We’ve spotted an interesting Q&A with Patricia Tsai, a former CPA and the founder of Chocovivo, in the LA Weekly blog and wanted to share it with you. Patricia makes the only untempered, bean-to-bar chocolate in the United States. Here is the interview about her true passion, her decision to go untempered, and how she started this unique business.
SI: You are the only person making untempered bean to bar, stone ground chocolate in the United States. That’s a lot to say in one mouthful. What does it all mean?
Patricia: For me bean to bar means purchasing the beans from one singular farmer, roasting them, stone grinding them with a minuscule amount of sugar and desired flavoring. After the stone grinding is done, I don’t temper the chocolate, instead I pour it flat and let the chocolate set as it cools. Each batch takes about 3 hours.
SI: So how did you decide on not tempering your chocolate?
Patricia: Tempering chocolate is a way of increasing and decreasing the temperature of chocolate so that you get two things — the snap when you break the bar, and the shiny finish. Those are the two goals of tempering chocolate.
I did initially temper the chocolate because I thought that people wanted the typical, shiny texture. But, some years ago when I was doing a chocolate demo at Andrew’s Cheese Shop, I gave him samples of untempered chocolate. I said to Andrew, look – I’m giving you samples of untempered chocolate but when you do get your chocolate it will be tempered. He put one piece in his mouth and said that he didn’t want that tempered stuff. He wanted this.
Andrew made me realize that I needed to go with my gut – I want to show people the true taste in chocolate. The heat involved in tempering reduces those flavor profiles.
SI: But is there really a taste and texture difference?
Patricia: Definitely! Untempered chocolate is soft. The texture is also noticeable due to stone grinding. Not tempering the chocolate allows those tannins and acids to really shine through. It’s like red wine. After you open it and expose it to a bit of oxygen the tannins will mellow out. One customer actually likes to let her chocolate sit out – like decanting.
SI: Are there tips for eating untempered chocolate?
Patricia: I tell people to eat it within two to three months for optimal flavor. If I had it in a temper, the reduced flavors would be preserved for a long time.
Also, chocolate hates fluctuations in temperature. The whiteness that can occur is called a bloom — when sugar crystals and butter crystals rise to the top. Tempering helps to connect these crystals, thereby slowing the blooming process. But it’s at the cost of flavor. So don’t put the chocolate in the fridge because my chocolate will bloom faster.
SI: Well, a life as a chocolatier suites your perfectly then.
Patricia: Yes. Not sure if I knew that I would be a chocolate maker, but probably knew that I would be an entrepreneur. That was probably when I locked myself in my little brother’s room and would pretend that I was taking orders from imaginary customers who were ordering from my mom’s old Sears catalogs.
SI: That’s such a sweet memory. How did you decide on this path then?
Patricia: I was a corporate CPA. Did everything I was supposed to do. Went to Warton School of Business at UPenn and then received my CPA. One day I just woke up and knew it wasn’t the future that I envisioned for myself.
So I quiet my job, and never told my parents that I quit. I asked myself what I was passionate about and I realized I loved people and food. I flew down to Oaxaca, Mexico to do a bit of soul searching and found myself at every chocolate demo I could go to.
At one of them, someone suggested that I try importing Mexican chocolate and molding. This was 2004. I got a company’s contact information and started importing it to the United States, but I wasn’t in love with it. It had too much sugar. I had ideas that I wanted to see come to fruition. I wanted to make a chocolate that honored the beans….
SI: Wait, your family doesn’t know about Chocovivo?
Patricia: They do. We just don’t really talk about it. Until I’m on Martha Stewart it’s just not something we talk about. They wonder why I want to work so hard when I can just work in corporate and be comfortable. It works for many of us, but for me it’s about following my passion.
SI: Sounds like everything just fell into place for you…
Patricia: Yes and no. I did start Chocovivo, but first I had to go back to Oaxaca to learn the correct way in which to stone grind. And to be honest, the experience I had was so unbelievable – it’s surprising that I’m here, doing this, today.
SI: Straight to the point. What happened in Oaxaca, Mexico?
