Friday, December 29, 2006

John Scharffenberger: A Conversation with the Chocolate Maker

I spoke to John Scharffenberger in December, a few days before he was about to head off to Guatemala. We reminisced about the irregularities of indigenous and expatriate life in that Central American country, and also found time to talk about his new book (The Essence of Chocolate), chocolate in Australia, pigs in California, the Hershey Company, and the future of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker.

Emily: Hi, this is Emily Stone from Chocolate in Context.

John: Hi. Aren’t you Australian?

Oh, no, I’m not. I’m from New York but I’ve lived in Australia for the past year. Before that, I lived in Guatemala for two years.

Really? Where in Guatemala?

I lived in Antigua. Did you come through there at all?

Oh, yeah, I usually go through there every time I go.

That’s funny, because I have a story to tell you. I was there in 2004 and 2005. And, of course, it’s a very, very small country, with a tiny expat community.

Tiny, yeah. I think I already know half the country.

I’m sure you do. Probably 80% of the country. I knew a guy who lived up in the Rio Dulce area, and he used to come to Antigua because he was really good friends with some people that I worked with. And whenever he came into town we made Scharffen Berger hot chocolate and talked about all things chocolate. And the way that rumors spread through the entire country of Guatemala is something that you don’t see anywhere else except on college campuses. And one time he came down to Antigua saying “John Scharffenberger’s here, and he came down on the Scharffen Berger plane, and they’re flying around, and they’ve been looking at cacao plantations, and they’re thinking of buying something…”

Laughs. I’d certainly been there, and talked to a lot of people, but, you know, I tend to drive or get rides on other people’s planes. Luckily, I know a couple of coffee growers who have planes, which helps immeasurably because my two projects are in pretty far away places. [One is in the Rio Dulce area] and the other is in Cahabon, working with a small indigenous community that grows cacao. And they grow delicious stuff, but they haven’t been able to commercialize it yet. And so I said, “Let’s help you commercialize it, and you can start making some money, and stop tearing down forests to grow corn.” We’re sort of finishing up that relationship on this trip. I just sent them their first check, so it’s a done deal. It’s really fun to get to that point.

It really fascinates me that there have been so many obstacles between growing cacao and producing really any type of chocolate in Guatemala, let alone an artisanal-quality chocolate.

Yeah, especially considering that it’s from there.

Why do you think that is?

Well, I think as chocolate grew and commercialized, it grew away from its roots. So people brought the good stuff to Venezuela—that’s what the French farmers did. I don’t think that the Spanish colonial system was very outward-looking, nor the Spanish oligarchy. They were very, I don’t know, kind of out of it. And by the time the Germans all came, and the Palestinians all came, and the Jewish people came, and all those people came [to Guatemala] around the 1880s, it was all about coffee. Chocolate was sort of at a bad point. I think—I’ve got to check the history, but this is a guess of mine. So people just didn’t get into it, and it remained a providence of the indigenous people who needed it for their own uses. And the people in Cahabon sell their stuff in the marketplace.

And how is it used?

You know, they make drinks out of it. Occasionally a coyote will come through and buy it, and get a container together and send it off to somebody or other. But there’s almost no export of cacao from Guatemala.

And I think I read that you found a tree that you particularly like in Guatemala.

I found a whole planting that I like, in Cahabon, in this community planting. An NGO sent us some beans that were in pretty good shape, and they paid for the maintenance. So I said, “Hey, let’s go talk to these people and figure this out, this is stupid that we don’t know anything about it.” So I went down there, and I’ve gotten to know this area not well, but a bit. And then I have these other friends in Rio Dulce. So that’s where I find myself now, working on this project in Rio Dulce, and working on this thing in Cahabon.

And do you foresee using the Guatemalan beans in Scharffen Berger chocolate in the coming years, or even doing a single-origin bar?

Oh, yeah. That’s the intention in Cahabon.

And those trees are criollo?

