Now that I know the struggles first hand but also the rewards, I’m a firm proponent of, and a proud member of the growing artisanal food movement. Probably the best decision I made when I decided to launch CocoVaa Chocolatier was to build my chocolate laboratory in a shared commercial kitchen with other food startups. It’s been an economical way to start up but it’s also given me valuable connections with other food artisans. I share a kitchen with Looking Glass Bakery who makes fabulous cheesecakes; Let it Ride Cold Brew who makes the best cold brew I’ve ever had; Laurel of the Ugly Apple whose philosophy is to reduce waste by taking farmer’s overstock and then transform it into delicious breakfasts; Kirk of Origin Breads, who makes the best sour dough bread around (and his polenta loaf…OMG). Sharing a kitchen has given me inspiration, opportunities to collaborate, and I also have colleagues who have similar struggles. This helps to have support when the going gets tough.
Some of us are coming out of other industries and entering the food industry and others have been in the food industry working for other people. What I think every true food artisan has inside of them is not only a love for their craft, but also a strong need and desire to control his/her own destiny. We don’t function well punching time clocks, dealing with rigid schedules and nonsensical rules, not because we’re trying to be obstreperous, but because we need the freedom and creative space to express ourselves. In the mind of the true food artisan is a tacit mantra that tells us daily that we have a gift and we are obligated to share it with others. It’s this love and this calling that drives us to be able to work 20 hour days, on our feet the whole time, without eating and without knowing or caring where the time went. Its looking at the clock at 4:45 and instead of thinking “I can’t wait until it’s 5 o clock and I can go home,” we instead think, “shit, I wish I had 10 more hours!” True artisans will never amass large amounts of wealth because to do so we inevitably have to become highly industrialized. The more industrialized we become, the further away we drift from our path. We constantly ponder ways to scale up to meet growing demands without compromising our products. Even though to survive as businesses we have to learn to relinquish control to employees at some point, the thought of not personally touching each product causes us anguish.
Unless you’re in the industry, what goes into true artisanal food is still terribly under-appreciated in American culture. Some people still complain about the cost of artisanal food, the shorter shelf life, the fact that we may run out of your favorite flavor and you’ll have to wait for a fresh batch to be completed. Or the reality of scarcity when an ingredient isn’t in season or available. Once we change our food paradigm and learn to appreciate fresh, seasonal, and hand made real food, we can learn to appreciate not only what we put in our bodies, but those of us who produce with our hands, and the labor, love and intention behind it.
My chocolates for instance are a 2 day process for each flavor. It can take several hours to make a filling for one piece. But I might start planning the “design” of my flavor 2 months prior. I make my fillings from scratch using real ingredients as opposed to “natural flavorings.” Sometimes ingredients aren’t in season so I may not have them. Thus, my menu changes frequently. I then have to come up with the design for the piece. The decision making process is very personal. Some pieces are inspired by the ingredients, others by elements in nature such as stones, trees, air, water, or fire and others are inspired by events and people. Some designs don’t make sense to the consumer but they do to me. But if you ask me, I love to share stories. And I have a lot of them. Other pieces are inspired by consumers. This is part of the magic of the artisanal food movement. The consumer gets to have a personal interaction with the artisan and even gets to impact the creative process. That symbiotic relationship between consumer and supply chain is so important. Food artisans thrive emotionally knowing that we are satiating the most primal instinct of our consumer – to eat and drink – in a most pleasurable way.
Back to my production process: For molded pieces, I come up with my design, I cast my molds with chocolate, allow it to crystallize, fill it with my filling, then let it crystallize over night. The temperatures at each stage must be precise. The next day I then have to close the mold and allow it to crystallize again. Then I can unmold them. My bars are even a bit more labor intensive because I make them in small batches with various types of single origin chocolate. Because I only have one automatic tempering machine, I hand temper almost all of my bars on my granite tops using the tabeliering method. I really enjoy this despite how labor intensive it is.
I encourage readers to contact me and come visit my laboratory and also meet some of the other artisans in the kitchen I work in so you can support us but also see the love, the effort and the intention we put into everything we do.