Patricia: Long story. First I went down to Oaxaca, and was introduced through a friend, to a man who was the first to create an organic co-op for farmers in Mexico. My friend acted as the negotiator, and told them I was willing to pay him $3000 to show me what kind of beans to use, and the proper stone grinding process from bean to bar. It took a month to negotiate. Finally I got a phone call from him asking if I was sitting down. I asked him what happened, and he said that he spoke with his wife, she was very serious about my offer, and she wants to counter offer. She wants to counter with 1.5M dollars. The negotiator told them that if Bill Gates was to buy their business it would not be worth 1.5 million dollars…and that was that. I never contacted them again.
SI: Dead end. But seeing where you are now, it’s safe to say you persevered. What happened next?
Patricia: My friend somehow put me in touch with this woman, Norma, the chocolate expert of Mexico. I contacted her and she happily agreed to show me the process. We made the itinerary; I paid her in advance; flew to meet her — and met her with a translator.
The first day, I knew I wasn’t going to get what I wanted. At the plantation I was told that there was an extra $100 fee per person to enter. I had to pay for all three of us. Then she kept pushing me to use the non-stone ground, European method.
I couldn’t understand why she was deterring me from the stone ground method. But, I understood when we met the machine supplier in Mexico City. The machine supplier reeked of alcohol and was…her husband. His store had not a single stone grinder. That was the end of that.
SI: I can’t believe it. Where’s the silver lining? Please tell me it’s coming soon.
Patricia: In the middle of the trip, we ran into the grower/owner of a plantation we visited in Tabasco, Mexico. He was sitting next to me at breakfast and he said something in English. Norma kept intercepting our conversation, but I got his information before I left.
I came back to the US and I was really concerned. What am I going to do? I emailed the grower and fortunately he emailed back. I told him what I wanted to do and he told me to come back to Tabasco, Mexico. He was the ticket. My mentor, really. He built me the machine, sends me the beans, but I had to figure out how to make the product I wanted to make. There’s no book on untempered chocolate because everyone tempers it. So he came to Los Angeles. He’s actually IMing with me right now.
SI: That’s incredible to have a personal relationship like this with your grower. Can you tell us a little bit more about the farm that the beans come from?
Patricia: The farm is in a very rural area in Tabasco. The plantation is called Jesus Maria. Although the plantation primarily grows cacao, you’ll find some vanilla and coffee bean trees sprinkled through the area. The plantation is in an extremely humid area so if there are any future trips down to the area, visitors beware of the humidity. It’s like walking into a wall.
SI: And the practices?
Patricia: The farm practices sustainable and organic farming methods. Harvesters use machetes to get the cacao pods off the trees, and you’ll see piles of pods on the ground where the harvesters had to manually break open each one to harvest the beans. The beans are very wet and pulpy [note from Savorique: the white pulp surrounding the beans is excellent, very fruity, sweet with a velvety texture]. After they are harvested they go through fermentation and then drying on the ground.
SI: Your product is mostly sold at the farmers’ markets, correct?
Patricia: Yes, 90% of my business comes from the farmers’ markets. I sell around 10 different chocolates, from black sesame and goji berry to a triple spiced bar, at 8 farmer’s markets a week. It’s pretty rewarding because you really get to meet your clientele and interact with them. People are encouraging and help me keep going because they love what I’m doing.
Some chefs around town are working with it too, and that’s neat to experience. Off the top of my head, Akasha is using it in her hot chocolate and Nickle Diner has it in their S’mores cake. There’s a handful more too…it’s fun to see what chefs do with the product.
SI: So what’s next? Are you looking to expand Chocovivo at some point?
Patricia: I’d love to. I dream of a place where people can come in and order custom blend chocolate. The chocolate stalls in Oaxaca inspire this dream. At a stall, for example, you tell the chocolate grinder that you want a pound of cocoa nibs mixed with 1/2 a pound of sugar, almonds, vanilla beans, and then they go and grind this and return 20 minutes later with the chocolate (for us it’s 20 minutes to do the whole grind). What they do in Oaxaca is take this chunk of chocolate home – and when I say chuck I mean it because the copious amount of sugar makes it more like Play-Doh. It’s only 30 percent chocolate. They mold it into big balls or a log — it’s a staple in every family. Oaxacans drink chocolate morning, day and night like we drink coffee – it’s so prevalent down there. Parties always include hot chocolate. So I’d love to do that here…but with less sugar and more options. The Chocovivo way.