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So You Want to Become a Chocolatier...
You’ve decided that the time is now! You’ve admired the miniature artistic masterpieces that emerge from boxes of your favorite brand of fine chocolates for long enough, or you’ve bitten into a disappointing chocolate once too often and knew you could do better. No more of the corporate grind for you; you’re going to go for that longstanding dream and become a chocolatier! But how do you go about it? Or even, should you?
Before we get to that, there are a few other matters to think about first. The field of chocolate is ever more crowded these days. Competition is fierce, and the devotion of the public is, at best, an inconstant thing. Becoming a chocolatier requires knowledge, skill, creativity, very long hours, and enough patience for your average saint. You must be able to handle pressure and seemingly endless repetition, you must be strong physically as well as mentally, and you’d better be good at working independently. You’ll need solid people skills (hopefully, you’ll have great customers, who’ll call or e-mail after receiving an order to tell you how much they love your products. But it is a guarantee that you’ll have people contact you two or three days before a major holiday with a large, rush order, and then not understand why you can’t fulfill it for them). You’ll require some marketing know-how and a sense of aesthetics, or at least a partner with both. Recognize that your life won’t be your own between early October and at least mid-May (Jeff Shepherd, chocolatier of Lillie Belle Farms, says, “Come work for me from Thanksgiving through Christmas and you will never want to have anything to do with chocolate ever again; OR you will embrace it with all your heart and never look back.” Words to live by!) Halloween, the December holidays, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day are major “chocolate” holidays, with Thanksgiving ranking slightly less so. In summertime, your business may be very slow, and shipping any product is going to be a challenge. And you’d better have, and be able to maintain, all of the enthusiasm you can muster for your products, because you’ll face a lot of rejection.
Have I frightened you off yet? If you’re prepared to face all of the above and more, the first subject to think about is how much experience you have. If the answer is “none” or “very little”, a smart first step might be taking some classes. I’m not talking about anything on a professional level here; I’m talking about hobby level or avocational courses. If you can, find a local cooking school or a nearby community college with continuing education classes in chocolate, and take a few, just to see the kinds of tasks you’ll end up doing. If the instructor is a chocolatier (and hopefully he or she will be just that), ask a lot of questions about how they got started. Try to visit their business; you might even volunteer there for a little while, to get a better feel for the job.
How about formal education? Must you attend culinary school? There are two distinct ways of thinking about that question. If you do receive formal education, you’ll acquire much of the technical knowledge necessary for making chocolates, and you’ll receive some hands-on experience, as well. You’ll almost certainly end up working for, or apprenticing to (or both), one or more chocolatiers, these stints being really the best way to pick up practical knowledge of the ins-and-outs of chocolate making, as well as other aspects of the business. On the other hand, I know at least a couple of chocolatiers who usually won’t hire culinary school graduates, claiming that they come in with too many preconceived notions about making chocolates, think they know everything because they’ve been to culinary school, and aren’t receptive to the chocolatier’s ways of doing things. So you’ll have to decide which way you want to go here. I do think it is a must to volunteer for, or work for, a producer of chocolates (not merely a shop that sells them), and I think it’s important to do that for a significant period of time, not just a month or two. Although it isn’t always possible, it’s a good idea, too, to try to work in a place that makes chocolates in a price category similar to that in which you intend to market your products. That may give you some idea of costs you hadn’t anticipated, what your customers will expect from you, etc.
Thinking about the type of chocolates you want to make can come later, but it’s still important. Do you prefer classic flavor combinations, such as hazelnut/chocolate or orange/chocolate, or are you more of a “cutting edge” individual when it comes to flavors (say, lemongrass/chocolate or rosemary/honey/chocolate)? Will your chocolates be very fancy or more rustic in appearance? Filled chocolates can be airbrushed with color, decorated with transfer sheets, dusted with edible metallic powder, or simply left as they emerge from their molds; there are molds available that will turn out chocolates in shapes ranging from tall, slender cones to butterflies to pharaoh’s heads. Perhaps you’ll focus on bars or truffles instead? How about the range of products you’ll offer? And how often will you change those? What about packaging? Containers for chocolates run the gamut from understated and elegant to just plain wacky and very brightly colored. It’s usually best to start with fewer products and plainer packaging; you can always work your way up. And this part of your business will almost certainly change and evolve over time.
