“WE DON’T JUST SELL CHOCOLATE; WE SELL HAPPINESS AND SMILES!”
Jacques Torres Chocolate is iconic in New York today, but when Ken Goto and his partner Jacques opened the chocolate house in D.U.M.B.O., there were a lot of risks. On a sunny day in Brooklyn, the Japan-born chocolate guru and former rock climbing enthusiast took time out of his busy day and told us about how he became a NY chocolate pioneer and his never-ending passion for flavors.
Tell us about your background. How did you become interested in cooking?
When I was a kid, I used to love to cook and do things with my hands. I used to experiment. I made my first omelet when I was seven years old. I put sugar in it. I loved the sweet omelet and that’s when I started to get into cooking and making things by hand out of my own curiosity. My mom influenced me as well because I used to always watch her cook.
Now you have become a chocolate guru in the U.S. How did you get into making sweets?
I came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student in Philadelphia and I really fell in love with American culture. During that time, I became interested in rock climbing, so I went to Colorado for college. I spent four years basically rock climbing and I didn’t even finish my college degree. But I realized that the rock climbing was not the career that I wanted to pursue. My second passion (after rock climbing) was cooking, so I decided to enroll in cooking school in Providence, Rhode Island. By some administrative mistake, I was accidentally placed into the pastry program. The first class was bread-making. I ended up enjoying it and sticking with the pastry program. That’s how I got into pastry and bread-making. I still love to make breads and pastries.
How did you choose chocolate as your specialty?
Well, girls love chocolate right? [laugh] But seriously, chocolate is very interesting because it can be a liquid, a solid, have a variety of scents, and the flavor can be sweet, unsweetened, etc. It is very tangible. I worked at Le Cirque with Jacques Torres for nine years. Restaurant life was tough. We worked long hours until late at night. So Jacques and I decided to open a business together. At the time, there weren’t many specialty chocolate stores around. It was a risk for us since we didn’t know if Americans would go for a chocolate shop like this or not. That’s how we opened this store.
Tell us about your role at Jacques Torres Chocolate.
We are business partners and most of the time, he is at the Hudson Street store. We started here in Brooklyn and then production became too difficult in just this one space. So we took part of the production and moved it to Hudson Street where they make chocolate from beans and they make chocolate bars, bunnies for Easter and coated almonds. Here in Brooklyn, we do bon bons and ice cream. I am in charge of manufacturing and the entire Brooklyn operation, including oversight of the stores, ordering, etc.
What’s special about Jacques Torres products?
We are an artisanal chocolate maker and use top-of-the-line equipment, but many things are done by hand. The ingredients used are the best ingredients available. All of the people who work here are here because they love chocolate. There is lots of love and care involved in producing our products. That “honesty” really makes a difference in the final product. Lots of [regular chocolate] products contain preservatives and additives that people don’t notice anymore. But then you taste our chocolate, and you notice that it tastes different because it doesn’t contain those chemicals.
On your website, you say that “each product is a celebration of chocolate.” What does that mean?
We are a chocolate company and that’s what we sell. But chocolate can be varied by adding some flavor to it such as passion fruit ganache. The chocolate is the “main character” and the rest is basically helping chocolate taste like chocolate.
How do you come up with new ideas for new products?
It’s very difficult, but it’s part of my position to develop new products and flavors. So I am always thinking about new ideas. But maybe 1 out of 20 ideas will actually make it into the store. To come up with a new product is very difficult; it’s very demanding. Looking at what other people do gives me some ideas; I try to go to different stores.
Speaking of your ice cream shop, what are the signature flavors?
I would say everything. But my personal favorite is a combination of raspberry sorbet and chocolate sorbet. The ice cream cookie sandwich is also very popular, here.
Do you think you will start introducing Japanese flavors such as goma [sesame], maccha [green tea], or yuzu [citrus] into your ice cream?
I would like to. Every once in a while, we make seasonal flavors such as strawberries with balsamic and basil. We are working on a special flavor for Father’s Day using dark beer. I would like to try using sansho [Japanese pepper] in ice cream. Even if nobody likes it, we are always trying to come up with something different to let people know that we are doing something new.
What do you think are the most rewarding parts and biggest challenges of your job?
Everybody comes to our store to be happy. People come to us to spend their money because they want to be happy. I tell our employees all of the time that we are not just selling chocolate, but we are selling happiness and a smile! The biggest challenge is balancing my work life and private life. Running the business is not easy. You have to think about keeping the employees happy as well as trying to make craftsmen out of them. Sometimes we have to be hard on the employees, and that’s not easy for me. I don’t like pushing people. But it’s part of my job.
In this issue of Chopsticks NY, we feature Japanese sweets. What kinds of Japanese sweets do you like?
All of them. [laugh] I love “anko” (Japanese sweet red bean paste), and when I was a kid, I used to love “gokabo.” It is like a long tubular rice puff with soybean flour on the outside. I enjoyed as many of the “dagashi” (cheap sweets) I could buy.
There are many Americans interested in traveling to Japan. What places would you recommend they visit?
My parents live in Mitaka City near Tokyo. I love to take long walks in Inogashira Park or go to the Ghibli Museum (http://www.ghibli-museum.jp/en/) with Hayao Miyazaki’s anime productions. It’s a great place for both kids and adults. I would also recommend visiting “depa-chika,” the food sections located in the basement of department stores. I also love to go and see the farmer’s markets.
What message would you like to send to Chopsticks NY readers?
I am a Japanese man who decided to practice a profession that is deeply rooted in the western culture here in the U.S. I believe the U.S. is a great country because even people like me, can be accepted. If you are a blond-haired American in Japan, I think it would be very difficult to be accepted as a sushi chef. I really appreciate that in this culture, people can be accepted for who they are.
——— Interview by Kia Samaniego
KEN GOTO Born in Tokyo, Japan, Ken Goto came to America for the first time as a high school exchange student in Philadelphia over 30 years ago. He fell in love with rock climbing and moved to Colorado. After a few years, he discovered that he wanted to pursue his passion: cooking. Upon enrolling in culinary school in Rhode Island, an administrative mistake sent him to the pastry course instead of the cooking course. He loved pastry making and went on to pursue it as a profession. He met Jacques Torres at Le Cirque restaurant while working as a pastry chef, and eventually they opened Jacques Torres Chocolate together in 2000.
Ice cream season is here! Jacques Torres Ice Cream offers a variety of flavors, not limited to chocolate families, using high-quality ingredients. Their Ice Cream Sandwiches with chocolate chip cookies will absolutely make you smile after one big bite.
Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water St., Brooklyn, NY 11201
Jacques Torres Ice Cream
62 Water St., Brooklyn, NY 11201