Field Report:
The Demos of Two Jacques, Jacques Pépin and Jacques Torres, French Culinary Institute, SoHo, NYC
Diana, SuSu, Wraith6
Illustrated with photographs by Wraith6

Jacques Torres

SuSu, as Culinary Padawan is learning many of the 250 "basic techniques" required of French chefs (basic, my ass, we all say! Read her reports and tell us they're basic!) which includes "culinary arts" as well as "pastry." The second of two consecutive days of demos we attended was for Jacques Torres, who is well-known as "Mr. Chocolate," the pastry chef for Le Cirque (the Circus) restaurant in New York City, and for his Food Network series: "Passion for Chocolates" and "Passion for Desserts." He's as sexy as Jacques Pépin, the Grand Master of French Cuisine, but younger, more goofy, much more like a stuffed animal. His student helpers were much more relaxed, and the audience was more boisterous.

Torres is a pastry wunderkind, having won the highest competition honors -- the Meilleur Ouvrier de France -- when he was a mere 26 -- the youngest winner ever. By 28, he'd decided he needed larger and better challenges, so moved to the USA to work as corporate pastry chef for the Ritz-Carleton group. He lived in California ("My apartment included tennis courts, golf course, pool, and many single women, I loved America! I even had a cowboy hat!"), but Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque let him design his own pastry kitchen and provided him with a Pastry Brigade. Even with such an honorable inducement, he found New York forbidding. But after a couple of years, he settled in and never left again. (Especially after he learned to pay attention to the signs on the subway and stopped getting lost. He's from a village of 7000 in southern France, no wonder he was lost!)

Today's demonstration was viennoiseries or croissant type of pastries, including pain au chocolat and fruit danishes, all from the same dough. He talked about how he would make croissants for his breakfast at his shop "Jacques Torres Chocolates" in Brooklyn, and people used to ask for some. He used to give them away, and then eventually decided he should sell them, even though pastries were not his focus. Even so, he resolved to make the best croissants, but he found out that another Frenchman in America held that distinction. Determined, he talked to suppliers to find out how to improve his croissant, and presented his "currently ideal" recipe at this demo. (He also let slip that the guy who owned the factory that makes the best croissants in America lived in Connecticut and is single! Many women asked for this competitor's number ...)

Croissant dough is part pastry, part bread -- the gluten in the flour needs to be developed well enough to trap the fermentation gases so it becomes puffy, but the layers are thin, like for puff pastry, for a frangible crunch. He showed how to do the turns, how to work the cold butter, even how to use dough scraps to recyle and "start" any new dough. He showed little tips and tricks to ensure success. He talked about using low fat ganache chocolate batons to make the "chocolate bread" -- it melts less, thus is less likely to ooze and run out of the pain. He used four fingers to pull apart rolled croissant dough to form a well te receive a filling, and advised using pastry cream and canned or preserved fruits for simple, delicious danishes.

He also showed how he rolls croissant, and also discussed the "experience" when someone eats one of these treats. "The tails are crunchy, the center is like a pillow, it should be a complete and satisfying experience." Of course, pastry is not "necessary," so it has evolved to be something more sensory, more decadent, luxurious and rich. He uses about 60 to 65 grams (2 ounces) of dough per croissant, but told a tale of when he was requested to make bigger ones, then bigger still. They ended up being 200 grams croissants. He wondered why anyone needed a croissant 3 to 4 times larger than usual, and discovered they were being used for sandwiches, filled with ham, brie ... "A good croissant is 30% butter! If you eat those with good ham and good cheese ... you are going to die!" A cautionary joke, if ever there was one!

When asked if the dough can be frozen, he said yes, but pointed out that "If you freeze crap, you will thaw crap." In other words, freeze stuff that is fresh, because a stint in the freezer will not improve stuff. He noted the tendency to freeze things at the end of the day, thawing it a week later, and wondering why it's bad. Well, duh, was his point.

When asked what other non-pastry specialities he made, he replied, "Pastry is the only thing I can do." He is the Dean of Pastry Arts at the French Culinary Institute, having designed the program and the pastry teaching kitchens, and the students I spoke to had nothing but praise. The Institute treats pastry, culinary, and bread arts as separate disciplines, and the admissions officers note that the people who work in each of these have particular personality types. Culinary types are frenetic, enjoy creating things on the fly, compromise often ... the bread types tend to be loners, working when others are sleeping and going home as the rest of the world reports for work ... the pastry types are more formal, very exact, and live in the world of grams and scales. Torres does recommend weighing all ingredients -- dry, wet, etc. -- he was quite unlike the strict disciplinarian personality that normally typifies pastry professionals. He knows when being casual is okay. He respects rules. He yells at his apprentices when they step out of line. He is the head judge for the International Pastry Competition (he's going to be judging that this month in Las Vegas). But he's fun, and seems to take an innocently sadistic pleasure in telling his audience how easy making pastries is!

Torres currently owns -- with two partners -- the aforementioned chocolate factory in Brooklyn, but he says he goes from chocolate to confections there. He will be opening another factory in Manhattan which will go from beans to chocolate in the next two months. He has a book in the works, all in his head for now. He has a sexy French accent, smiles readily, signs books, poses for photos, and is a very nice man. It sucks that he's already married.

The freshly baked pastries were cut in half and distributed to the 100+ people packed into the amphitheater -- people were sitting on the steps, hanging off the railings, etc. They were rich, crunchy, really good. I'm going to bully Susu to make some on Sunday. Want some? Either get to know SuSu, or drop it at Jacques Torres's shop, or attend the demos!

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