Jacques Torres, a compact, energetic man of nearly 50 with crinkly eyes and wispy brown hair, sweeps through his West Village chocolate factory, a glass-enclosed, cement-floored space buzzing with employees in hair nets and white coats hard at work making sweets.
He moves through the place with the exuberance you’d expect from a sugar pusher, New York’s own Willie Wonka. In one swift movement, he plucks a piece of just-enrobed orange peel off of a conveyor belt, runs his hand through bead-like chocolate coated raisins in a panning drum and pops a milk-chocolate-covered macadamia nut into his mouth.
But it’s not long before the conversation turns to fishing. Yes, fishing.
“Oh yeah, I have a striped bass that I caught here. You want to see it?” Torres shuffles into the walk-in, emerges holding a very large something obscured by multiple layers of plastic wrap, unsheaths an impressive fish in a state of rigor mortis and places it on the edge of a double sink, hastily rinsing streaks of blood off its iridescent skin.
“I wasn’t supposed to keep this one because it’s a couple of inches short. Don’t tell!” This particular critter, which Torres caught two days earlier on his own boat, is en route to the French Culinary Institute, where he plans to make a dinner of it with fellow deans Jacques Pepin, André Soltner and Alain Sailhac.
It turns out that the man known as Mr. Chocolate is obsessed with fishing. Six days a week he lives on a gleaming 39-foot fishing-dayboat hybrid docked at Liberty State Marina, just across the harbor from downtown Manhattan. Torres keeps a third of his wardrobe here, a third in his downtown factory and the rest in his Midtown apartment, which he rarely uses. His morning commute consists of a 10-minute water taxi to Lower Manhattan and a short bike ride to the Chocolate Haven.
“Some people go to golf, some people go to their house in the Hamptons,” shrugs Torres. “I love to spend time out on the boat.”
Torres, who hails from a small town in Provence, says his aquatic existence is a carryover dream from childhood. “When I was growing up in the south of France, only rich people had boats,” he recalls. His boyhood fantasy was to be able to fish out of the window of his house. Now he does just that, more or less—only in the United States, he says, the fish are much bigger. “In France I catch fish this big,” he says, holding his index fingers about six inches apart. “I have to relearn everything here.”
One sunny Sunday I meet Torres at the Liberty State Marina, a tranquil spot where tethered boats bob on the water and a backdrop of the Financial District skyline etches an iconic silhouette against the horizon. Torres, wearing jeans, a black sweater and white rubber boots, comes bounding down the dock greeting everyone he passes along the way—”Kwame, my man!”—as if he were mayor.
We walk to his boat, past his pots of herbs and cherry tomato plants, and Torres climbs limberly over its chrome railing to resume preparing paella al fresco in a pan the size of a satellite dish. He places shrimp and mussels onto the seasoned rice, tearing the beards off the mussels and tossing the hairy clumps into the water. Though the shellfish are store-bought, the stock, which he jokingly refers to as “wreck soup,” is made from the bait fish he catches in the sunken subway cars and World War II U-boats off the coast that have become a refuge for marine life. It’s one of his favorite places to angle for blackfish, weakfish, flounder and sea bass.
The boat is impressive—it “costs as much as a Ferrari” and has two bedrooms and three levels, including a gleaming-white upper deck with a computerized navigation system and cushioned white benches that bring to mind a yacht in a Bond film. Still, for a home away from home, there are few personal effects. Sparse domestic touches include a bowl of fruit, those potted herbs, a few family photos and an espresso machine.
“Women don’t like this lifestyle,” Torres chuckles. “They can’t wear high heels on the boat.”
Having determined that the paella is ready, the chef leans over and shouts toward unseen neighbors—”Are you coming for the rice?” As he cracks open a bottle of pink Taittinger and throws place settings onto every available surface, three of Torres’s dockmates materialize for lunch. “When I got my boat, that was it,” Torres later told me. “I love the community. You see it. Everyone on the dock is so nice. In New York, I don’t know my neighbors. You need anything here, you can just go out on the dock. It’s like the south of France.”
For most people, making paella on a Sunday afternoon is activity enough to call it a day, but we still have to catch dinner. When lunch is over Torres and I climb into an inflatable dinghy and we’re off, passing Jersey City’s high-rise apartment buildings and gliding toward the chartered fishing boats that have just docked at the marina.
Torres lets out a piercing whistle and hollers, “Hey, Captain!” We pull up alongside a fishing boat and meet Ralph Roth, a slim, smooth-faced man in jeans, mirrored sunglasses and a blue baseball cap. Roth runs Weigh Point Sports Fishing, a recreational charter off the marina, and has just returned with a cache of meaty striped bass from a morning trip on the East River. “When I came into the marina I was looking for a fishing buddy. I found him,” says Torres of Roth, whom he takes out in the boat at least once a week. “That’s what chocolate can do.”
