Monday, December 3, 2012

PAM WILLIAMS: Raising the Bar

Today I welcome Pam Williams. Pam Williams has been involved in the chocolate industry since 1981 when she created her first chocolate endeavor, the chocolate shop: au Chocolat. In 2003, she founded Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts, which delivers high quality educational programs to students all over the world. As well as leading Ecole Chocolat, in 2006 Pam created to celebrate the chocolate industry and in 2011, launched a free mobile app, Find Chocolate, which delivers the chocomap directory of over 2500 chocolate shops to Android, iPhone, iPad and tablets. In her free time, Pam is passionately working on the FCIA's Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (HCP) as a member of the HCP Executive Committee. She is the co-author with Jim Eber of Raising The Bar:  The Future of Fine Chocolate.

A Rocher, Junior Mints, and Some Space Dust 

Michael Recchiuti of Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco is really into his Junior Mints. Anne Weyns of Artisan du Chocolat in London has customers clamoring for Space Dust popping candy. Patrick Roger in Paris proudly proffers rochers that share part of the name of and bear at least a passing resemblance to the popular Ferrero Rochers. When asked for representative examples of their cutting-edge craftsmanship that give a sense of where they are going, three world-class chocolatiers mentioned products that don’t look like traditional bonbons but riff on confections well beyond the world of fine flavor.

But, of course, the results are decidedly fine.

Michael Recchiuti’s PEPs, or Peppermint Thins, might be shaped a bit like Junior Mints and come in a green and white box, but his version features a fondant of organic Willamette Valley peppermint and a shell of his 64% custom-blended semisweet chocolate. Anne Weyns is not putting popping candies in her paletsd’or but coats the popping candies in chocolate and then uses them as the base of her Space Dust UFOs—chocolate molded in the shape of a UFO that melts and explodes the moment you put it in your mouth. And the rochers Patrick Roger offers? They do come in milk chocolate, have a somewhat grainy praline that includes hazelnuts, and feature a rough exterior similar to the gold foil-wrapped Ferrero Rochers from Italy (rocheris French for rock, and not an unfamiliar term in chocolate making). But no one could mistake Patrick’s cube-shaped rochers for the other in a look or taste test.

So why these products? Are we sending a message about the future? “Watch out, Cadbury, and heads up, Hershey’s, the chocolatiers are coming—upscale is going down market!” Hardly. But it cannot be too surprising that creations like fine flavor Junior Mints, popping UFOs, and ritzy rochers are top of mind for some chocolatiers when contemplating the future. The worldwide chocolate market may continue to grow in spite of global economic turbulence, but times are still tough, and, especially in major chocolate-consuming regions like Western Europe and the United States, every segment of the market is looking to create deeper connections to its customers—to become part of everyday life, not an occasional indulgence. As the Wall Street Journal reported in a November 2011 article “Breeding a Nation of Chocoholics,” middle-of-the-road multinational bonbon brands like Godiva are already aggressively adapting, creating new packaging such as individually wrapped bite-size pieces, and pushing hard into supermarkets in order to make their chocolates everyday snacks.

For the fine flavor chocolate industry, this is good news; with broader exposure to more midmarket brands like Godiva, Lindt, and Ghirardelli, consumers will appreciate a greater range of chocolate and be educated up one level from candy.

And let’s face it, a little playfulness and comforting familiarity go a long way to welcome new customers, remind current ones to have some fun, and delight everyone. Anne certainly sees her UFOs, gold-wrapped coins, and similar products in her store as a blow against the “snobbism” that pervades some of her fine flavor chocolatier world. Michael freely calls himself a “Junior Mint freak” and admits he created his PEPs, as well as his upscale peanut butter cups and s’mores, because he loves the junk food and candy he grew up with. And certainly Patrick Roger is no stranger to using chocolate as vehicle for both playful performance art and the preservation of the past. Look at the giant endangered species sculptures created out of chocolate that have decorated his shop windows: penguins, polar bears, elephants, and gorillas, oh my.

