Jacques Torres, known fondly as "Mr. Chocolate," has spent his life devoted to the world's favorite confection. With only apprenticeship experience, he landed a job at the Hotel Negresco in the South of France and in less than a decade became the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvriers de France medal in Pastry. He's since hosted his own television shows, published two cookbooks, and now serves as the Dean of Pastry Arts at New York's International Culinary Center. This week, Torres tempers his way through The Tenth Degree.
What is your favorite sandwich? I just did some work with an open-faced sandwich called tartine; you get a lot of contrast between the bread and the filling. I add a little bit of butter and make it crispy, then a little bit of cream cheese, maybe some prosciutto, arugula, an egg—all those textures and flavors. I don't like a sandwich where you just bite and get something soft.
Your house is on fire and you can only save one thing. What is it and why? There are no recipe books, no techniques that after 40 years I don't have in my mind and in my hands. I've done that for too long that no fire is going to take that from me. So, assuming my wife is fine, I have this fishing rod, a very fancy G. Loomis rod. I'd probably take that.
What book is on your bedside table right now? I'm not 20 anymore, and with age you get less flexible so you have to try different things, including yoga. So I have this yoga book called kama sutra on my table. It's a good, beautiful book! You can find it on amazon.com if you'd like.
You're having a dinner party and you can invite three people, dead or alive, and serve them one thing. Who are they, what do you serve, and why? First I would pick my dad; he passed away just before I opened my business. He never saw me in my business, so I would love for him to see everything and how I have grown now. Next, I'd invite Forrest Mars, Sr., the creator of the Mars Bar and M&M's, one of the most beloved candies in the world. Last, I'd invite Leonardo da Vinci. He's an artist, but on top of that he was a mathematician, an inventor, one of the first people to draw human anatomy. To me, what he did in his one lifetime is unbelievable.
It’s almost irrelevant what I’d serve; the conversation is what would matter. But I’d probably take a big John Dory and put it on a bed of fennel branches (they grow wild in the South of France), and little bit of olive oil, done very simple. Maybe I’d serve it with some fresh tomatoes.
What is your greatest fear? Lately, have you heard that we might run out of cocoa? That there is a shortage? What would I do?
What is the most overrated ingredient? Underrated? Cocoa powder is overrated. You make chocolate, you extract the cocoa butter, and the cocoa powder is just what's leftover. It's just a byproduct; it's unrefined and doesn't have good flavor.
As for underrated, I’d say cocoa nibs. I love to cook them with salmon—the crunch and flavor is really good. I have a pepper grinder and I put nibs in it and grind them over fish or salad, using it like a spice.
You can have any superpower. What is it and why? Related to my life, I never have enough time. I'm running after things and I hate to be late. Do you know The Flash? On TV? I imagine if I could do that, I would be able to move fast and play along. I would love to be Flash.
What's the first thing you learned to cook? Vacherin. It is just blocks of meringue you put on parchment paper, and it's not really baked, it just dries in the oven, and then you put ice cream on top. Then you pipe whipped cream around—it's very impressive, it looks like, "Wow!" but it's actually very easy to do. I used to make it with my mom. She was so patient, because I'd be playing with it in the kitchen, and sometimes the floor would get so sticky, but she let me practice. I was around 14 years old, and I loved to make it whenever we had family over.
What is the best advice you've ever gotten, and from whom? One is "never settle for mediocrity," told to me by my old boss, Chef Jacques Maximin at Hotel Negresco, and by legendary restaurateur Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque. And Madame Jeanne Augier, owner of the Hotel Negresco in the South of France, told me "you're never too rich to buy cheap," and I think it's true. Those two things never leave me.
What's the last meal you want to eat before you die? To me, food is related to ambience, so it would certainly be in the South of France, it would certainly be fall, if I can pick the season, and it would be with my wife, in a place where I can see the Mediterranean, the place where I grew up. There would certainly be a bouillabaisse, maybe a salad, some fruit and a chocolate dessert. I would share it with my wife, and take a moment between courses, because I think eating is pleasure. I would try to mix pleasure between food and romance. What's better than comfort food with someone that you love?
Looking for another sweet Tenth Degree? Read our Q&A with Christina Tosi»
This is an edited transcript of our phone conversation with Torres.