With a new television show and a HTC recently published book, pastry chef Jacques Torres knows the taste of the good -- yet busy -- life.


January 28, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- It's 2 o'clock on a nippy winter afternoon, and lingering diners at New York's ultra-haute Le Cirque 2000 restaurant are all ordering dessert. In his pastry kitchen, behind the main kitchen, chef Jacques Torres is making sabayon, one of those classic, deceptively simple sauces that are liquid heaven on the palate. He's using a small blowtorch to heat the mixer bowl holding egg yolks and sugar.

While other pastry staffers chop butter, prepare creme brulee (a custard), assemble orders for the wait staff, sift flour and position petit fours on paper doilies, Torres watches the sabayon and explains the blowtorch: "A cold process would make it a little more liquid. With a little bit of heat, some of the liquid goes away."

He scrapes the finished sabayon into a battered but bright copper bowl and counts out ladyfingers while waiters collect the fanciful goblets in which the dish is served. A young woman assistant is summoned to help serve, and Torres leads a visitor to the front of the main kitchen, where the serving process is visible.

Waiters place the goblets before each guest, and position the ladyfingers in the goblets. The young woman, with a flourish, ladles out the sabayon. The diners beam.

"Customers love to see the chefs, no?" says Torres, heading back to his pastry domain.

Thanks to Maryland Public Television, Torres himself is being seen on 141 stations from New York to California with his new show, "Dessert Circus." (In Baltimore, it's on Channel 22 at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.) The show began airing Jan. 3 and will run for 26 weeks. The number of stations using the show is growing quickly, MPT says.

John Potthast, vice president of national production for Maryland Public Television, says the show was designed to be different. "For a while, I - and a lot of people involved in producing cooking shows ` have been looking for ways to shake up the format ` to make things a little bit different." The circus-themed set, designed by Adam Tihany, who also designed Le Cirque, is one difference, as is the live audience. "We're not the first to use a live audience, but it adds a certain freshness," Potthast says. "Jacques is not isolated in a studio. He has the benefit of audience feedback, and he responds to that, so his personality comes across well on screen."

Torres, 38, might be just another busy, talented chef in a world of busy, talented chefs, but for a drive to teach and to make a name for himself in his adopted country.

Torres was born in Bandol, a small town in Southern France, and by the age of 13 had already become interested in cooking as a career. At 15, he took the advice of his brother and began working in a local pastry shop called La Frangipan. He cleaned and washed dishes.

"I liked it," he says, during a late-afternoon pause from kitchen duties. "I love to eat, I love to build" -- his father is a carpenter -- "and I like to work with people around me. That was the career for me."

He finished a "culinary training program" (graduating first in his class) and served the obligatory year in the military before landing in Nice in 1980. On a whim, he marched into the grand Hotel Negresco and asked noted chef Jacques Maximin (two Michelin stars) for a job.

It was an act of amazing innocence, or amazing arrogance, but it worked: Maximin told him to come back in an hour with a uniform, ready to work. And Maximin's bet paid off: At 26, Torres won the coveted Meilleur Ouvrir de France -- "best worker in France" -- award, in culinary competition.

Back at Le Cirque, Torres greets the crew returning from the dining room. "How was that?" To the young woman who ladled the sauce, "I didn't see you put anything on anyone's head, so that was OK."

But she has used all the sabayon, and more orders come in, so Torres begins to make another batch.

Torres didn't set out to become a TV star at once; he wanted to write a book and then do a show based on it. But he found publishers unwilling to listen to a book proposal unless it was supported by a TV series. Meantime, he met Charles Pinsky, an executive producer at MPT, who had been working with chef Pierre Franey on his television series.

Pinsky was interested, and he and Torres set out looking for sponsors. "It's a lot of money, and you have to tell people, 'Trust me,' " Torres says. The Grand Marnier Foundation, Callebaut Chocolate and King Arthur Flour did, and "Dessert Circus with Jacques Torres" was on its way.

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