No, they’re trinitario, with a lot of good parenting. “Criollo” doesn’t mean too much, that’s the problem with all this stuff. You have, on one end of the spectrum, criollo that has certain flavor characteristics. And you have forastero on the other end, which has these other types of characteristics—not usually very tasty but very tough, and really well suited to milk chocolate (also having some characteristics that are useful for chocolate blends, but not any more than 10 or 15 percent). So what’s in Cahabon probably traveled… It was probably indigenous to that area, taken down, mixed with other stuff, agglomerated its agricultural station someplace else, and then brought back there in the 60s. They just happened to luck out, having good stuff.

Thanks for taking the time to go into the details.

I have a degree in agricultural geography, so this is what do, what I love.

Well that factors into the book as well. I want to talk about The Essence of Chocolate for a minute. I love this book, it’s exactly the kind of book that I love to read. Because it’s a memoir, and it’s a history, and it’s sort of a cultural anthropology cookbook. Could you talk a little bit about putting it together?

Well, Robert [Steinberg, Scharffen Berger founding partner,] and I have encountered so much just in learning how to do what we’re doing. [Scharffen Berger] isn’t my first project, it’s my second or third of its kind, though it’s certainly the only one that I’ve ever made any money on. But I’ve always been involved in agricultural projects, and I always try to know as much as possible about what I’m doing. In other words, history, cultural breadth.

So, why do a book now?

Well, we actually did it way before the Hershey guys showed up. We started talking about it five years ago and just didn’t have the time to do it. And then finally it was time to get it done. I said to Robert, “Let’s just get on with it.” And Robert had his own interests. He likes to write and he’s a diarist. But of course nobody has ever read his diaries, or been interested in them. So I said, “Robert, I’m sorry, this isn’t the place for your memoirs. This is the place to try and share what we’ve learned about chocolate.” But he kept trying to come back to memoir, and that’s why I said let’s use a third-party person, so she’ll sort out what’s memoir and what’s not. So Ann Krueger Spivack really was helpful, and compassionate with how she managed both of our interests in the book. And then, you know, we’ve been spending the last eight or nine years of our lives working in the food world. Our friends are chefs, and cooks, and home cooks, and other food producers, so we’re constantly coming up against new ideas, new ways to cook old recipes, adaptations to chocolate that are more intense than traditional recipes. We thought that including those was important, and fun. It’s a whole amalgamation of all of those things, like my mother’s brownies with our chocolate in them. Robert also spent quite a long time redoing some other people’s recipes to make a brownie recipe that’s wonderful.

Is there a recipe in the book that has a story that’s really meaningful to you?

It’s actually a flourless chocolate cake, which is as pure and chocolately as possible. It’s on page 50, the “Orbit Cake.” And it came to me in a funny way. One day my friend Nancy said to her son, one of these kids who grew up watching the food channel, “Sam, can you help me? We’ve got to bring something to this potluck tonight.” And so she threw him this book [David Lebovitz’s Room for Dessert], and he made this cake. And it uses four ingredients and takes ten minutes! And everybody freaked out at the potluck, saying “Who made this cake?” And so that’s when I said, god, if Sam can make this, I can make it. Because I’m not a chef. I’m really not a baker, I’m more of a savory cook, which means I don’t follow recipes as tightly. And so finally I found a recipe that not only I could make and make well, but now I’ve taught my nieces and nephews how to make it. And it comes out slightly differently every time but it’s always great. It’s really true to chocolate, and that’s what I like about it.

That’s another thing that’s really cool about the book. All of the authors, in different ways, explain really clearly that the great things about chocolate are the taste and the texture and the flavor—and the recipes really highlight that.

Yeah, it’s not grandstanding with chocolate. There’s not a lot of amazing visual things in it, which is actually good. I always like to think that somebody like Helen Keller would have an advantage in the food world, because she just had her senses, her touch and smell and taste. She would blank the other things out and really, really spend her time on these textural and sensory issues, and not worry about how things looked. And lord knows we live in a visual enough world, and there are plenty of visual treats in our lives—it’s really nice to make things that are extraordinarily wonderful and apply to other senses.

Let me ask you about winemaking then. A lot of the skills that you use in chocolate making are similar to the skills that I know you’ve used in winemaking at Scharffenberger Cellars, such as the blending and the tasting. That path from winemaker to chocolate maker is really interesting.

