Candice Alstrom My favorite people are Alan McClure, Art Pollard, and Shawn Askinosie. I have talked to all three of them and I admire them to no end how they are making their businesses thrive, the care and techniques they use, and their willingness to travel to the cocoa plantations to gain ultimate understanding of the beans they are using. They also talk to you and answer your questions without snobbery. Their willingness to talk about their products talk about all aspects of chocolate is wonderful for a novice such as myself. I have a lot of questions and a long way to go to get where they are in their knowledge of chocolate. They have no problem getting down with me.
Alan is especially awesome to me because he is, for all intents and purposes, a kid in this business and yet he has managed to make some of the best Madagascar bars in the world. He is working on new one off bars with beautifully balanced flavors such as sea salts, mint, and peanuts. Art Pollard has way of drawing out some of the most natural and gorgeous flavors on a bar of chocolate. The Dos Rio bar is by far and away my most favorite floral bar of chocolate. Shawn is on a crusade to not only produce the best bean-to-bars produced from America, but he is actively helping the farmers, and people from these bean regions.
I had the most difficulty with Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier. He is very temperamental and often hostile about asking question he deems beneath him or stupid. He doesn't appear to be enjoying what he is doing. It's turned me off of his brand. I find it really sad because he is the best chocolate maker the United States has to offer. Hands down his bars are extraordinary. But I can't talk to him about it or ask him anything in general without unnecessary attitude and I really lost interest in anything he is doing now because of that. I refuse to play that kiss ass game and I will not cater to that kind of attitude. These guys are my heroes for being able to make exquisite chocolate but business isn't just about the product you produce if people can't stand who you are. He has made my top ten lists two years in a row and probably will continue to do so, but not without that caveat that he is hard to deal with. At least in my opinion.
David Arnold Chocolate makers with the most control over the most steps in the entire process have the most potential for achieving great chocolate. Maybe it is the gardener in me but Claudio Corallo not only makes chocolate but gets to grow the beans too.
Debbie Ceder Steven deVries. We were fortunate enough to run across his products in 2007-08 and found them extraordinary. Here was a guy not much different from us (well, okay, financially much better off, maybe), someone who liked chocolate enough to try to make his own and did an outstanding job. His efforts seemed to help the artisan chocolate industry explode in the United States.
Vic Ceder Jack, the owner of Chocolate Covered, in San Francisco, CA - the best and most eclectic chocolate store ever;
Alan McClure (Chocolate Maker) from Patric Chocolate in Columbia, MO.
ChocoFiles Brady Brelinski. He has been both a friend and a mentor in my chocolate education. Through his leadership in the Manhattan Chocolate Society Brady has attained both depth and breadth in his chocolate knowledge, and he has cultivated an extensive network of relationships with significant people in the chocolate world. Brady has been an invaluable source of information and advice, and I use his list of dark chocolate bars as my primary reference for finding new bars to review.
I would also like to mention a few other people that I admire:
* Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolate. If I had to choose my Top Favorite chocolate maker it would be Rogue. Colin has a very high attention to quality that is built by a vast knowledge of the technical details of making great chocolate. Many of his bars are in my list of Top 10 Favorites, but every bar that he makes is high quality!
* Rob Anderson of Fresco. I absolutely love their approach to making series of bars but changing just one variable with each new iteration. I am so glad that they clearly document the characteristics of each bar so that the effect can be clearly compared.
* Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate. I enjoy his chocolate, and he has many fine bars, but I especially respect how he lives out his faith, by improving the lives of cacao farmers in developing nations. I also appreciate his passion. He once said in a lecture that he only makes one tenth of the salary that he did as a lawyer, yet he still invests a great deal in the lives of cacao producers.
* Dan Rattigan of French Broad Chocolate. He already knows great chocolate, but as a new chocolate maker he has already nailed a world class chocolate with the Chulucanas 66% bar. I haven’t seen another chocolate maker master their craft this quickly; this is only their first year of production! I also admire Dan’s inventiveness in applying principles of physics and mechanics to create an ingenious solar powered roaster.
Mark Xian Chocolate, too big for any one person, invites many commendations (several already mentioned above):
Gianluca Franzoni better known as Domori, because his rescue & recovery missions of
This Magister Ludi of chocolate (Master of the Game) is a leading light who set a new standard dissecting varietals with power & finesse, developing an acuity for splitting hairs in distinguishing between Fine & Extra-Fine Cacáo thru the investigation of intrinsic genetic values. Described in his Domori Codice (a learner’s guide to premium cacáo / chocolate of which nothing like it existed until he published it), each varietal carries different & exclusive sensory / flavor traits. In fact, Domori took a stand against the rising chorus at the time which shouted out that all seeds are the same; that the only difference spelling quality lies in post-harvest production; & that all things being equal, any distinctions result from terroir. He’s resolute that certain cacáo seeds are simply greater than others, echoed in the C-spot’s® 3rd Law of Chocodynamics.
