Tout Sweet - Los Angeles magazine
 

Tout Sweet

Her bicoastal marriage was built on cacao. Her business is devoted to it. How confectioner Hasty Torres gives new meaning to the term “chocolate lover”

12/1/2010

Photograph by Lisa Romerein

A pair of Hasty Torres’s Christian Louboutins recently starred on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in an episode named for them. The size 6 shoes were unwearable, not because of a formidable heel but because the pastel pink creations were made of three pounds of white Belgian chocolate. This isn’t the first time that Torres, or her chocolate, has headlined a reality-TV show. The Girls Next Door girls—identically blond and bouncy Holly, Bridget, and Kendra—asked her to help commemorate Hugh Hefner’s 82nd birthday with edible renditions of their best features. “You can imagine the body parts I molded,” says Torres, a diminutive 35-year-old with a perfect manicure and an immaculate white chef’s coat. “They came in and I went, ‘You want what?!’- ” Torres lets go with a whoop of a laugh, one that starts low, explodes on release, and hyphenates her conversation at regular intervals. No wonder the girls felt comfortable hopping on her worktables and having her make molds of their intimate areas.

Partial to white chocolate in the morning, milk chocolate around midday, and dark chocolate come evening, Torres is an exuberant testament to the mood-enhancing benefits of cocoa, sugar, and butterfat. Madame Chocolat, her three-year-old Beverly Hills shop on Canon Drive, attests to the triumvirate’s versatility. A golden Louis XVI-style chandelier hangs in the center of the store, overlooking tables and shelves crammed with chocolate-dipped Cheerios, peanut butter cookies, Oreos, Rice Krispies Treats, and deconstructed s’mores made of marshmallows smothered in dark chocolate, dusted with graham crumbs, and skewered on lollipop sticks. The chocolate Santas, shalom bars, and dreidels will be replaced by hearts and lips in February and Easter bunnies and eggs, fat pigs and frogs, in spring. More Louboutins—some with a faux snakeskin sheen—will come out in force for Mother’s Day, and Dads will get their due in June: milk chocolate watches, dark chocolate cigars, white chocolate golf balls. On a round table by the door, Torres showcases her giant chocolate chip cookies (more chocolate than dough) and what may be the best croissants in Los Angeles.

Those croissants, snugly twisted, classically sized, so rich with high-grade butter they make you want to laugh out loud, reflect the intersection of Torres’s work and her personal life. Her husband of three years is Provence-born Jacques Torres, one of the world’s premier pastry chefs (formerly at Le Cirque) and now among its most famous chocolatiers. With partner Ken Goto, Jacques has five chocolate shops (and an ice cream store) in New York, including a new one in Rockefeller Center. He has an outlet at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. Jacques, who is 51, met Hasty in 2004 when he hired her at his original Brooklyn shop.

*****

While working for a Century City-based finance company in her mid-twenties, Hasty (pronounced HASS-tee), who wanted to own her own business, became mesmerized by “this magical guy named Jacques Torres” on the Food Network. “He was always creating these amazing masterpieces,” she says, “like the New York skyline with taxis and the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty—all made out of chocolate! Unnnnbelievable!” She had a long-standing affinity for the confection. “I was the freak at school who always had chocolate in my backpack,” she says. “I munched on it in the middle of the night, had it under the pillow. Halloween was my favorite holiday. My brother and I would go trick-or-treating, run back home, switch costumes, and go back out again.” She loved Snickers, M&M’s, and those little Hershey’s bars.

“I did some research on Jacques,” she says. “Who is he, how does he know all this, is he an artist? Turned out he was a pastry chef, a chocolatier—what’s that? Eventually I thought, ‘There’s a way to make money and eat at the same time!’ ”

Hasty enrolled in an 18-month course at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. When she received her diploma, her pastry instructor, who’d worked with Jacques at Le Cirque, passed along Hasty’s résumé. “The teacher was very insisting,” says Jacques, whose Gallic accent is still strong. He agreed to a one-week trial, and Hasty set off for New York. “I was so shaking,” she says. “Growing up in L.A., we’re not usually starstruck, but Jacques was the icon. He was my inspiration.” She made an impression of her own. “It’s hard work,” says Jacques, whose smile is easy and strikingly boyish for the head of a $10 million enterprise. “You’re on your feet for many hours, carrying heavy things. We all do everything, including myself. Not everyone can sustain the pressure. Not everyone has the drive it takes. Hasty does. We put pressure on her, and she respond well.”

