Le Chocolat, the chocolate retail concept from world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse, is located at 40 rue de la Roquette in Paris, just a few blocks from the Place de le Bastille, among the most important sites associated with the French Revolution.
Tucked behind imposing doors at the back of a courtyard, you can find something rather unique – daresay even revolutionary – for Paris: cacao beans being roasted, winnowed, blended, conched and tempered on site. Which is to say the chocolate bars are manufactured from scratch just a few metres away.
When the workshop debuted in February, Ducasse used the highest form of fashion as a metaphor for Le Chocolat’s delicately crafted bonbons and single-origin bars (like wine grapes, the beans are harvested from one location, resulting in distinct flavour profiles), all overseen on a day-to-day basis by Nicolas Berger, long-time pastry chef for Ducasse. “It’s the haute couture of chocolate,” Ducasse said on opening night. “The Belgians and the Swiss make good chocolate, too. … The French are arrogant, but they’re the experts.”
On the continent, perhaps. Ducasse neglected to mention that Americans (along with a few Canadians) have been driving most of the innovation in “bean-to-bar” chocolate. The multistarred chef and savvy businessman even spent some time learning about on-site chocolate-making from the hip, Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers as he was developing Le Chocolat.
That Ducasse has entered the bean-to-bar game marks one of those rare occasions (see: cupcakes, hamburgers, kale) when a food trend travels from North America to France, where the Gauls value their gastronomic inroads as a national point of pride.
“Chocolate-making has come full circle,” says Todd Masonis, founder of Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco. “We sort of view ourselves as part of this new American chocolate movement. It traces its roots back to France, and so it’s funny to see it come around.”
“I cannot think of another incident where an American food trend so directly affected a French food trend,” echoes Rogue Chocolatier’s Colin Gasko of Three Rivers, Me., where it takes three weeks to make a thousand of his chocolate bars.
But where American pioneers set out to find the sweet spot between tradition and innovation, many French chocolate-makers held too strongly to the former – and fell behind.
The majority of chocolate shops in Paris still work from couverture, massive blocks of chocolate from companies like Valrhona, which are melted down and transformed into pretty tablettes and rich novelty morsels. Bean-to-bar makers receive huge burlap bags filled with sun-dried beans and undertake all the necessary steps to end up with smooth, high-quality bars.
In the United States, start-up chocolate makers such as Rogue, Ritual, Dandelion and Patric represent the strongest wave of authentic bean-to-bar producers. Many of them were motivated by the buyout of California indie Scharffen Berger to Hershey’s in 2005.
Then there’s David and Cynthia Castellan of Toronto, who opened Soma in 2003 with an on-site factory in the Distillery District. They now have a second shop on King Street West and an additional factory that houses one of Scharffen Berger’s vintage roasters.
“We knew we were not a big chocolate-maker and that every batch, whether we wanted it to or not, would have different character,” Cynthia says. “But that was, for us, a plus. It makes things more intimate between customers – the discussion and the appreciation.”
Paris-based independent consultant Chloe Doutre Roussel knows all the players well, having specialized in chocolate since the nineties. “It’s not by accident that this happened in America,” she says, comparing the movement to craft beer. “They are adventurous, they experiment and they will change their profession 180 degrees.”
So whether Berger at Le Chocolat can coax better flavour out of his bars is almost beside the point. “Ducasse is a businessman more than anything else,” Doutre Roussel says. “He didn’t want to make chocolate. He wanted the prestige of being the first one.”