The Liberace of Chocolate

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 13 2003 10:57 AM

The Liberace of Chocolate

Very good chocolate in very bad taste.

Shock Jacques
Shock Jacques

If pastry chef Jacques Torres were ever imprisoned by an evil mastermind, I have no doubt that within 24 hours, he would escape with a hand-wrought, fully articulated chocolate gun. It would fire delicious but deadly cacao nib bullets, and, knowing Torres, it would boast decorative "pearl" handles crafted from white chocolate.

Torres has become an accumulating presence on the Food Network, with one current series, Passion for Dessert; another, Chocolate With Jacques Torres, in heavy rerun rotation; and a special, Passion for Chocolate, that aired this week. While the stagy setting and the slow pace of his shows cannot compete with the flash and fire of Iron Chef's kitchen stadium, Torres' how-to projects are as absurd and dazzling as those of the feuding Japanese chefs.

"I am feeling very passionate about chocolate today," says Torres during his chocolate special, affably if not passionately. Unlike several of his Food Network compatriots, Torres' zeal shows in his craft, not his patter. In the chocolate special, he does not discuss how to choose good chocolate, how to chop it, or how to melt it carefully. Instead, Torres puts his energies into insane feats of chocolate engineering. He coats a balloon with drizzles of chocolate, then deflates the balloon, leaving a chocolate cage "like a spider's nest." He's a shade tentative as he deflates the balloon, warning that if it should burst suddenly, the chocolate will fly onto the ceiling, walls, and floor. Torres also uses balloons to make white-chocolate flowers, which are then painted with gaudy food-color paints. Affixed to the chocolate balloon, the result is extraordinary in its fragile grandeur and in its ugliness.

Torres used to be the pastry chef at Sirio Maccioni's society restaurant Le Cirque and its avatar, Le Cirque 2000, where he established himself as a master of a certain spectacular, yet wholly edible whimsy. There were hats and clown faces, ladybugs, and, most famously, a chocolate stove complete with tiny sauce-filled pots. The waiter would open the oven door to reveal a slice of Opera cake, a gilded chocolate pastry once considered spectacular of its own accord. These days, in the real world, Torres has toned down his act a little: He makes bonbons and hot cocoa for the downtown set at his Brooklyn factory, where he also serves up a few impeccable pastries from the French canon.

But on television, he sticks to the razzle-dazzle. Torres has the confectioner's version of the Midas touch. There is nothing in our ordinary world he cannot recraft in sugar or chocolate. Molten sugar is shaped into a moon and flowers. He casts an ornate chocolate frame and fills it with a painted white-chocolate canvas. He inverts the concept of a Jell-O mold and uses Knox gelatin to make a flexible cast of a champagne bottle. He later silk-screens the bottle's label, using chocolate as ink.

While Torres reveals some great pastry tricks, his shows have little pretense of how-to. Equipment requirements are extensive: The chocolate special alone called for florist's acetate, a blowtorch, a mason's trowel, four fat metal rulers, a dozen or so balloons, and an extendable five-bladed pizza roller. One has to refer to the Food TV Web site  for Torres' guidance on tempering chocolate, the tricky but essential process of heating and cooling chocolate so that it is hard and glossy when it solidifies. And naturally, the show modestly cuts to commercial during every critical moment of assembly, leaving no ungraceful moments, except for one brief shot of Torres' grubby, chocolate-coated hands.

His shows do reveal the great irony of the sweet kitchen: It takes the most deliberate kind of precision to create the most frivolous of foods. Unlike chefs, who work spontaneously in the heat of the kitchen line, the pastry chef must work early in the day, when the kitchen is cool and fickle ingredients like chocolate, butter, and sugar can be tamed. Most of the pastry chef's components are made hours or days ahead and then layered together on the plate. This difference in process often makes pastry chefs outsiders in restaurant kitchens. Indeed, Torres is one of the few pastry chefs to rise to name-brand stardom (Francois Payard and Claudia Fleming also come to mind).

In an effort to flag down a little attention, and perhaps because desserts are always an up-sell, some pastry chefs indulge in garnishes, embellishments, and other bits of drama. Thrilled with the plasticity and strength of their raw materials, Torres and his compatriots push the boundaries of their media. Cue the blown sugar, the foams, and representational pastry. These desserts are rarely constrained by good taste: I once decided not to attend a cooking academy after watching one of the advanced pastry students craft a tepee and squatting Indians out of marzipan. On another recent Food Network special, an international competition judged by Torres, one of France's top pâtissiers solemnly airbrushed a clown's face onto a sugar plaque. Torres' own sweet creations often ignore a century of modernist art and design. (Although he and Jeff Koons might find something to talk about.)

Torres' valiant commitment to complex frivolity makes him the spiritual brother of another cable how-to hero, master hot-rodder Jesse James of the Discovery Channel's Monster Garage. James and his crew make cars as pliant as chocolate, converting ordinary limousines, buses, and Austin Minis into firetrucks, boats, and snowmobiles. Both Torres and James are masters of vernacular engineering, both are problem solvers of uncanny cleverness, and both show a weakness for shiny surfaces. I can only hope that Torres and James will get together sometime soon and produce a lowrider made out of cocoa beans and fondant.