Monsieur Chocolat

How do you say Willy Wonka in French? Celebrate Valentine's Day with confectioner Jacques Torres, who's applying mass production techniques to the delicate task of making fine chocolates—with delicious results.

Just hours after television viewers across the country watched him whip up a foot-long chocolate cornucopia adorned with fruit-shaped, fruit-filled chocolates and delicate chocolate leaves—an eight-hour production condensed into a kinetic 30 minutes—Jacques Torres has moved from the sublime to the seemingly ridiculous. He's putting store-bought pretzels on the 40-foot-long conveyor belt in his chocolate factory. Fine patisserie, this ain't.

Torres is one of the best-known pastry chefs on the planet. As the host of the weekly Food Network show Chocolate With Jacques Torres and the former pastry chef at Le Cirque, one of New York's top restaurants, he's renowned for his creativity and high-wire dessert engineering. He has sculptured anything and everything out of chocolate: a miniature piano, a replica of Yankee Stadium, a little stove topped with pots—tiny pots filled with sauce. He's more than a chef. He's an artist.

Yet here he is in mid-November, during the holiday crunch of all times, making his first batch of chocolate pretzels, of all things. Although this certainly ranks as a gimmick for someone of his stature in the world of haute cuisine—an act of lese-majeste on the order of Hugo Boss selling a clip-on tie—Torres is eager to see how the pretzels turn out. Not just how they taste, but how they sell.

This heretical little experiment epitomizes his approach to cooking as well as business. Torres, 44, has an insatiable appetite for new ideas and is eager to take risks, with unusual recipes (martini truffles, anyone?) and unconventional machinery and techniques. He has an unwavering eye and nose for quality. These traits, which helped him excel in the hypercompetitive, hypercritical restaurant world, are also the main ingredients for his success as a first-time entrepreneur.

Three years ago, he left his high-profile restaurant gig and opened Jacques Torres Chocolate, a factory and retail store in Brooklyn. Despite the risks—a soggy economy and an iffy neighborhood among them—Torres cooked up a success. His factory supplies hundreds of fancy restaurants, hotels, and specialty shops. The store, which sells a dozen chocolates for $12, has tripled in size. "Last year, we did 50 tons of finished product," says the French-born Torres. "I think we can triple that."

As the demand for his pricey bonbons and chili-pepper-laced hot chocolate increases, he faces a classic problem. That is, how do you ramp up production without sacrificing the quality that created your success? For Torres, the answer is intuitive: Continue improvising, trying new recipes, listening to customers, and, of course, tasting more chocolate.

That's why he doesn't cry mon dieu! at the notion, suggested by a colleague, of making chocolate pretzels. He hovers over the conveyor belt, watching the pretzels enter the coating process looking drab and naked, and emerging with a shiny layer of dark chocolate, as if they've slipped into full-length Prada gowns. "Good," Torres says, studying the thickness of the coating. "Good."

Torres is that rare combination, a creative person with business savvy. "Most people think he's the talented chef and I'm the businessperson," says Kris Kruid, his life and business partner, who oversees the administrative side. "But he makes every decision. He gets PR. He gets marketing." Mostly, he focuses on coming up with new products. "My job is R&D," Torres says.

His product may be heady, intoxicating, the object of passion and gluttony, but Torres is all about the bottom line. It doesn't matter how good his chocolates are if no one buys them. In the restaurant business, Torres observed that no matter what people say about the food, their empty or half-empty plates reveal their true feelings. At the chocolate store, the candy trays provide instant feedback on his latest experiments. Much to his surprise, cinnamon ganache covered with dark chocolate didn't sell. He pulled the product and tweaked the recipe, adding ground hazelnuts and converting to milk chocolate. Voila—another hit. "Holy cow, those things move so fast," Torres says.