Truly showing the way back into the origins that gave proof to his motto Cacáo Cult, he voyaged farther than just about anyone thru the jungle maze (the ‘jungle’ metaphorically located at Hacienda San José in Venezuela where he & the Franceschi family enjoyed a rich collaboration) to push the boundaries that even natives envy & respect (calling him ‘Hidalgo’).
Enthusiasts put their trust in him to personally deliver the goods so whenever he printed the ‘Domori’ label on the package, it meant excellence &, admittedly, varying degrees of it because the cavil against Domori is / was consistency. But in a world of cookie-cutter uniformity, artisanship might be measured in the variable slots, the slight inconsistencies that spell d-i-f-f-e-r-e-n-c-e while still delivering excellence.
His low-impact processing (low ‘n slow roast / shorter conche) yield true & honest chocolate, placing the burden on deeper understanding of cacáo genetics, selection & handling, generating honest flavor. It was the harbinger for both the retro-American style & the neo-Spartan approach.
Claudio Corallo -- The Cacáo Jones of the trade, husbanding a humble &, until now, neglected varietal of potentially historical value: a possible direct descendent of the 1st cacáo to leave its American homeland in 1822 for the Old World… to Príncipe Island off the Atlantic coast of Africa. An Amazon Amelonado rechristened Monka, grown on his own estate – Plantacao de Terreiro Velho. Corallo intimately knows the DNA of his trees & their seeds which goes with the territory when cultivating, harvesting, & handling every step in the processing chain himself (among the few who can make this vertically-integrated claim). Beyond Bean-to-Bar, it’s Bud-to-Bud™ (cacáo flower bud to your taste-bud) & Claudio Corallo a full-fledged ‘Budsman’.
Implicit in this movement is a typical attitude among most local cacaoteros / campesinos / growers who see cacáo only as a cash crop for export & don’t give an F. Who can blame them – it’s generally a miserable life.
Smelly, humid, snake-ridden, mosquito-infested. If their micro-bites somehow fail to deliver dengue fever, then typhoid – a contaminated water-borne disease – probably will… right on the farmhands &/or their family. Should they avoid getting sick – lack of immunity, after all, the #1 killer among Amerinds at the time of the European invasion – then the reward for all the toil comes when the commodity price falls as production picks up.
(Sorry the shit just got real: The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side - James Baldwin.)
Because income from cacáo stays persistently low, a grower needs a 2nd job, which adds to the hours he or she must spend on the farm. How does a daily grind of, say, sunrise to sundown, no-benefits, no-overtime, sub-minimum wage, every-single-day-of-the-year sound? What about taking care of – insert favorite adjective here: unique, scarce, aromatic, fine – cacáo trees just to see that the yield amounts to a third of a plot planted with a full-sun “bulk” variety which, BTW, locally fetches the exact same price? Is it any wonder that growers just get fed up with “fine cacáo” & plant something else… anything that at least pays the taxes if not the bills? Is it any wonder that segments of local communities acquiesce with Big Oil & Mining companies to exploit indigenous lands? Or that they just lose hope with cacáo, chop it down or sell it off to some profitable cattle ranchers? It is any wonder that they dream about sending their kids to grammar school (forget college for the moment) so they WON’T have to be poor cacáoteros?
Upon enjoying that “fine chocolate”, please savor the subsidy that these Bromans gave you. They toll the 12+ hours a day in order that the fruits of their labor can be procured by consumers on the cheap. And pay no mind if you overpaid for that bar. Chances are the money was pocketed by wiseguys who actually profit most from this venture. (Thank you Wall Street for paying close attention to your computer screens all day long at the trading desk.)
The Women of Chuao for resisting the armies of wannabe-MBAs with high-yielding “Forastero” in the briefcases promising to increase revenues for the villagers there if only the good ladies on this peninsula give up their traditional ways for “efficiency”.
Colin Gasko (Rogue); Alan McClure (Patric) – at the head of the American class… hardcore to the core; very studious, curious & tenacious in understanding the manifold & even minute dynamics of flavor development from the seed at the source to the end taste. Their considerable chocolate works reflect a monomanical obsession.