I was making champagne and sparkling wine, and I worked for, basically, Veuve Clicquot for five years toward the end of my champagne days. And what I learned from them—and I certainly had known this stuff, but they articulated it—is that you really have to be cognizant of flavor as an experience that’s temporal. In other words, it’s an experience that happens over time. And that experience comes from different chemicals reacting with different parts of your anatomy and triggering responses in your brain. So a lot of that is to be cognizant of the fact that tannic acids and fruit acids show themselves separately and at different times. And, knowing that, you can actually work on mid-palate flavors, either by fermentation or by aging or by oak or by choice of variety. And it’s the same in the chocolate business. The types of tannins, how strongly the tannins are pronounced, when the fruit flavors show up—that can all be modified by understanding this kind of stuff. I mean, frankly, if I made ketchup, I would do it the same way.

Do you think it was a natural extension, going from wine into chocolate?

I think the wine business is one of those businesses that attracts so many people’s imaginations, and there’s so much richness and knowledge there. So it’s a really great springboard.

How has making chocolate been different from making wine?

Imagine being in a business with 4,000 competitors and 30,000,000 American consumers, versus a business with nine competitors and 300,000,000 consumers—it’s a lot easier.

So it feels better?

It’s easier to please more people, I’ll put it that way. But because we got there early, I think we really helped change a lot of people’s understandings about the whole topic of chocolate, which has been one of the nice parts of it. So I feel we did something special.

Absolutely. And talking about that change, I don’t know how connected you are to the Australian chocolate scene, what there is of it…

Don’t know anything about it.

Okay, well, I live in Melbourne, and in the Yarra Valley, which is about an hour away, there’s a chocolate company called Kennedy & Wilson. They start with cacao mass that they bring in, but they’re making some really tasty chocolate, and they’re an artisanal company. And the chocolate maker, Peter Wilson, was a winemaker. I feel like there’s a potential for them to move in the same direction that Scharffen Berger did and to explode knowledge about chocolate in Australia. But it hasn’t happened yet…

It will. I know Valrhona is doing very well there. I understand that the chefs’ interest in fine chocolate is there. What it really does take is for an Australian to do this, though. As we found with the chocolate business, it wasn’t enough importing Valrhona. We had to think our own product and articulate it to our chums, and that’s when things took off.

There’s also a really cool couple with a company called Tava and they’re making their own chocolate from the bean. They’re working with producers in Vanuatu.

That’s really exciting. And that’s what I love to hear. And there are some guys in Grenada making chocolate [the Grenada Chocolate Company], and these guys built their own machines. How exciting! I mean, it isn’t perfect, but it’s interesting. I love to eat that kind of stuff.

And you think it’s inevitable that consumers will become more aware and savvier about chocolate?

Yeah, if you look around the world, so many things have improved. Everybody’s thinking about their coffee, and making great cheeses, and making their own wines and drinking them and discussing them.

So what’s next for you? You’ve made an American sparkling wine and had an incredible success with it, and then you’ve made an American couverture chocolate and had an astronomical success with that…

I’m not done with chocolate. I’m actually getting involved in the more agricultural parts of chocolate now. I’ve got this thing in Guatemala. And I’m also getting really interested in forestation, actually reforestation and forest restoration, using cacao as something to grease the skids for that process. And I’m starting to talk about maybe doing some stuff in Africa, with some people in Ghana who are growing cacao but they just don’t have the good stuff to grow. I mean, colonially, why should they have been brought the crappy stuff? It’s just bad luck. The whole thought of trying to fit myself in, in interest ways agriculturally, is really fun. And, meanwhile, I’m raising pigs on acorns. There’s a bunch of wild pigs here, they were let go by the Spanish.

In California?

Yeah, but they were let go three-hundred years ago or two-hundred years ago. And they’re feral pigs and they’re causing lots of problems. Most people are trying to get rid of them—well, I would too. On my ranch, we always would hunt them. Actually David Hohnen used to come up from Cloudy Bay [Vineyards in New Zealand] to hunt pigs yearly. So they’re a problem. But thinking about it, damn, I like all these Spanish Ibericos. And, of course, acorns evolved alongside pigs, so when pigs eat acorns the fat is like olive oil, as opposed to when they eat corn, which causes cholesterol. So you get this very digestible, very delicious, very good-for-you ham that’s also very valuable. And I live in an area that’s got tens of thousands of acres of acorns.