He discovered his talent in the kitchen early on. He was 15 when he apprenticed at a pastry shop in his hometown, Bandol, in the south of France. After high school and a year in the military, he earned a degree as a master pastry chef, and at 26 became the youngest chef to win the distinguished Meilleur Ouvrier de France (meaning "best worker in France"), a high honor given to French craftsmen. Aside from his creativity, one of his gifts is remembering recipes and how ingredients interact, the equivalent of perfect pitch for a chef. "I forget your name five minutes after I heard it, but I don't forget recipes," he says.

After serving as Ritz Carlton's corporate pastry chef, he jumped at the chance in 1989 to be pastry chef at Le Cirque and later Le Cirque 2000. For 11 years, Torres dazzled the restaurant world with his daring and imaginative desserts, winning the industry's top awards. But along with considerable prestige came considerable pressure. Increasingly, he would wake up exhausted and sore, not from the work itself but from the stress. "Aye-aye-aye! I decide I just cannot take it anymore," he says.

He preferred the pressure of starting his own chocolate factory, a longtime dream. Friends tried to discourage him, in particular from going it alone. But he insisted on financing Jacques Torres Chocolate himself, using his and Kruid's retirement savings. "He didn't want outside investors controlling his name," Kruid says.

Initially, Torres intended to focus on supplying restaurants and hotels with fresh gourmet chocolates. The store was his landlord's idea, a way to attract traffic to a neighborhood of abandoned, graffiti-covered warehouses. The Web site, www.mrchocolate.com, was a hunch. The fact that all three segments of the business thrived still surprises him. Within a couple of months, he recouped his investment. The company has grown from a bare-bones, three-person startup to a profitable enterprise with 18 employees.

With hundreds of wholesale customers, some of whom are notorious for last-minute orders, Torres has mastered high-speed production without sacrificing his high standards or trademark artistry. Open a box of Jacques Torres chocolates and before you marvel at how they taste, you marvel at how they look. Exquisite. As though each ornate piece was crafted by hand.

It wasn't.

Torres has a knack for adapting the manufacturing process to fit his recipes. For instance, he insists on making chocolate without using chemicals. No artificial sweeteners, no preservatives. That means solving the bubble problem. When ingredients are mixed, air gets blended in, which leads to oxidation and a very impractical product—chocolate with a short shelf life. Instead of adding antioxidants, Torres cranks up a powerful vacuum mixer that's normally used to blend cosmetics. It eliminates bubbles in a process that not only extends the life of the candy, he says, but also enhances the flavors, making them more concentrated.

The vacuum mixer is not his only piece of cosmetics machinery. Another computerized apparatus that was designed to fill makeup bottles squirts chocolate, then liquid filling, into a mold—a particularly tricky procedure. That's his secret weapon for creating caramel truffles with liquid centers. The $250,000 machine is the most expensive equipment he owns, but it's worth it. It makes truffles at light speed and with far more precision than the old way: by hand.

The key is knowing what to speed up and what not to. Cooling a ganache, for example, simply can't be rushed. The flattened filling cools overnight before getting cut into squares for coating. "If you want to make money, you cool it faster, so it takes two hours, start to finish," he says. "But the filling is more dry and sweeter."

People don't come to Jacques Torres Chocolate solely for the chocolate. They come to see Jacques Torres in action. And he doesn't disappoint. He's at the factory most days, his jacket smudged with chocolate. He wanders in and out of the store, serving hot chocolate and autographing his cookbooks ("Eat dessert first," he signs). "You like cappuccino? Try this. Everybody tastes here. It's a chocolate factory!" he gushes. It's fine that people come to the store to see him, but they're supposed to leave with chocolate. Chocolate pretzels, perhaps, or martini truffles.

Within days of experimenting, Torres adds those two new products to the store. He's pleased, but as usual, the customers have the final say. "If something doesn't move, that's the last time you see it," he says.

By early December, it's looking awfully good for the pretzels and martinis. They're moving. And moving fast.

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a senior writer at Fast Company.

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