to Gleason’s Gym and give them away. I was scared of those guys, I wanted to be polite, and be a good neighbor. So I used to give them stuff, and then after the gym, a lot of those guys would come to the chocolate shop and buy the milk bark, because it’s rich in protein, it has nuts, and it refills them with energy. It was funny to see those big guys at my chocolate counter, buying bark.

Ok. We have to ask. What's YOUR favorite chocolate, after all these years?

It depends on the time of day! If it’s the afternoon, between lunch and dinner, say 4pm, when you start to be a little bit hungry and you want to eat something sweet? At that time, I like milk chocolate with nuts. And in the evening, I love to eat dark, single origin, 75-80% cocoa content chocolate. And what I can tell you is if I eat a chocolate that I don’t like, I will stop making it.