Stéphane Bonnat – ‘the happiest man in chocolate’ at the controls of the venerable House of Bonnat Chocolate who keeps the right perspective that at the end of the day chocolate is about the pleasure principle. He delivers it… in spades & bars.
Basil Bartley (for the aforementioned reasons) & Juan Carlos Motamayor who, in addition to extending the framework of Bartley’s work, is one of the few cacao geneticists who has the inclination & the palate to actually taste premium chocolate, having worked at Amedei in the past. He stands as one the few scientists who ‘gets it’, gets the objectives of the premium sector &, above all, knows it. You’d be astounded how many so-called cocoa gurus rarely consume chocolate & a couple well-known one don’t even like it but, because their livelihood attaches, they stick with it.
Mars research fellow Ed Seguine – outspoken & incredibly resourceful, especially in the area of bio-chemistry.
Jeff Hurst – a no nonsense bio-chemist at Hershey’s who gets right to the heart of the matter
Dapeng Zhang, Lyndel Meinhardt, et.al., ‘The Beltsville Boyz’ at the USDA /ARS in Beltsville, MD for their initiative to rationalize the int’l cacáo database
Mott Green – a warrior on the frontline, in the trenches, with battle scars to prove it, & lots of integrity to boot
John Nanci aka The Chocolate Alchemist – the pied-piper of the New American Chocolate Craft Movement. Many a home-based & micro-batch processor has gotten a start & sourced their initial supplies from him divining his know-how & cacáo seeds – some going on to fame & reverse fortune (investing thousands to make hundreds). But the real payback, of course, comes in producing a world-class bar that hits everybody’s C-spot®.
If it ever gets written, one of the few chocolate books worth reading would be John’s chronicles on busting the myth of those who said that home-made bean-to-bar chocolate couldn’t be done because it’s overly complicated, too messy, & prohibitively expensive. Truthfully & regrettably… it is. To paraphrase T.S Eliot, making chocolate would be easy were it not for bitter beans, which only emboldens the DIY-tribe to over-achieve & just do it; breaking the mold, inventing compact tools, & perfecting a process so generations to come will have at it & think no more of it than a self-service gas station to prove the 5-star Chef Gusteau’s maxim that anyone can make chocolate. And with the onset of global-warming, they’ll be growing cacáo trees in their backyards! (Added Bonus: no more shady deals trying to truck shipment containers from the tropics).
Whether consciously or intuitively, Nanci knew at some level it could be done because it already had been done. How, after all, was it achieved at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when Western chocolate manufacturing got its start with neither machines yet-to-be-invented nor the Internet to compare notes & exchange ideas?
Gary Guittard – on the home team; the All-American chocolate good guy
People occasionally email the C-spot® with ‘why all the stuff on the Maya?’. Well, blame Cameron McNeil. Her book, Chocolate in Mesomaerica: A Cultural History, does for Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cacáo what Sophie & Michael Coe’s True History did for Post-Columbian Western chocolate: elevates it in a cumulative celebration that ends up the definitive, authoritative source. And the Maya as much as the Mexîcà are the pivotal switchpoint between the 2 cultures.
The leadership demonstrated by Mary Jo Stojak & Pam Williams at FCIA
No survey would be complete without Chloé Doutre-Roussel – the overcommitted doyenne of this niche & global ambassador of the trade.
Many others too… consult the C-spot® for the complete directory of ‘who’s-who’ (with apologies for those omitted here)… like those countless, unheralded artisans enacting Voltaire’s maxim to tend their own garden, exemplified by Kee Tong who quietly operates in the shadow of Jacques Torres & minds her own business so well that by 3PM on most days her shelves are sold out to the dismay of late-arriving customers. Still doing much of it by hand, whichever firm insures J. Lo’s ass should cover Ms. Tong’s hands – that’s how, pardon the obvious pun, key they are to the enterprise, because at her feverish 10-fingered pace, herbs & over-the-counter anti-inflammatories would seem inadequate medical coverage.
And, finally, I’d be remiss to forget my grandmother Antoinette who taught each of her 32 infant grandchildren to talk with this teaching tool: “speak for grandma & grandma give you a chocolate”. They all accepted her instruction along their various paths to becoming lawyers, doctors, investors, teachers, administrators, chefs & artists.