In fall 2011, we found Patrick busy hand-carving hippopotami from a solid bar of chocolate seven meters long. Those hippos took almost a year to finish before claiming their place in the windows and becoming literal gateways to his bonbons—a lighthearted welcome with deeper resonance connecting past and future. “My customers always have the impression that when they come to my shops, they are tasting the taste of their childhood,” Patrick says, noting this connection is deliberate and profound and hopefully extends to today’s children as well. “Children eat like us. The mistake is to not give them chocolate to eat. I understand that it is a question of money, but that’s not really the point. My daughters heard music when they were in their mother’s womb to appreciate music at the earliest of ages. Now the taste buds form between zero and five years, right?”

France has a “culture of taste,” Patrick argues—a much deeper cultural connection to flavor than, say, the United States or developing countries. But he knows the world has changed and he sees his chocolates as part of a future that reclaims and preserves that French tradition by understanding the importance of taking a homemade approach. “The goal is to rediscover the excellence of taste again, on a cultural level,” he says. “Look at the cooking that is done today—the premade mixes . . . thirty years ago, premade mixes did not exist here. We mix everything from scratch here and thanks to some of my colleagues and me, we are getting back to this type of cultural taste.”

Like Patrick, Anne Weyns is interested in fine chocolate products that connect not only to childhood but also more broadly to family, flavor, and future—a way to step up to more sophisticated tastes and reach back to happier times. “I don’t think it is just the taste of the children but the taste of the parents,” Anne says. “Most of our customers are adults, but they have kids, and we just did not have a range for children because we didn’t think that parents would actually want that. But the more that we produced products like the UFOs, the more people were really into them. Now, whether people are actually buying them as nostalgic treats for themselves or they are actually giving them to their children I do not know. It could be a bit of both. Still, we just cannot produce enough. It is just something that is a little bit fun and different. People like to be surprised and reminded of when they were growing up.”

But don’t let this aura of childhood innocence fool you. While these products may be playful they can be just as difficult—even more difficult—to create as a traditional bonbon recipe. For example, from creating test batches to ensuring some kind of shelf life without the use of preservatives found in Junior Mints, Michael Recchiuti spent nine months perfecting his PEPs. That Junior Mint may be far removed from Patrick Roger’s “culture of taste,” but Michael sees some similarity in reclaiming the true origins of the candy he loves: “I think the initial take on the Junior Mint and peanut butter cup were pretty damned good. Somebody made it on a small scale and then the big companies just built machinery to make it happen and replaced everything with hydrogenated fats, but they were good ideas. Those are things I’m kind of into these days.”

In fact, Michael could be speaking for many chocolatiers when he talks about the philosophy behind the creation of those PEPs. “Anytime something becomes trendy, I go back,” he continues. “When I got started I was really sort of into the herb and tea infusion and different flavors. And then it got to the point where everybody was just trying to be weirder than the other. And so I just kind of shifted because I thought I don’t really want to be a part of that, and I started making things I like.”

Chasing good ideas, making what they like, and delighting their customers: three things that united every chocolatier we spoke to about his or her current work. Chocolatiers may be in very different parts of the world, sell to different audiences, enjoy different ingredients, and use different origins and custom blends of chocolate, but whether talking about the creative process, customers, packaging, or building a business, they are unified in their passion for delivering quality and flavor, and in the pursuit of ideas on their own terms.

Not because these chocolatiers want to be stars, though. They just want their chocolates and bonbons (and the experience of eating them) to be the best they can be. We may not know their faces, but their names—usually on the door—and presentations command a premium. They guarantee quality, luxury, and a singular human vision behind every bite. First and foremost, all are deeply connected to education about and the preservation of taste. In this way, they embody the spirit described by Michael Ruhlman in The Making of a Chef: “The chef hadn’t used the potato as a basis for displaying flashy, flamboyant skills but had placed his skills in the service of the potato.” Fine flavor chocolatiers are in the service of the flavor of chocolate and never lose touch with that flavor and all it is capable of conveying.

 Of course, most chocolatiers know they need a little flash, flamboyance, and fun to stay motivated and survive. They also know they must balance their artistic and flavorful pursuits with the continued production of the bonbons and other treats their customers expect to find and have grown to love. Whether watching over those creations, traveling the world to discover new pairings, or simply taking their love of Junior Mints to the highest level, fine flavor chocolatiers are all deeply aware of the “stage” they work on and the importance of taste in every performance.

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