Q: Why did you leave the restaurant world and
become a chocolatier?
A: I have only one life. I want to live. I love water. I love
boats. I love weather. When I worked as a pastry chef,
I woke up and there was no light. When I got to work,
there was no light. When I left at night, no light. I started
to get depressed. I said to myself, “This is not my life.” So,
I opened my chocolate factory. Now, I see the light. I
can tell you about the tides, the phases of the moon,
the movement of the water.
Q: How have you been able to keep changing
A: Luck was part of it. I walked in front of Hotel Negresco
with a girlfriend, and I said,“I’ll bet you 10 bucks I can get
a job.” I went in the front door, and they kicked me out. I
was told to go around back, and that Chef [Jacques]
Maximin was looking for someone in pastry. Maximin was
a tiger, a terror. He looked at me and said, “What do you
want?” I was pretty arrogant. I had never heard of him. I
said, “Try me.” He said, “If you’re good, I keep you. If not, I
kick you out.” He hired me. I didn’t even have a uniform.
I worked for him for eight years. Maximin pushed me.
Learning is painful, but I mastered my skills. Six years later I
won the M.O.F. in pastry, an unimaginable feat. You have
to be very good at everything, not a star in just one area.
Q: How did you do it?
A: I trained in a white shirt and white apron so I would
stay clean. I stayed away from the table and avoided
splashes. I have attention-deficit disorder. My focus
moves around, but when I go deep, I go deep. I taught
my hands to go as fast as I think.
Q: Any advice for culinary students?
A: First, to me, is training. You have to learn the profession and
never accept mediocrity. If you go someplace and they
accept mediocrity, move on or you’ll become mediocre.
Once you have the basic skills, think about a road map.
Who am I going to be in five years? In three years? In six
months? A business owner? A chef? A cake designer?
When you have no doubt, draw a schedule for yourself.
If you want to be a pastry chef in New York in three years,
start working at a pastry store in New York. Dedicate two
years to that. Do your research. Then devote the next year
to business and customer service. Spend a month selling
behind a counter. Work with an accountant so you know
about P&Ls [profit and loss statements].
Finally, relax. Don’t get crazy. Focus. When my focus is
clear, I can do more of what I like.
Q: How so?
A: My life is like a book. My first chapter was in France, learning
my profession. My second chapter was working at Hotel
Negresco and winning the M.O.F. What a shock. I realized
I couldn’t take any more classes because I was supposed
to be the one giving the classes. My third chapter was
when I packed my bags at age 28 and moved to America
because I loved American girls—their spirit, the way they
laugh. I came to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of
the Statue of Liberty. I made a chocolate top hat with a
giant feather, like the staff wore at Hotel Negresco, with a
dessert inside. The people at The French Culinary Institute
saw it and offered me the job of dean of pastry.
My fourth chapter began in 2000 when I started my
chocolate business with two partners. My sous chef at Le
Cirque could do the same thing again and again. My
then-girlfriend could manage papers. I look for extremely
smart people who can do what I can’t. Yesterday my wife
Hasty came into my office and put everything in a box
under my desk. My fourth chapter isn’t over, but when I
look toward my fifth chapter, I start to tell people I want the
real thing. I wanted people to see the realities of chocolate
making. We have glass windows around the cocoa-bean-shaped chocolate-making area in our factory so people
can see that the chocolate is real. My lemon is real lemon,
not citric acid. My peanut butter is just peanuts and salt.
Q: What’s your philosophy of life?
A: Stay humble and help people. Living grand is living
small. My boat is a 40-footer, small, but big enough. I
love simplicity. In the South of France, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my parents and two brothers. I
never had my own bedroom. All Mediterranean people
have a certain hospitality. We live outside. Our hearts
speak before our brains. And whether we are Spanish,
French, Greek or North African, we all have pretty much
the same problems… emotions.