Scott of Dallas Food There are too many to name, but here are a few. For popular chocolate education, Maricel Presilla and her "New Taste of Chocolate." For community-building, Martin Christy (Seventy Percent), Clay Gordon (The Chocolate Life), and John Nanci (Chocolate Alchemy). For running my dream chocolate shop, Aubrey Lindley and Jesse Manis of Cacao (Portland, OR). For setting the pace for chocolate geekery in America, the members of the Manhattan Chocolate Society and the C-Spot. For championing Italian chocolate and gianduia, Gigi and Clara Padovani. For being the first and best of the new wave of American small batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers, Steve DeVries.
Chloe Doutre-Roussel It is a very difficult question, the list is very long: I have met fantastic people, and some of them make me feel insignificant. I have many names that come to my mind but I take this opportunity to mention the most recent encounters, the highlights of 2012, people that make a real difference in their country:
* Samantha Aquim in Brazil: a great palate, perfectionist and workaholic, a bright and adventurous mind, she first introduced “Belgium and French” luxury chocolate in Brazil, and soon realized it was an aberration to import chocolate in a country producing cacao; she visited plantations, fell in love with the cacao, the plantations, the people working there, the smell of the fermentation and drying beans and tried to share the sensorial experiences in a fine chocolate range called Q chocolate-educational, elegant, with a packaging and aromas that transport you into the plantations of Bahia. I have smelled the fermentation boxes of the cacao used by Aquim in their chocolate, smelled and tasted the beans on the drying beds, spent hours in the middle of those cacao trees. The packaging as well as the aromas of the different chocolates really dive you into what your senses experience there. It was her objective, and it is a success.
*Mark from C-spot the website has an amazing quantity and quality of information (I am not referring to the choco bars reviews, that I have not read) – it is extensive, bright, fun- We waited years for it, but it was worth the wait.
* María Fernanda di Giacobbe in Venezuela founder of the brand Kakao bombones venezolanos–in a country where the private sector is suffocated by a despotic government, she managed to open many fine chocolate shops, create an atmosphere full of joy and generosity- she spends most of her time setting up and giving classes to “cacao country people”, showing them they can make some income from the jewels that grow in Venezuela-and organizing cacao and chocolate festivals. Her positive attitude, creativity and generosity, in such a difficult context, makes her a choco-cacao hero.
George Gensler There are a number of chocolate people that I admire for what they do with and/or know about chocolate, including Damian Allsop, Rob Anderson, Stephane Bonnat, Brady Brelinski, Martin Christy, Clay Gordon, Santiago Peralta, Maricel Presilla, Chloe Doutre Roussel, Paul A. Young, and many, many more.
Maricel Presilla I am thinking of Jorge Redmond, who was a visionary; a man who wanted to do a spectacular factory in the country of origin, in Latin America. If you look at the people who are doing that now, you will realize Redmond was ahead of his time and ahead of everyone. And he invested huge amounts of money in the El Rey factory in Barquisimeto. He had inherited his family’s chocolate factory, but he wanted a better one. Investing heavily in the chocolate industry in Venezuela where he sourced his cacao was a revolutionary move. He also created something very important: a network of cooperatives. The cacao farmers were getting better salaries, more than anyone else. He also created an experimental farm in the plains of Barinas that was run by a woman agronomist Beatriz Escobar. The farm was invaded under the auspices of President Chavez and Beatriz was denied access to the farm under threats of death. She recently came to see me at Ultramarinos, my store in Hoboken. She told me she was still working with El Rey in another region, but gave me the great news that several farmers from Barinas had planted Ocumare 61 from genetic material she had gotten from the farm. The picture of the beautiful pink pod at the beginning of my chocolate book is from that farm. What Jorge and Beatriz did on that farm with the help of Humberto and Lillian Reyes was extraordinary. They were experimenting with growing cacao with no shade, and they ultimately realized they needed shade. They also created a complex irrigation system. They were developing an area of Venezuela that in essence was virgin territory for cacao. It was all revolutionary and visionary. So I do admire Jorge for his vision and the impact he has had on the industry as a whole as he spearheaded the concept of single origin in the US and beyond while exalting the quality of Venezuelan cacao.
