Thanks for the kind words in your recent letter. Like yours, the path to my ChocolateLife has been anything but a straightforward journey.
Back in early 1994, when I realized there were no professional chocolate critics – while there were professional critics for just about everything else you could think of – I had no idea what the day-to-day of being a professional chocolate critic might entail.
I had no idea what I needed to learn to become a chocolate critic. I had no idea where I could go to learn or who I could learn from. But I had the conviction that one of the things that gourmet chocolate would greatly need and benefit from was a genre of literary criticism.
By that time I had nearly a decade’s experience as a published author contributing to computer graphics and film production industry technical journals. During this period I worked in two high-tech startups and a market research firm and was a consultant to two Fortune 50 companies. That work required me to think about what the future might hold.
I can’t explain how or why I arrived at the decision to become the world’s first professional chocolate critic – standing in a Barnes and Noble on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, leafing through issues of Wine Spectator (I drank wine), Chocolatier Magazine (I ate chocolate), Architectural Digest (I used to work as a second-assistant to architectural photographers), and other magazines.
Looking back on the moment from the remove of nearly thirty years I am reminded of some text by Juanita Marquez in Neal Stephenson’s prescient sci-fi masterwork Snow Crash:
They pay attention [...] and that's how they know what's going on [...] by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance.
I had been paying attention, I had an idea of what was going on, and the idea condensed into my consciousness, fully formed. As someone with training in the fine arts, my first thought is to trust my intuition. My epiphany had an internal ring of truth to it, a clarity that I could not ignore.
I also “knew” from my tech background that it would likely be at least five years before the rest of the world caught up to my intuition. This was one time it was a good thing to be ahead of the curve.
So I set out to learn. This was before Google was a thing – that was not to happen until 1998. I used WAIS (Wide Area Information Service) on AOL, Compuserve, and Usenet newsgroups (I connected with Alex Rast on rec.chocolate during this time if I recall correctly). I read actual, physical, books in my local library because this was a time before WiFi was a thing.
As I have many times in my life, I found myself in a very fortunate position.
I had the financial and personal resources and the support system necessary to take however much time it took to figure it out. My (now ex-)wife’s mother and father were on the faculty at Yale and introduced me to Michael Coe, who, along with his wife Sophie, wrote The True History of Chocolate. I got my hands on a first-edition of Chantal Coady’s The Chocolate Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Finest Chocolates. I learned about the Nuancier collections from Michel Cluizel in an article by Florence Fabricant in a Wednesday New York Times Food section which inspired me to seek out and get hired by Pierrick Chouard, the founder of Vintage Chocolates. In 1999 I started selling Cluizel and Domori to the pastry chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants and other high-end hotel and venue kitchens in the NY metro area.
I also made a pilgrimage, in June 1998, to meet Stéphane Bonnat, the man whose family’s chocolate I discovered on a business trip to Cannes in February 1994 – my first introduction to single-origin chocolate, completely by accident.
And so it was that in May 2001 I spun up chocophile.com (hand-coded using the website scripting language Userland Frontier). This was about the same time that Martin Christy started publishing SeventyPercent.com.
I was asked to speak at the Annual Royal Cocoa Festival Dinner on the last night of the International Cocoa and Chocolate Forum in London recently. In that talk, I shared the fact that even though I had “discovered” chocolate in February 1994, I did not make my first visit to a producing country (Ecuador) until June 2003. I shared with the audience that in many ways I had felt like a fraud before I made that trip. Everything I had learned about cocoa was through reading someone else’s writing.
That morning, walking two kilometers inland from the canoe landing along the Rio Napo in the driving rain, meeting up with the farmer to harvest the pods, open them, remove the wet mass, and transport it to the collection center to be weighed, I learned firsthand a little of how much work it took to make chocolate a reality. I don’t think anyone who’s had such an experience would not be moved to make sure the farmers are fully compensated for their work.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to experience what I did, and what you have. But one hope I have through sharing our correspondence is to make the people and places, the humanity, and the landscapes that are cocoa and chocolate, from the farm to the factory to our tables, real and tangible.
Do you remember your first taste of fresh pulp? Where you were? What you were thinking when the opened pod was shown to you? What the pulp tasted like?