Jacques Torres is a craftsman. His father was a craftsman, too.
“[My father] never made any money,” Torres tells the Village Voice. “He was more excited about doing something and experiencing something than selling it. Selling was secondary. During vacation, we used to drive everywhere. He would see a gate or window that he liked, stop and draw it, and then tell a homeowner what he saw, just because he wanted to make it. Because he’d never done it before, he’d take a lot of time doing it, and then be very proud of it. He’d sell it for whatever price and not really make any money from it. But he spent his life very happily doing what he did. This is the definition of a craftsman. A craftsman has a certain way of living, where you’ll do what you love to do and hopefully make some money.”
When Torres came to the United States from France over 25 years ago, he was already an accomplished pastry chef and master craftsman in his own right. Back then, big candy companies dispensed inexpensive products filled with chemicals and flavorings. He saw a lack of whimsy compared with what he’d known growing up — holidays were celebrated with handmade chocolates that took a month to create, and stores were “filled with the magic of Christmas.” Torres had his work cut out for him.
Torres first started at M&M Mars, long before chocolate bunnies with sugar-candy eyes were produced en masse for grocery stores and pharmacies nationwide. He was shocked by the lack of Easter chocolates in the States, in contrast to the abundance of sweets he’d grown up with back home. So he started his own candy revolution with a few rabbits and eggs. “My god, people bought them like crazy!” he says.”The next year, we went crazier, and we were cleaned out. So we knew if we went all the way with Easter, we’d be cool.”
Yes, you can thank Torres for the Easter candy in your basket on Sunday morning.
In 2000, Torres fulfilled his dream of opening his first chocolate shop. At the store, located in Dumbo, Brooklyn, he made each chocolate by hand.
“I was there for 9-11,” he says. “And we almost closed [the store permanently]. We had nobody in the store for days at a time. I remember going to see my doctor, and after asking how business was going, he immediately blasted this email saying, ‘My friend Jacques is in trouble! Go buy chocolates!’ People came, and we were able to pay the rent!”
Now with nine shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn under his Mr. Chocolate brand, Torres’s team of approximately thirty employees still has a hand in creating each and every item. Once upon a time, he had to “balance sheet trays on top of the garbage bin to make more room.” But now all his products — chocolates, cookies, ice cream, hot-cocoa mix, pastries, and confections — are made in his 400,000-square-foot factory in Sunset Park, where he moved operations in 2013. That means Torres can scale up production while allowing for time to focus on artistry, ensuring that neither quality nor consistency are compromised.
“What I want to express — what I have wanted to express from the beginning and still want to express — is being true to the product more than anything,” Torres explains. “Our tagline is: Real is my promise to you. I want to keep the dream alive when you come into one of my stores. I want you to be like, ‘Oh my god, there’s magic all over.’ I love when people come in and look around and start smiling.”
For chocolate lovers, the factory is pretty magical, too.
Torres’s chocolate factory is a mammoth space. He uses an intercom to find his second-in-command, Ken Goto, among its many rooms. “He used to be my sous, and now it’s like he’s my boss,” Torres jokes. “I won’t be able to get something to work, and he’ll tell me it’s because I didn’t turn the machine on.”
Torres’s dozens of specialized machines, which he had shipped in from Germany and Belgium, weigh several tons each; however, size isn’t a problem, given that the factory is located in the massive Brooklyn Army Terminal. “This building is overbuilt — they used to drive tanks in here,” Torres explains, referring to the days when the shipping factory sent uniforms, food, and weapons overseas. “Every 20,000 square feet are walls reinforced with metal and stone. It’s so strong that if one part of the building were to be bombed, the rest of the building would be okay. There is no way our machines could break this building.”
“Some people have money in the bank; we have chocolate,” he says, joking about one dry-storage room that holds six and a half tons of chocolate along with several 160-pound bags of Trinitario and Criollo cocoa beans.
