Interview with TV Chef Jacques Torres
What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"Pierre Franey’s producer wanted to do a show with me. This was around 1998, and I think we shot our first PBS show that same year. He saw me doing demos at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) and said, ’I have to put you in front of an audience.’ I thought that was funny because I was already in front of an audience at the FCI. So I guess he thought I was already doing something that could work well on TV. You really have to be a good entertainer, or the show won’t work. For me, it was all about having fun with the audience, which meant that I could usually forget that the camera was there. It was kind of like being in the classroom."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"Chocolate cornflakes are a hit. Mixing chocolate with cornflakes to make dollops of candy with that crunch and saltiness just has a magic to it. People watch you do it and think, Oh it’s so easy, and then they taste it and say, ’I want to do this.’ It’s recipes like this that are very successful on TV, because they’re so simple. There are so many stages to make mistakes: If chocolate is not tempered the right way it will turn white, and that’s called a ’fat bloom,’ or if it’s too cold it will become a block before you take it out of the bowl. I temper chocolate in front of the audience and take a spoon and spoon it onto the paper and try to take the easiest approach to a recipe and explain it. One trick I show people is to use one spoon to scoop the chocolate and cornflakes and another spoon to scrape the mixture onto the baking sheet. This helps because you must work quickly. If you’re slow, the mixture starts to harden and becomes difficult to scoop.
On TV, I really try to go back to the basics and break down a recipe until it’s very easy. This recipe is a perfect example. It’s two ingredients, and you just put them together. It can’t get much easier. I use my chocolate for this but you can use any good chocolate. "Caramelized Nuts Rolled in Chocolate worked very well because people just get it right away. When you’re rolling the nuts in the chocolate, make sure that they are not too warm, because you are caramelizing the nuts first. It’s smart to even put the nuts in the fridge for a little bit. I put the syrup and the nuts in the pan, and then remove the pan from the heat. If you keep it on, the caramel melts completely and will burn, but if you stop the heat, they stay caramelized. Once the nuts are cool, roll them in tempered chocolate and make sure you’re folding them into the chocolate immediately so the chocolate won’t set and the nuts won’t stick together. I like using all kinds of nuts-almonds, macadamias, hazelnuts, pistachios. I recommend a heavy copper pot with a rounded bottom, because the copper conducts heat more evenly and a rounded bottom allows you to tilt it to the angle you want for stirring. The biggest thing is to keep stirring the nuts while they’re caramelizing. Watch the color change-when the sugar changes to a liquid form, take the pan off the burner and keep stirring. Then lower the heat to medium to low and keep stirring the mixture."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"I do a combination of easy and complicated. I think what sets me apart is the ’wow’ part of some of the interesting and complicated things I do with chocolate—my medium is unique. People love seeing me start with melted chocolate and turn it into a castle. So the show has recipes where it’s me entertaining, doing these magic things with chocolate, and then me doing easier recipes and teaching people things they can do at home."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"When I worked with Julia Child on my show, she moved the caramel in such a way that it drizzled onto my wrist, and we don’t shoot again, so I kept smiling and working. When the camera was off and I was finally able to remove it, both the caramel and the skin came off my wrist. On the show, you can see I kind of jump and then keep going, but my wrist was burned. You don’t want that to happen. Another experience wasn’t on camera but during rehearsal: I was pouring chocolate over a balloon, and it exploded. I was trying to deflate the balloon to get an empty cage of chocolate, but the tip of the bag touched it and it exploded, and there was chocolate everywhere—all over the set, the cameras—and everyone had to clean it up. Also, kids in the audience are always funny. I always give things to the audience and ask people if they like it, and once, I asked this little kid if he liked something—it had passion fruit, which has lots of acidity and flavor. Every time I give it to adults they love it for the strong flavors, but not this kid. He looked at me, spit it out, and said, ’No, I don’t like it.’ Kids are so honest. He said it right on camera, and everyone was laughing."