Hasty worked with Jacques for two years in New York and opened and managed his SoHo store. From the beginning she had planned to return to L.A. to start her own place. After she announced that it was time to go home, he asked her to dinner. “I went into the bathroom and locked the door,” she says. “The other employees were banging on it, asking, ‘Are you all right?’ I stared in the mirror, saying, ‘Is this a joke? Are you going to be the laughingstock for years to come? What if he kisses you?’ ” That last thought hanging, she joined Jacques for dinner. “It was so romantic and we had so much to talk about,” she says. “Eventually he leaned over and gave me a kiss and that was it. Talk about sparks. Unnnnbelievable!”                   

*****

Los Angeles is not lacking for chocolate shops. Within blocks of Madame Chocolat, K Chocolatier offers an assortment based on a Hungarian style of chocolate making, and Teuscher specializes in Swiss imports. At Jin Patisserie in Venice, Kristy Choo incorporates Asian flavors in her creations. Hasty’s chocolates combine French tradition and American nostalgia. Because her operation is too small for a cacao-bean roasting facility, she makes her pieces from imported Belgian chocolate. “I personally prefer its taste,” she says. “For me, the Swiss is very sweet and the French tends to go bitter. Belgian goes right in between—it’s so harmonious in your mouth.”

Regardless of its provenance, she says, “chocolate is so sensual. It’s all about passion and love. Jacques says it best: ‘We fell in love over chocolate, we make chocolate, and at the same time chocolate is what keeps us apart.’ ” The couple married—twice—in 2007, following up a traditional Persian ceremony (Hasty’s family is Iranian) at the Hotel Bel-Air with a more informal (no ties allowed) wedding on the island of Bendor near Jacques’ hometown in the south of France. Jacques lives in Manhattan, and the bicoastal marriage means meeting up when schedules permit, either at their homes in New York, Los Angeles, or Paris or at food events like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. “People are always asking what the difference is between my bonbons and Jacques’,” says Hasty, who describes her chocolates as more feminine than her husband’s. “This winter we’re making gift sets with both—and they can decide for themselves.” Hasty and Jacques are also considering an L.A. pop-up shop for the holidays.

“It’s interesting, our dynamic,” she says. “When we put our chef coats on, it’s chef and sous-chef. I’m his right hand, and we work very well together. As soon as we take our chef coats off, it’s wifey and husband.”

We’re sitting at one of the two small tables in the front of Madame Chocolat. Hasty’s parents, who moved to L.A. from Iran in 1979, come and go from their offices in the back. Mrs. Khoei (aka La Maman) offers us chocolates while Mr. Khoei, as reserved as his wife is effusive, delivers a latte, sliding a dark chocolate heart on a stirring stick next to the cup. When Hasty’s younger brother, Johnny, drops in, he slips on a pair of cotton gloves and offers bonbons on a silver tray to visitors. The Khoeis are people pleasers.

Behind the register is Torres’s laboratory, where tempering units swirl basins of dark (60 percent cocoa), milk (43 percent), and white (no cocoa at all) chocolates and keep them at 34, 32, and 30 degrees Celsius, respectively. Customers can watch as Torres decorates her elegant bonbons, each filled with a flavored ganache, the sweet paste that starts with chocolate and cream. The Citron, a white chocolate oval hand painted with a delicate green stem and minute lavender flowers, surrounds a lime-spritzed white chocolate ganache. The Monsieur’s dark chocolate exterior enrobes a ganache infused with Johnnie Walker Blue.

The family-run shop is more humble than Jacques Torres’s emporiums, two of which include factories where customers can watch cocoa beans being roasted and their bitter nibs transformed into premium chocolate. “At one point in New York,” Hasty remembers, “I was the decorator of the bonbons. During the holiday season, we were hitting 8,000 pieces—a day.” Jacques describes himself as a taskmaster (“I have no mercy”). Ever the jokester, he got big yuks by putting raw eggs in Hasty’s clogs. “He thinks that’s hilarious,” she says. “The whole kitchen would laugh for days.”

On a recent Saturday at Madame Chocolat, Jacques stood behind a stainless steel worktable as Hasty, wearing a floaty lemon-and-orange handkerchief dress with significant décolletage and sky-high heels, twirled around the front of the shop, making a video for Madame-Chocolat.com. She wrapped her lips around a caramel-filled chocolate heart for a provocative close-up. “Dance with her!” demanded the director, and Jacques, shyly at first, took his wife in his arms and led her in a waltz of sorts. He segued to a tango and soon dipped Hasty dramatically. “Kiss her!” shouted the director. As if he had to be told.  

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