By NANCY CHURNIN / Associated Press
Fathers and sons often have powerful bonds
For Rafael and Ruben Torano, there's an extra sweet quality to that bond. Literally. They are both pastry chefs, a profession Ruben aspired to as a little boy as he watched his father conjure his colossal confections.
"When I was 7, I told my mother, 'I'm going to be like my dad,' " recalls Ruben at Charlie Palmer at the Joule, where he is the executive pastry chef. "When I was 10, he taught me how to temper chocolate and passed on skills that I still use now. Seeing my dad in a chef's hat, he always seemed majestic, someone I could aspire to be like."
Rafael, 54, stands beside his son, smiling and wearing his gleaming chef's whites from the Warwick Melrose Hotel, where he is executive pastry chef.
And gazing admiringly at both is Diego Torano, Ruben's 4-year-old son, who has quite a way around the kitchen himself.
"He's already cooking," his grandfather says proudly.
"It makes me nervous," his father says.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Rafael watched his own father weigh sugar and mix batter for the lavish wedding cakes he whipped up for family and friends as a labor of love. His father, a military man, never baked for a living and Rafael didn't think he would, either. Instead, he joined the Army in 1976 with the intention of becoming a dentist.
Then a man, hearing Rafael talk about how good he was with recipes, challenged him to make a Black Forest cake.
He made it, impressed everyone including himself, and never looked back. He switched his training to become a pastry chef for the Army.
The hours were long in those days — waking up at 3 a.m. and working until 11 p.m. to feed a company of 150. But Rafael loved the work. His father let him know that he was very proud. And he had a saying to get him through that he would later pass on to Ruben: "Face to the wind."
The apprenticeship between father and son did not always go smoothly. There was the time when Rafael was part of a six-man Army team constructing a huge cake with a U.S. flag and all the Army ranks. He was finishing a portion of it at home when Ruben, then 4, got a little too close.
"I was really curious," Ruben recalls. "I stuck my finger right in it. He yelled pretty loudly."
Rafael, grinning now, doesn't deny it. But he just went back to the beginning, working hard as he has always done.
"I fixed it," he says.
And Ruben learned from his mistakes. When he found himself working on an elaborate cake, he made sure his wife kept Diego on the other side of the house.
He made it up to Diego later. He made him a Cars birthday cake. And when he was done, Diego was allowed to crash his Hot Wheels into it.
Diego laughs when his father tells that story.
When Ruben landed his first job working for his father, Rafael promised to teach him how to ice a cake.
"He showed me how to do it really quickly in five minutes," Ruben says. "But I took forever because I wanted it to be perfect. I showed it to him and he wiped off the frosting and told me to do it again. I did it six or seven more times."
Ruben was upset until he understood.
"My father told me anyone can decorate a cake and hide the mistakes. But you need to learn to ice it mistake free. I'm glad he taught me that."
As a pastry chef for the Army and then for fine hotels and restaurants, Rafael's work led to a life of travel for the Torano family — Germany, Georgia, Tennessee. Ruben was born in Fort Hood, Texas. They moved to Dallas when he was 6 and he went to school in Arlington before they were off again to Kansas. But the common threads in their wandering life was always food and music, family and laughter.
When Ruben thinks about what he learned from his father, it is as much about attitude and character as it is about his innumerable baking tricks, he says.
"Sometimes when work is really long and stressful, you take all that life gives you and you roll, but always with integrity. You stick to your word and if you say you'll do something, you do it. Face to the wind."
Father and son talk constantly. Sometimes it is to make sure they don't put the same desserts on the menus at their two establishments. Sometimes it's just because Rafael, who collects cookbooks and incessantly studies recipes on the Internet and the Food Network, has an idea he can't wait to share.
They are both similarly motivated by their work, Ruben says.
"The term my dad tells us is 'instant gratification.' When you give your creation to someone and they love it, it makes you feel good."
And sometimes, if the customer doesn't say the words, they can tell in another way that the dessert was a hit, Rafael says.
"I like when they leave the plate completely clean."