Interview by Richard Nahem, Eye Prefer Paris
I think I finally found someone who has a more fun job than I do. Chloé Doutre-Roussel is a chocolate expert and some of her jobs have included being the chocolate buyer for Fortnum and Mason in London, author of a best selling book The Chocolate Connoisseur, the manager of the chocolate department at Ladurée, and giving chocolate tasting classes. Read about her scrumptious life and make sure you have some chocolate next to before you read this.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Mexico from a French father,a teacher, and a German mother.
When did you move to Paris and how long have you lived here?
I lived in South America until the age of 13, moving from Mexico to Chile then Bolivia. At 13 I moved to Paris and lived there until I was accepted in a agronomy engineer school in Nancy in northeastern France at the age of 19. I studied tropical agronomy to ensure I would live in developing countries but ended up living half of my adult life in Paris
When did your love of chocolate start?
My mother says I loved chocolate at the 1st bite. She eats mainly sweet food and bakes cakes every day; she is not the kind of mother who worries about not giving this or that food before this or that age. I was only 3 weeks old and she was putting melted chocolate on my lips to see my reaction and she said I gave her big smiles.
You mentioned that at a young age you developed a knack for doing blindfolded taste tests of supermarket chocolate bars. How did that come about?
I adore chocolate but I am quite un-sensitive to sweet food in general; I prefer a good cheese or ham to a cake. As a child I never had soft drinks or sweets, only chocolate. When I lived in South America, I had to live on the chocolate my mother imported at that time which was the dark thins Lindt and something close to chocolate “Nutella”. When I moved to France at 13, I was not with my family and I had to rely on myself for the choco supply. I had a small amount of pocket money and all was spent in choco bars. But there was a much bigger choice than in South America, and I wanted the best pleasure for my money. So I purchased all and compared them, at the same time, concentrating, just like I do my tasting nowadays. I would buy and cross compare any new product and after years I ended up expert in recognizing blind the brand and the product name.
When did you graduate from supermarket chocolate and acquire a taste for fine chocolate?
I did not taste real fine chocolate until I started working in the chocolate production of Ladurée in 1998. It was a slap to my senses: Pralus and Valrhona that I discovered then were 100 times more intense, complex, elegant than my favorite of that time, Lindt 70%
Do you prefer milk or dark chocolate, or is that a sacrilegious question for a chocolate expert?
Quality is much more important than color. I would rather have a fine milk chocolate than a poor quality dark chocolate. But within the quality chocolate, I prefer dark. I eat both every day.
Tell me about your first big chocolate job at Ladurée.
I first worked as trainee, unpaid, in chocolate production for 4 weeks, to learn more about chocolate. Pierre Hermé, vice president of Ladurée at that time, proposed me to become his secretary: he was aware I needed income and could not offer me better. I accepted, and was delighted and worked close to his desk for 6 months. It was an extremely enriching time as he was developing all the new products for the restaurant and teashop, pastry and chocolates. I used to organize and of course do with him the blind tastings of all ingredients. From product development to staff training, I learned a lot. After 6 months as he was trying to recruit a manager for the chocolate shop, one evening he came to my desk and said “Chloe, you speak, breath, and eat chocolate like nobody else, would you like to be the chocolate shop manager?” and I answered with a big smile. I had already taken to his office eight candidates for that position and it had never crossed my mind it could fit me. I remained at that position for 2 years until they closed the shop; they proposed me to take care of the cakes or the bread, I said “No thank you, chocolate only” and left the company.
When and how did you start your chocolate tasting classes?
I started them in 1999 while I was at Ladurée; it was my initiative, they liked it and took care of all logistics and PR.
You worked with the legendary Patricia Wells. How was it working with her?
She is a talented businesswoman. Her concept is great and she is very professional. I never attended her class; I just came in for the chocolate sessions, for two hours.
What is your book The Chocolate Connoisseur: For Everyone With a Passion for Chocolate about and what motivated you to write it?
Early 2003 I started to work at Fortnum & Mason, a renowned department store in London as chocolate & confectionery buyer. I was recruited among 3000 candidates and when I started to work the media was present to show who was the lucky winner. I became choco famous from one day to another doing nothing. A couple of months later a publisher approached me suggesting to take advantage of this fame to write a book about chocolate. I was not interested at the beginning, there are already thousands of books about chocolate out there. But then I remembered how frustrated I was that most of these books were all telling the same things: recipes, shops, history /health. So I proposed to the publisher to write about real chocolate (the bar, not the cakes or filled chocolates), the different styles of chocolate, the people behind those styles, the art of tasting, and the basic knowledge anybody needs on how not to be manipulated by the marketing. The publisher decided to edit a lot and added information “like all the other books”. The Japanese version, released April 09, is the most complete and updated of all versions.
You gained notoriety and almost celebrity status at your last job as the chocolate buyer for Fortnum and Mason in London. What was that experience like and what did you learn?
There was a lot of good and bad, like in any job. Becoming famous allowed me to double my knowledge: before F&M; I had to fight and beg for information, products, and factories visits. When I entered F&M I was invited everywhere and they answered all my questions. However, I went to F&M at the wrong time: they were just starting a big and deep restructuring. The situation needed this restructuring, which meant that we did not have the right tools nor management to work, create, and build. It was patching and not even efficiently. As the restructure happened, the choco priorities of F&M diverged more and more from mine so early in 2006 I decided to leave and become freelance.
I’m sure you have been asked this 1,000 times but what are your favorite chocolates? I have many favorites and eat many brands and many products from one brand every day, just like I do not listen to one song all my life. My favorite brands are, in alphabetical order, Amano, Domori, Michel Cluizel, Pralus, and Valrhona. Brands like Amedei, Patrick chocolate or Amano are good too but the pleasure price ratio is too high to include them in my daily life.
I like the fact that you specifically only concentrate on chocolate bars. Why?
It is a total different pleasure, for me, more intense and complex. Filled chocolate and pastry are dilutions of chocolate. There are excellent ones, but my body prefers the pleasure a square of chocolate brings, and this is not something rational, it is the way my body is and every body is different
Tell us your future plans for your company and some of the exciting events and products you will be launching.
I love to share my knowledge and to meet people so I love very much giving conferences and classes. Consultancies are challenging but extremely enriching as every time you analyze different situations, you work with different constraints and assets. But with the current economic crisis the demand for both is reduced and I will try to concentrate on a range of products called CHLOE CHOCOLAT, hopefully to be launched at the end of 2009.
It is also a big challenge, as I do not want to be another chocolate brand out there. I want my products, just like my conferences do, to open doors in the chocolate life of consumers; But bringing a new concept of chocolate in an already very competitive market is difficult and there has been no decision yet.
I have been coaching a coop of cocoa producers since 2007 to launch a fine chocolate range and I will continue until they do not need me any more. See www.elceibo.com for more details.
If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one kind of chocolate, what kind would it be?
Palmira from Valrhona, but if all goes well, Chloe chocolat chocolate by the end of the year!
Check out Chloe’s mouth-watering website www.chloechocolat.com