So how many pigs have you got?

Well, I started with my first two, and very strictly limited their intake of food to fruit and acorns. So all their fat was acorn fat. And they went to heaven, and now the hams are being cured in a very old-fashioned way. And meanwhile I’ve got a couple of female pigs of the same persuasion on a friend’s cattle farm, so he’ll breed them with another Spanish-genetic boar he’s found, and next year run the pigs with his cattle. And because the pigs eat the cow poo, he won’t have to give them any antibiotics, so he’ll get organic beef, and I’ll get more hams, and they’ll eat acorns, and we’ll see what we have.

Is the idea to turn this into a commercial project or is it just an experiment?

It might just be something I do for my friends for the next six years. I love working on food projects. I really like to start at the beginning. I’m going to start with the acorn and go all the way up the line of production. It’s an agricultural system that’s really perfectly suited to wonderful parts of California that really need some artisanal agriculture to save them from urbanization.

Can I ask you about the Hershey story? I guess I want to put myself out there and say I’m confused. I love thinking through ideas, and one of the ideas that’s really gelled me in recent years is just how strong small businesses can be. And Scharffen Berger as a small business was really an inspiring model. And then, of course, the natural extension is to make it bigger and to take it even further, which I know Hershey has allowed you to do. But…

What happened was I needed to take in investors to get through things. And I always told the investors that sometime we would do something, and I said it would it probably be in 08 or 09. Maybe we would buy them out, or start paying dividends, or something like that. So friends and family gave me their money and their trust, with that in mind. And then Hershey was trying to make some dark chocolate and of course was totally inept, and so they said, “Let’s just buy the good guys.” And one of the things that I liked about Hershey is that at least it’s run by a foundation that takes care of school kids. It’s not a normal corporation.

So the entire company is run by the foundation, not the other way around?

Yeah, they own 70% of the voting shares, they control everything. And most of the people we met there have worked [for Hershey] for about forty years, everybody works there for their life, nobody leaves, which is so cool. Well, I didn’t want to do it, but they just offered us a lot of money. We put it to a vote of the shareholders, and I lost. I’d been running [Scharffen Berger] for the last five years, and there was no room for me to continue running the company. But I had already brought in sort of an operations guy to eventually take my place [Jim Harris], and so he moved into the job. And Robert’s been in and out for the last five years anyway, and he wanted to sell. So, you know, it’s one of those happenstances. I had the best job in the world, and now I don’t. But I’m certainly not going to mope about it. I have all these interests and plenty of money, so who cares?

Are you still able to do, within the framework of the Scharffen Berger company, all of the projects that you want to do?

Yeah. And they need the name. I don’t want to just become like Colonel Sanders.

No, who would? So it’s a pragmatic thing? They put up the money and…

Yeah, and if they don’t, I’ll do it for someone else. That’s the deal.

But they’re not going to change the Scharffen Berger product?

No. And frankly, some of the best stuff we’ve ever made out of Scharffen Berger has come since Hershey. The new Las Islas is amazing.

Well, that sounds good. I hope you have a great trip, and I really appreciate you doing this.

You’re so nice to talk to. I do interviews with people a lot and they’re usually not coming from a place where they seem to know what they’re talking about. So it’s a pleasure.

Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure for me.

Okay, great. Thanks very much.

Thanks again, John. Take care.

Take care. Bye bye.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You choco-wonk, you! What a fascinating conversation. And how very Paris Review of you for printing the whole thing. Thanks for the fly on the wall experience.

11:03 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Robyn said...

Very nice interview. I learned a lot. I'm bookmarking you!

8:32 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a great interview! I really wanted to know what John has been up to after selling his chocolate making company. I'm so glad he's working on a tastier, healthier pig meat - it's exactly what thus country does not have, and thus needs.

More Scharffenberger please!!

3:20 AM GMT-5  

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