Of the new generation of chocolate makers in Latin America, I admire Santiago Peralta. What he is doing in Ecuador is the same thing Jorge Redmond did in Venezuela years ago, but with far fewer resources. I have seen how Santiago has built his factory. He and his father Agustín Peralta created many of the equipment. In some cases, they bought equipment in Ecuador and refurbished it. Santiago is the type of chocolate maker who believes in direct cacao trade. He takes his car and drives to farms all over Ecuador to buy the cacao himself. He does not have a wide a network of people working for him. He prefers to do it himself. I suspect he thoroughly enjoys this direct experience. He is interested in getting to know the farmers and their needs. Right now Pacari is involved with over 3000 cacao farming families and paying higher prices for select organic and biodynamic cacao. Santiago, who is a purist, believes in organic farming and he is intimately involved in training farmers in organic and biodynamic farming. In fact, Pacari is the only chocolate company in the world certified with the Demeter seal of biodynamic agriculture. I have seen Santiago at work, and I absolutely admire him for his vision and involvement with cacao farmers. It is not an easy job and it involves many hours of driving up and down the mountains. I would say that Jorge and Santiago symbolize the same thing. They represent the desire to produce excellent chocolate in the country of origin and they are both examples to emulate in Latin America.
People like these are changing the history of chocolate in Latin America. The fact that Santiago won first and second places in the Americas International Chocolate Awards in NY followed by the same performance in the world final round of the competition in London is momentous. I compare the feat to the Judgment of Paris in 1976, when in a blind tasting, a number of savvy judges chose California wines, a chardonnay and a cabernet over well established and iconic French wines. That was 36 years ago, and it changed the history of California wines. Martin Christy understands this, and I hope that this comparison is used more often to describe the results of the International Chocolate Awards. This is a pivotal moment in the history of chocolate. We have seen a change in the gestalt and center of gravity of chocolate. It is no longer in Europe, the heart of chocolate has moved back where it belongs, to the Americas. We have seen this with Pacari’s victory in key categories like dark plain and flavored bars.
And we have also seen this shift to the Americas with Amano. Usually described as a micro-batch chocolate maker, Art Pollard’s Amano is actually a medium-sized company coming into its own. Look at the results of the International Chocolate Awards. We see many sacred cows, some people that I admire like Cluizel, a company that has been my customer for years. I’ve sold cacao to them for 15 years or so. There is also Stephan Bonnat whom I adore and fully support. But still when you look at the results of the competition, you realize there is a new sensibility. In the competition’s blind tastings, people invariably, both in NY and London, chose Ecuadorian and American-made chocolates. These results have a higher meaning.
So yes, the third person I admire is Art Pollard. With few resources and with a factory located in the middle of nowhere in Utah, where there are no cacao trees, this man has developed a true passion for cacao. In Venezuela and Ecuador there are cacao trees, so the influence of cacao is pervasive and unavoidable. But being in Utah developing this consuming passion, to really care for cacao farmers and to really travel to the lands of cacao is unusual and a testament to Pollard’s commitment. I know that Art does travel because I’ve seen him do it. We’ve done it together. I have known Art for years and learned to appreciate his work ethic and his need to experiment. He is always working and experimenting, trying to improve every chocolate. Since he is humble and does not believe that he has not yet made the ultimate chocolate, he keeps striving for excellence as a way of life.
These three remarkable individuals represent three very different worlds. Jorge Redmond, the heir of a great fortune could have been happy anywhere. He has a grand apartment in NY and didn’t have to stay in Venezuela to endure his country’s political problems, but he has chosen to stay and fight for El Rey. He has a passion for quality and excellence. Santiago Peralta has done what no one else in his country has done, produce award-winning first rate chocolate that benefits farmers and consumers. This is an extraordinary feat in a country with a long cacao exporting tradition but a lackluster chocolate industry controlled by a handful of large factories that produce impersonal chocolate for labels that are not bean to bar. Art Pollard represents a new generation of chocolate makers in the U.S. who are redefining the industry. He has inspired countless of micro-batch chocolate makers.
Alex Rast Gary Guittard. Here is a person who loves chocolate in ways that I think most of us can never fully appreciate. What's even better is, Guittard produces what is reliably the best chocolate in the USA, artisan manufacturers notwithstanding, and has mastered the art of operating a successful medium-scale business, without sacrificing chocolate quality or core values. And he's just a good human being. We could all take hints from him.
Richard Vaughan For me, there isn’t one person above the others. I admire the passion and commitment of the small craft chocolate makers who continually improve their own chocolate and now make some of the best chocolate available. Those makers realize the impact of fermentation and drying, and they are often involved in those earlier stages. I’ve also been impressed by the new chocolate makers entering the field, as well as by their chocolate, which is nearly always better than mainstream brands and sometimes better than the big fine chocolate brands.
Ian Whitaker I admire all of those who produce the fine chocolate that we award with one, two or three stars. They are making the best tasting chocolate in the world, making it possible for people to have an incredible taste experience.