Then, of course, there’s the monetary aspect. What will your source of funding be initially, if you’re doing this on your own? You can’t expect to make a lot of money for the first few years, and it’s likely that much of what you do make will have to be funneled back into your business. Look for gently-used equipment, or rent time in a commercial kitchen. If you pay attention to nothing else in this article, PLEASE promise me that you won’t try making chocolates for sale in any kitchen that isn’t state-licensed for food production!! You don’t need to be slapped with a fine (or worse) by the Board of Health, nor do you need a lawsuit against you. When it comes to distributing and selling product, many chocolatiers who are starting out don’t have boutiques or storefronts. They sell at local Farmers’ Markets or area stores or online (or all three). If you sell to area businesses, expect a good percentage to turn you down, at least the first time you approach them. And don’t look solely at food stores (I know one chocolatier who sells some of his product to a florist in his vicinity; his is the only food product she carries).
This is merely the barest outline of what you’ll need to consider. Is it possible to become a producer of fine chocolates without going through all of this bother? Yes, but the likelihood of that is becoming less common. I’m not trying to discourage you from following your dream. If you’re still convinced you absolutely want to pursue chocolate-making after reading this, I believe you should try it. But it seems there are many people out there who have ideas about the chocolate-making profession that are simply illusions. Being a chocolatier is often regarded as romantic and exciting. In some respects, it can be. But it always involves a great deal of very hard work. With persistence and a little luck, you might just make a go of it. I hope you will. And if you do, don’t forget to e-mail me to let me know; I’ll order some of your products to try them. If I like them, you could end up recommended here!
Chocolate Find of the Month:
Christopher Norman Chocolates
It isn’t everyone who goes into chocolate to “support a painting habit”. But John Down, Chief Chocolate Officer of Christopher Norman Chocolates, is an artist at heart as well as in fact, and he jokes that this is how this business was born. These chocolates and chocolate products are indeed miniature works of art in form and appearance. Sometimes, so much attention put into looks can be a trap; we’ve all had experiences where chocolates were “all show and no go”. It makes me crazy when you bite into a gorgeous confection or pastry and discover that all of the effort went into eye appeal! But that’s not the case here. Care is given to the ingredients and processes at Christopher Norman Chocolates. I am especially fond of both the chocolate “dominos” with silky caramel interiors and the Poire William chocolates, which mimic the shape of perfect, tiny pears; this small business also makes a nifty hot chocolate mix and a great Hazelnut Gianduja bar. And if you ever have a chance to taste the piece with a dark chocolate exterior and a cantaloupe center, you’ve got to try it!
I’ve watched this company for some years now. I remember the original “factory” (a space smaller than my apartment!), but even then it was apparent that these chocolates were painstakingly made. These days, you can visit Christopher Norman Chocolates in person, at their factory/gallery shop, at 60 New Street, in New York City, where the phone number is (212) 402-1243. If you can’t get there or don’t live nearby, surf over to www.christophernormanchocolates.com for online ordering. Help support one man’s obsession with painting and get yourself some terrific chocolates at the same time!
Stephanie (HandOverTheChocolate@comcast.net) has had a strong affinity for chocolate from a very early age. Family members claim that, as a child, she was able to hear chocolate being opened in the kitchen no matter where she was in the house. Stephanie was baking by the time she was 6 and ran a short-lived baking business out of her parents’ kitchen when she was in high school. She has a Master’s Degree in Foods from Virginia Tech but no formal training in cooking or baking. Consequently, she is a home cook, not a chef. Prior to beginning this column, she had written about chocolate for some 8 years.