Another room — roughly the size of a midtown grocery store — has seasonal packaging, pallets of dry cereal, and numerous molds. Massive scales weigh out 200 pounds of beans, chocolate bars, and milk, which removes the risk of employees injuring themselves moving bowls back and forth. Running chocolate through pipes near the ceiling reduces contamination from airborne objects. The rooms each have their own controlled temperatures, air pressure, and humidity. Machines are rolled into and hosed down in massive showers. And a shoe-cleaning machine at the factory’s entryway ensures street dirt doesn’t make it in.
“We take what we do very seriously,” Torres promises. “These are things we don’t share with the customer, but they give us peace of mind.”
“Before each holiday, Ken and I decide on fifteen or so products, designing them and teaching them to our staff,” he says. “By the end of the season, they’re certainly better than us at the painting of it.” While Mr. Chocolate makes plenty of the eggs and bunnies Americans are familiar with at this time of year, they also make a good deal of chocolate fish — a tradition he brought over from back home in France.
Molds for products are painted by hand in white, yellow, or red chocolate, creating a colorful outer veneer. Then tempered chocolate is poured from a machine programmed to melt and keep chocolate at specific temperatures. (The instructions for the tempered chocolate are programmed on old-school floppy disks on a $250,000 machine that required a week of training from the manufacturer to get it running.) If the chocolate doesn’t have the perfect consistency and temperature, the hollow bunnies and fish won’t have the delicate, thin shells that give a satisfying crunch when you bite into them — which, of course, would be completely unacceptable to Torres.
The filled molds go through a vibration process to remove air bubbles, then they’re spun. Moving slowly at around 60 hertz, the chocolate gently spreads around the molds while cool air blows onto them to lower the temperature and help the chocolate set.
Making these whimsical chocolate creations takes about half an hour — from painting the molds and filling them to shaking out air bubbles and spinning them before slowly cracking the chocolate out of them. Each step has different employees overseeing the production. “Some employees have steady hands, so they do the details,” Torres says. “Some love to color and spray. We let the employee do what they love to do.”
They have to complete four or five rounds of several dozen animals each day, which means there is plenty of room for error. “If you keep them spinning five minutes longer than you’re supposed to, the chocolate will shrink as the molecules of fat tighten. Since the mold is holding it, it will crack in the middle,” Torres explains. “You can see how proud someone is when they take something done right out of the mold. If it’s broken, it’s the opposite. They learn — it’s part of the process, and you have to accept those things.”
Torres gets the giddiest in the packaging area of the factory.
“Our refrigerated tunnel was custom-made in Belgium,” he says. (Sadly, it wasn’t being used upon our visit.) “It’s four feet wide, seventy feet long, and weighs eleven tons! It allows products to go from manufacturing to packaging with less breakage and oxidation.”
Another machine weighs out his chocolate-covered popcorn, slides a portion into an endless tube of cellophane, pinches an end shut, and melts it closed. That process once took ten days for a team to complete, but now it only takes one. Many items are still finished by hand, though. Hollow chickens are filled with wrapped chocolate eggs, the two edges of the halves are melted and sealed together, and then they’re hand-wrapped and decorated with ribbons and flowers.
For smaller items, another machine wraps finished chocolate directly in foil sheets. “This machine is magic,” Torres says. “It can wrap sixty eggs in a minute!” Of course, Goto had to come and help turn the machine on before Torres could play with it.
“Do you know the phrase loss leader?” Torres asks as we head out of the factory. “They’re things that don’t bring in much revenue, but they make people talk about you. At Easter, we make these six-pound rabbits and sell them for only $99. I see them at one of our competitors in Midtown for $279 dollars, but I wanted them to stay under $100, so that became our loss leader.”
Torres’s smiling bunnies have a life of their own now. “When someone’s walking down the street with one, it becomes like walking with a puppy — all the women who see it want to know where it came from!” he says. “One time I was on a plane with two for my wife in California, and you should have seen the security people and the people on the plane! It was so funny. The ladies from first class put them in their own special places so that they didn’t break. I had one on the back of my motorcycle one day, and I told my chefs that the police stopped me for not having a helmet on the rabbit! It wasn’t true…but that’s how much we love them!”