Roth cleans the catch, splitting each fish from gill to tail and tossing the fillets into a cooler. He saws through carcasses, pulling a small crab from one digestive tract, a mantis shrimp from another. “I’m having a problem getting skins off because they’re wider than my blade,” says Roth. “I should have brought a machete.” “Showoff!” teases Torres, not without admiration. “He must have at least 15 pounds of fish here. It’s beautiful, I think. Isn’t that amazing in Manhattan. Look how healthy they are.”
According to the Hudson River Foundation, New York Harbor, which comprises several bodies of water including Jamaica Bay, Arthur Kill and the East River, is home to over 200 native and migratory marine species, including white perch, American eel, blue crabs, anchovies, Atlantic silverside, sturgeon, sunfish, bluefish and shad, to name just a few. The sheer diversity prompted Robert Boyle, author of The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History to refer to the harbor as “a kind of Times Square” for fish.
Today we’re fishing for striped bass. They’re most abundant in the fall—when the majority of adults swim back to the sea (the young spend their first winter off the shore of Manhattan)—and in the spring—when they make their way through the city’s waters to spawn upriver between April and June, before the waters get too warm. Though overfishing threatened the population in the 1970s, regulations put in place in the ’80s have restored striped bass to New York City’s waters. Advisories caution, however, that people eat the fish no more than once a week due to the level of PCBs in their systems. “I’m not a big fish eater,” admits Roth. “Only when Jacques makes it.”
Captain Roth meets us back at Torres’s boat and commandeers the wheel, steering us toward our mission. We trace the
southern tip of Manhattan and make our way toward the Williamsburg Bridge. “When you’re writing your article, you can say south Manhattan, that’s it,” warns Torres, displaying what I learn is a fisherman’s characteristic secrecy. “We never tell people where we catch fish. We say Long Island.”
We pass under the Williamsburg Bridge, cars zooming overhead, and sail past the Domino Sugar Factory—”we call that
place the sweet spot,” jokes Roth. On the boat it’s easy to forget the city’s buzz. Landmarks take on new associations. “We caught some big fish today at the UN and 23rd Street,” he reveals, and we slosh past Gracie Mansion.
Up near Hell’s Gate, the narrow strait that separates Astoria from Randall’s Island, Roth finds a hot spot: “The tide is strong, that’s a good thing.” He and Torres cast their lines. After several false starts—Torres’s line breaks, his and Roth’s get tangled—Roth gets a bite. He hands me the rod and teaches me to reel in the fish—pulling back, then bringing the rod down again so the line goes slack. I can’t tell if I’m weak or the fish is strong, but the rod is shaking, and I skin my knuckles on the reel. With good reason: There’s a 28-inch striped bass at the end of the line. Roth scoops it into his net and drops it on the deck, letting it thrash around. Then Torres deposits it into the cooler next to the six-pack of Diet 7-Up and swiftly slits its throat. “They don’t feel anything,” he assures me. “My knife is sharp.”
With our prize in the cooler we steer back to the Liberty State Marina. It’s peaceful: The sky is painted red and, apart from the Sta
ten Island Ferry and the odd water taxi, there are few boats out. Back at the dock, the skyline is glittering, but Torres isn’t ready to quit. “I hear birds overhead. Where there are birds, there are fish. The later we stay out the more our chances will improve!”
Roth sighs. “I don’t know where he gets all his energy. After I spend a day with him I’m pretty tired.”
Two days later at the Chocolate Haven, Torres, Roth and Roth’s wife prepare the fruit of Sunday’s trip. They’ve been working for several hours on a feast of potatoes gratin, fresh-baked focaccia, ratatouille, green salad and a salt-crusted sea bass that’s so large Torres had to saw off the tail for it to fit in the industrial-size oven.
Among the unopened cases of Wicked Hot Chocolate and chocolate-bar wrapping machines, the relationship between making chocolate and angling for fish is a quaint anomaly. What is clear is the connection Torres feels to his way of life, to the community he’s built on his boat and around his pastime. When I ask what chocolate has to do with fishing, the usually jovial Torres answers in a moment of reflection:
“Not much, really. It’s a way to be able to take New York. Going on the water and doing something else. It takes your mind away. It’s a counterpart to living in a crazy place. Some people smoke pot, drink wine, run. I go fishing.”
Photo credit: Alison Cartwright