Chantal Coady and the New British Chocolate School
When Chantal Coady was a child, she dreamed about chocolate. “I would go to sleep thinking about ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and dream of wandering through those valleys of chocolate. One of my tragedies was waking up; Having dreamt I had stashed a great deal of chocolate under my pillow, when I woke up, there was nothing there.”
But these days, her dreams are uninterrupted. The 51-year-old London native single-handedly began what could now be termed the “New British School” of chocolate when she opened her Rococo Chocolates shop in 1983 on the Kings Road in London’s Chelsea neighborhood.
Today, with three shops and 25 employees, Ms. Coady is arguably the biggest producer of hand-crafted chocolate in Britain. The author of numerous books on the subject, such as “The Chocolate Companion,” she also has experimented with and promoted the use of unusual flavors, a technique now being recreated by even the largest manufacturers. Some of those flavors—including rose, jasmine, violet, mint and geranium—have come from the Moroccan garden she planted behind her shop in Belgravia. The little garden’s geometrical-design tiles have also inspired new packaging for her chocolates.
The passion Ms. Coady first tasted as a child has never subsided. As a teenager at art school in the late ’70s, she ended up working part-time in the Harrods chocolate department, where she became enthused about proper German marzipan and even creamy Belgian confections. Her experiences there had an impact on her future career—but, ironically, by what she saw as its limitations. “My experience there lacked any emotional engagement,” she says. “Although the products were certainly good, there was a joy missing in the actual decor and presentation of the them.”
In the early ’80s, when punk still ruled London’s younger generation, Ms. Coady was let go for coming to work with emerald-colored hair. “I thought it was a bit unjust, as green was the signature color of Harrods,” she recalls. “But at least it spurred me on to do something myself.”
The other catalyst was boredom: “After I graduated [from Camberwell School of Art & Crafts], I went into an office environment, but found it so numbing and traumatic that I decided to go back to my original love of chocolate. Rather than sell it in a dreary place, [I thought] why not create a beautiful, sumptuous, theatrical environment? I wanted people to walk into the shop and be bowled over by it,” Ms. Coady says. “I was very much into the visual playfulness of thetrompe l’oeil. We painted our first shop in the Kings Road with cherubs and clouds and a sugar chandelier—it was a world of complete fantasy. It was a complete hit, as no one else was running independent retail outlets exclusively selling chocolates, as they were mainly sold in department stores.”
In those early years, the main products in Rococo were chocolates manufactured elsewhere, by small Belgian and French companies, plus a handful of artisanal English producers.
A year after beginning, Ms. Coady came across Valrhona, the French specialist chocolate manufacturer, which had a major influence over her career. “I could immediately see that they were very special, as they treated chocolate almost like wine—individual estates in Latin America, Indonesia and Madagascar, each with their own characteristics. That was a moment of truth for me and something I found very exciting.” So, in 1990, she began producing her own chocolates, starting with house truffles created from Valrhona products.
Around this same time, Ms. Coady was getting more involved in the industry, setting up the Chocolate Society. She also started to push for a change among Britain’s big, industrial chocolate manufacturers. “I campaigned by saying you shouldn’t be allowed to put in hydrogenated vegetable fats, which were being used universally at that time. Plus, they were full of sugar and artificial vanilla, which was covering a multitude of sins when it came to bad tastes.” It also irritated her that chocolate at the time had a bad reputation as being an unhealthy product, when the real culprits were the sugar and fat added to the chocolate. “Chocolate is actually quite good for you, as it is one of those rare beneficial fats, like olive oil.”
But after more than a quarter of a century in the business, Ms. Coady is proudest of her latest venture, a partnership with producers in Grenada to create organic, fair-trade chocolate.
And while she is no longer as obsessed with consuming chocolate (which Ms. Coady puts that down to being surrounded by so many varieties that she no longer needs to eat as much), the movement that obsession started in the U.K. is now taking hold. London has become an important center for specialist chocolate production. “I think there is no doubt that the new British chocolatiers, such as William Curley, Paul Young and Damian Allsop, can rival any in Europe—they are in a similar position to Spanish chefs in the world of haute cuisine.”
By Bruce Palling for http://online.wsj.com/