AMA: Ask Me Anything (About Cocoa or Chocolate) #6 – My Chocolate Life
How did you get involved in chocolate?
This question, and very similar ones, are probably the ones I get asked the most. I have also been asked to meet virtually with a class of student chocolatiers later this week and I have been asked to address this subject for the class so I thought it would be fun to also answer it here.
My Educational Background and Early Career
When I give in-person tasting and pairing classes, I often use the following phrase to describe why I am qualified to lead the class, “I have the perfect background. I was trained in photography as a fine artist and I spent 20 years in various high-tech careers, working in computer graphics, interactive multimedia, high definition television production, and the Internet.”
This almost always gets a laugh – it’s always good to warm up a group with a laugh – but it also happens to be fundamentally true.
I received a BFA in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design (1983). My first high-tech startup experience was in computer graphics also in 1983, starting about four months after I graduated, and lasting a little over four years. During that time my jobs revolved around forward-thinking market research involving what our competition was doing and what our systems needed to do to remain competitive. I was, essentially, a marketing person within an engineering organization, turning the results of my research into functional and technical specifications and design user interfaces for computer graphics software. I was also involved in demonstrating the software I helped to develop to potential customers, training the sales staff and customers, and writing user manuals.
One way you can characterize what I did was to say that I took complex topics, broke them down into chunks, and communicated about those topics to a wide range of audiences, from very technical audiences to lay audiences.
When I went back to RISD in 2008 for my 25th reunion I was asked to talk to the parents of incoming students about how my RISD education prepared me for my career. I explained it this way, ”A design school education is all about articulating answers – visually and verbally – to questions you may be asked, or tasks you may be given.” That sounds like a pretty good education for just about any career if you ask me.
Of course, there is much more to it than that.
My father earned his Masters in Mathematics from Yale University in the mid-1950s and more or less immediately went to work in the computer industry. [For readers of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, [my Amazon affiliate link] one of the companies my father worked for was named the Electrical Till Corporation in the book.]
My father helped run the computer facility at Stanford University from some time in 1958 through some time in 1960 working with such notable figures as Richard Hamming (Hamming Codes) and Douglas Engelbart (the inventor of the computer mouse and some would credit as the inventor of first computerized information management system, Augment, and the hypertext hyperlink). Several years later my father was asked to consult on the design of the computer facility of the University of California, Irvine and he ran the facility for about five years in the mid-late 60s. We had a computer terminal with a 300-baud dial-up connection to the UCI mainframe in our living room in 1967 or so. In 1972 the family moved to New Zealand where my father ran the academic computing facility at Victoria University in Wellington.
So, it’s fair to say I grew up surrounded by computers, but even at a young age I was more fascinated by the images that computers could make, much more so than programming in FORTRAN or COBOL.
So when I was at RISD and had the opportunity to take the first ever computer class ever offered (Wintersession 82-83) I jumped at the chance, especially because the professor was one I respected extremely highly, Dr Mihai Nadin, a world-renowned semiotician.
The two teaching assistants in the class were graduate students in the computer department at Brown University, studying under the author of the seminal book, Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics, Andries (Andy) van Dam. It was during this class that I was able to make the connection between computers and the photographic art I was making – using tools that I did not have to program. One highlight of that course was a visit to Muriel Cooper’s Visible Language Workshop at MIT - which eventually became the MIT Media Lab under the leadership of Nicholas Negroponte.
So, it was with that background that when I was offered a job at a startup computer graphics company in October 1983 that I took it. One primary motivation was a regular salary and health benefits – a welcome change from the peripatetic life of a freelance first assistant photographer. (There are lots of stories there that aren’t directly germane to this discussion).
My Introduction to Chocolate, Origin Chocolate
I have to admit that I did not get into the chocolate business because I loved chocolate, I learned to love chocolate as a result of making the decision to get into the chocolate business. Growing up my family did have favorite chocolate candies and experiences (CC Brown’s hot fudge sundaes in Hollywood – best evah), but nothing you would really call gourmet, but favorites from my parents’ childhoods growing up in LA.
You never know when an in-the-moment, seemingly small decision will end up having a huge impact on your life. For me it was a business trip to the south of France in February 1994. I was consulting on the program for an international multimedia marketplace which took place in Cannes. As I was on the speaker program I was there, and the morning I was to leave I had the spare time to take one last walk through Cannes sightseeing and window shopping before going to the airport to spend the last of my Francs in duty free.
Walking around that morning I wandered into a gourmet food store and my eye caught a huge display of chocolate bars, one of which was Bonnat. This was my introduction to single-origin chocolate, which I later learned Bonnat pioneered in 1984. I ended up purchasing seven bars – Chuao, Puerto Cabello, Equateur, Trinité, Côte d'Ivoire, Ceylan, and Madagascar. What I could tell from translating the wrappers is that all of the bars had the same cocoa content (75%) and that the cocoa beans for each bar came from a different location.
Now, 1994 is still the early days of the Internet and Yahoo! was still the preeminent search engine. There is no Google Maps. I had to go to the library to find an atlas that could tell me where Puerto Cabello and Chuao were (Venezuela).
Within a week or some of my return I co-hosted a dinner party in the apartment where I was living (Upper West Side of Manhattan) and I brought out the bars as dessert, carefully tearing the names off the wrappers and putting them on the plates with broken up pieces of bars.
