Vitals: Born in Long Island New York; the middle of three children; mother is Italian and owned a chocolate store when Torres was growing up; father is a Puerto Rican retired police sergeant who’s now a Catholic deacon. Graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY; now 39, she’s single and, on most nights, can be found cooking her heart out in the kitchen of Sueños, the critically-acclaimed New York City restaurant she owns.
Experience: After graduation, worked for New York’s legendary 21 Club and La Grenouille; saucier at the now defunct Lola’s; sous chef at Isabella’s during it’s celebrity-studded hey-day (“Jennifer Garner was our hostess!”) and later at Arizona 206, one of the pioneers of Latino fusion (“I walked into the kitchen and the smells of banana leaves and achiote reminded me of abuela; she had passed away four years earlier, and I realized that day how much I missed her); took the helm for the first time at the Rocking Horse Cafe, where her cooking would be hailed by the New York Times as “the most exciting Mexican food in the city.” Finally opened her own place “to bring to life my vision” nine years ago when she debuted Sueños. Has competed on The Food Network’s Iron Chef and served as a judge on Chopped.
Early (slightly painful) food lesson: “My great grandmother on my dad’s side was an amazing cook. And she would take me and my sister with her to the slaughterhouse where she would buy fresh chickens. My sister and I thought it was a petting zoo. Until one day my brother broke the news over dinner and said “What do you think we’re eating?” We were devastated but we still had to keep going with abuela because abuela said we had to and we did what abuela said. Period.”
Why Mexican food? “I’m half Italian and half Puerto Rican. My Spanish isn’t great, but my soul is Puerto Rican and my heart is Mexican. There is just something about Mexican food I fell in love with. The integrity of the ingredients. The abundance of chiles. The foundation of corn that allows you to create a blank slate for whatever flavors you want. The charm of the culture reminded me a lot of my family. And the idea that every town makes dishes in a slightly different way and each is adamant and passionate that theirs is the right one. I love making the food look beautiful so what you see and smell gets you really excited—even before you put it in your mouth.”
On becoming a chef/owner: “I’m not only about the business and the money. I’m also about the vision and the art. I wanted things in my restaurant that I wouldn’t be able to do in others because there would always be somebody worried about…Is that going to make money? For example, I always wanted to have ladies making tortillas with little planchas in my dining room. They’re beautiful and I wanted what they represent. If I was at someone else’s restaurant I just wouldn’t be allowed to do that. In mine, I can.”
On her best teachers: “I’ve trained with pros like Ricardo Muñoz Zurita in Mexico City, but years ago some of the Mexican cooks who work with me started to say, Go see my mom in Michoacán or Oaxaca or Puebla and they’ll teach you. So I did. I stay with them in their homes and cook. Even though my Spanish isn’t so good I see and learn and ask questions. I’ve been doing it for the last 15 years, and I still go every year. It’s been the best school.”
A most excellent motivator: “When I was in school, I had a professor ask me where I was going to work when I graduated. When I told him the 21 Club he said “You won’t last a day there. You don’t have what it takes.” And I thought, What an idiot…I’m going to prove you wrong! Sometimes it’s the people who don’t believe in you, as much as the ones who do, that make you what you are.”