As this goes to press, the Salon du Chocolat is gearing up for another run in Paris–an annual trade show devoted to the art (and enjoyment) of chocolate. To celebrate the irresistible stuff in my own way, I’ve pull up an interview from my archives: a conversation with one of France’s celebrated chocolate-makers. It was originally published on About.com Paris Travel in 2010, but the man behind some of the globe’s most elaborate, whimsical chocolate sculptures and distinctive flavors has only gained in stature since then. I hope you enjoy the exchange that follows.
If Paris had to elect its own Willy Wonka, Patrick Roger would no doubt fit the bill– minus the giant factory and industrial approach to chocolate-making, of course. Named best chocolatier of France (Meilleur Ouvrier) in the year 2000 at only 32 years old, Roger has emerged as a leading figure in the artisanal wing of the industry industry. He’s set himself apart with his insistence on fresh, palate-opening flavors like lime and lemongrass. But perhaps most of all, his larger-than-life, often-provocative and irreverential sculptures in both chocolate and bronze have captured imaginations and won him legions of fans. It helps that it’s all singularly delicious, no matter the form.
I visited him at his workshop south of Paris in the town of Sceaux, where I watched artisans roll and cut chocolate by hand and fill a new variety of ganache, observed monstrous works-in-progress of chocolate polar bears and elephants, tasted fresh thyme from the garden out back, and learned all about Roger’s ideas on what makes chocolate genuinely good. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
How did you start out in chocolate? Were you a sculptor before becoming a chocolatier?
I didn’t even walk into a museum before I was 25– I barely knew they existed! (I started out) doing an apprenticeship in pastry, and after two years I moved to Paris. Patisserie (pastry making) didn’t interest me, but a post in the same company opened up for a chocolatier…and I had a revelation. I understood right away that I’d be able to construct anything with this medium, including my own life…that it was a passport to the world.
So you discovered that chocolate was an exciting medium, that it gave a lot of flexibility in terms of creativity?
It’s more that chocolate discovered me! I started out at 18, doing mostly artistic work– lots of sculptures for events in Paris– I created sculptures for (French fashion designer) Jean Paul Gaultier, (singer) Yannick Noah, and for others. At that time, event planning was huge.
Your notes and flavors are almost always surprising…you introduced notes like chili well before they showed up in supermarket chocolate bars, and you also use strong flavors such as basil, lemongrass and lime a lot. Do you think it’s important for chocolate to surprise the palate?
I don’t have the impression that I’m surprising. Lime, for example– maybe 50 years ago, it was hard to find limes in Paris, but it’s become pretty standard these days.
I’m not chasing after trends…it’s really not about that. I take what I like. These days, what’s better than pan-seared foie gras, or bread and jam in the morning? There’s nothing better than that. You can invent whatever you’d like around it, but there’s nothing better than strawberry, apricot or cherry jam…there’s no point in trying to construct around (these basic things).
Of course, we have a few products which are a little more sophisticated, but the heart of it is a praline filling made of sugar, almonds and hazelnuts– and that’s it. It’s like tomatoes: what’s better than tomatoes and strawberries from the garden? These days, there’s a race in the media to sniff out what’s new and trendy– but who cares? It’s not about that. It’s about what customers want– and that usually comes down to simplicity. Everyone dreams about a glass house, but no one wants to really live in it.
(When I create new notes or flavors), it’s something that’s obvious to me, and doesn’t come out of demand. Once I wondered what it would be like to mix an apple note with chocolate. I launched it, and it developed from there…
Your shops always have spectacular window displays. What are you working on in terms of sculpture in chocolate at the moment?
Depending on the season and world events, we explore a lot of different themes. That (pointing to two giant polar bears in chocolate on one of the worktables) is (meant to raise awareness) about the ice shelves and global warming…we want to get the message across in our stores.
If we don’t take action, polar bears will become brown bears like these.
And over there-(pointing to an enormous square block of chocolate with what looks like fossils carved into a side) – I don’t know if you can make out what it is, but it will become an elephant trapped in a block. The elephant sculptures will be around four meters high once they’re finished.
Chocolate is an incredible means of communication– it’s monstrous. Everyone eats chocolate, so you can get a lot across.
We’ll also be working on the theme of “defending flavor” this year. You get (the best flavors) straight from the garden and with the best raw ingredients. We have our own garden here on the premises. But after that, the processing is what’s really crucial. You can have the world’s best raw ingredients, but if you don’t process them correctly, you end up with nothing.
Sometimes your window displays seem to push the envelope in terms of what’s considered “good taste”. One Easter, you created a scene with cooking rats dressed as chefs, surrounded by broken eggshells. Are you voluntarily trying to be provocative, especially as a player in the oh-so-serious Paris luxury sector?
Of course (we can be)– take our Valentine’s Day window display, for example (which featured suggestively posed female figures sculpted in chocolate)– we were a bit sexy, but within the correct limits.
I don’t really have many limits, though– if I want to put a nude figure in the shop window, I could do it. We don’t have limits on our creativity; it’s whimsical and we’re addressing adults. If I want to put [chocolate] rats in the window, we’ll put rats there.
But chocolate is conceived as a luxury product, and generally marketed as “classy”. Is it important for you to go against the grain of this image?
I don’t think of chocolate as luxury. These days, eating well shouldn’t be a luxury. I spent my whole life growing up in the French countryside eating well– I was spoiled, never ate out of a can in my life. Eating well shouldn’t be a luxury.
How do you source ingredients for the chocolate?
We source the chocolate from around 30 countries. The most important is how the plants are engineered. If you know how to cultivate the plant well, chances are (the final result) will be good. After the plants are cultivated and the pods are sorted, the important thing is the way it’s dried, torrified, etc…how will it turn out by the time it gets to us?
It’s a little like love: every little thing you do has a consequence (on the final product).
What about the recent enthusiasm for organic chocolate? Do you think this is a worthwhile direction to go in?
Organic labels are not necessarily a gauge of quality. We do buy a lot of organic chocolate, but sometimes that doesn’t mean much. Anyway, in the Ivory Coast or Indonesia, for example, the farmworkers don’t have the means to spray the plants, so they’re (de facto) organic– they just don’t have the label. Other chocolate makers are certified organic, but they don’t respect the process. In the end, it’s a problem of consumer demand…these days consumers want everything labeled, graded and certified.