What I remember about that tasting – the only thing really – is that everyone around the table had a different favorite chocolate and for different reasons. Thinking about that over the course of the next couple of weeks, I came to realize that while there were professional critics for everything else in the world you could think of – wine, beer, spirits, television, radio, magazines, art, architecture, music, and even cigars –there were no professional critics for chocolate.
I had an entrepreneurial epiphany (aka moment of madness) one night. I saw an opportunity to become the world’s first professional chocolate critic. So that’s what I decided to do. Despite the fact that I had no idea what it meant to be a professional critic of any kind, let alone a professional chocolate critic. Despite the fact I had no idea what I needed to learn, or where I could go or from whom I could learn. About the only thing I was sure of was that I had time. It took wine at least a decade after Robert Parker made his prediction, so I figured I had at least five years before the rest of the world caught up with my understanding.
So I decided it was something I wanted to do and put my head down and started doing all the research I could. And I started eating a lot of chocolate in a systematic way. Over the Christmas season of 1997 I learned about Michel Cluizel’s Nuancier de Pure Origines du Monde collections and I realized there was a tool to teach people about chocolate. I lost my job in February 1998 after which I contacted the importer of Cluizel I ended up with a part-time commissioned sales position selling Cluizel and Domori products into high-end restaurant and hotel kitchens in NYC, work that I did for about five years. I learned a lot about how to talk about chocolate, what chocolatiers and chefs actually do with chocolate, and what they were looking for in a chocolate trying to sell against Valrhona, among other high-end brands.
I reached out to Stéphane Bonnat via email in late-Spring and went to visit them in June that year – my first-ever visit to a chocolate factory. I was received with open arms a warm hearts and left encouraged to pursue my dream – and an extra suitcase full of chocolate.
By mid-2001 I had developed a rating system and and approach for an online presence and launched chocophile.com that May. That year also saw me attend my first Fancy Food Show where I met Frederick Schilling, co-founder of Dagoba and Gary Guittard. Later that summer I got in touch with the staff at Chocolatier and Pastry Art and Design magazines and within a couple of months was writing for them on a regular basis.
But it wasn’t until June 2003 that I made my first trip to origin. Ecuador. Up until that time I thought of myself as a partial fraud as everything I new about cocoa was from reading someone else’s experiences. When I finally had a chance to see pods growing on trees and see harvesting and post-harvest processing enduring monsoon-like rain firsthand that I began to understand just how much hard work growing and processing cocoa is. And how beautiful the landscapes where it is grown can be.
Where I Am Now, and Where I See My Future
My Chocolate Life has made it possible for me to travel to exotic places – countries where cacao is grown and to the chocolate-making capitals of Europe and beyond. I have had the opportunity to make lifelong friends along the way and to help establish some enduring chocolate brands. I am proudest of my friendships and the contributions I have made to the worlds of specialty/craft cocoa and chocolate.
I have been on the Oprah Winfrey show talking about the most expensive chocolate in the world (at the time Amedei Chuao), taken a class led by Albert Adria, had a book on chocolate published, Discover Chocolate, [Ed: Buy Discover Chocolate using my Amazon affiliate link and support my work] in 2007 (I had a book on high definition television production published in the mid-90s), presented a Google Author Talk on my book, have helped organize an influential international cocoa and chocolate conference, worked on the definition of a Denomination of Origin for cacao in Mexico, had some truly amazing food experiences, and have tasted a wide range of truly astonishing chocolate, chocolate confections, and pastries. In 2008 Discover Chocolate was a finalist in the technical/reference category International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) book awards and in 2019 I was honored by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) with a Recognition of Excellence in Communication. In 2015 I got CocoaOtaku (loosely translated from Japanese as cocoa geek or cocoa nerd) tattooed on my left forearm.
I am unarguably and indelibly committed to what I do, and having fun as I do. One of my mantras is, ”If you’re working in chocolate and you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong.”
I see my future as working more and more at origin, working as a writer and storyteller building bridges between from the farm to the factory to consumers doing exactly what I learned to do at RISD and in my first job in high tech – taking complex subjects, breaking them down into smaller topics, communicating about them clearly (and usually more concisely than in this post), and getting people to care.
The Chocolate Life was inspired by a song I heard on the radio, Living la Vida Loca by Ricky Martin. In my mind, Living la Vida Loca became Living la Vida Cocoa (I own the domain), which some months later, I realized in a panic that I should register a version in English – TheChocolateLife.
I started TheChocolateLife in January 2008 as an online community to crowdsource the answers to questions about cocoa and chocolate I did not have, and it has grown beyond my wildest imaginings, evolving with the changes in my life, with changes in technology, and as the world of cocoa and chocolate evolves.
One of these evolutions is in my understanding of what TheChocolateLife is and what it means to actually Live La Vida Cocoa. For me, TheChocolateLife is a metaphor for connecting with something that truly interests you, using the connection to that interest to drive personal and professional growth, and – most importantly – to inspire others to find and follow what truly interests them (see my AMA #2 for more on this, the link is below), and to follow their own ChocolateLife, no matter what that inspiration is.
That last point is my primary motivation for writing as long as I have. By sharing my journey (or at least some small part of it), my goal is to inspire you to Live your La Vida Cocoa!
What are your thoughts? Please share with the community in the comments below.
Links to Other AMA/Ask Me Anything Posts in This Series:
- AMA 5 – Solving Poverty
- AMA 4 – What is Quality?
- AMA 3 – Why Not W Africa?
- AMA 2 – Educating Children
- AMA 1 – Edible Crystals
If you are a member of the media and want to engage with me on any or all of these topics or any other, please send an email to email@example.com.