Once upon a time in the western world, if a chocolate’s brand didn’t end in -stle, –shey or –bury then one might not have been familiar with the artisanal chocolates available, especially not if the niche varietal were refined to a more unrefined chocolate product –– chocolate that is so pure the characteristic gritty texture actually reeducates the consumer and foils the smooth textures of mass Euro-American brands that are nearly omnipresent in today’s world market of confectioned goods.
When one hears chocolate, the imagination might conjure up images of smooth and decadent morsels in hues of milky, dark, or “white chocolate”, refined to the touch and molded into perfect shapes and sizes; perhaps, even accompanying images of yards upon yards of silk textile waves trailing behind a chocolate nymph.
Now, what if you were to bite into a bark of chocolate so unique that its quality takes you to seeing chocolate for the first time in its most natural form, perhaps even connecting your senses to its place of origin. Bite into a piece of Chocovivo dark chocolate or sip on its hot chocolate and the senses just might send you to South America where you sit beneath lush theobroma cacao in the Gulf of Mexico. What I’m warming you up to is an artisanal chocolate product with a very short ingredient list that a second grader would be able to recite, a product manifested by a process that lives up to the truest sense of the industry statement “bean-to-bar”, one of Patricia Tsai’s mantras at Chocovivo.
Tsai is a relatively new chocolatier on the block from the Westcoast culinary scene, and making its mark from Los Angeles is Tsai’s approach to turning wholesome chocolate into a household pantry item.
What makes Tsai’s product unique is that… well, on second thought, I think she should just tell you herself…
What is Chocovivo and what are its products?
Chocovivo makes chocolate from bean-to-bar. Our chocolates are stone ground which is how the Mayans and Aztecs made chocolate over 2,000 years ago grinding chocolate with a mano and metate tool similar to a mortar and pestle. Our chocolates come in bar and powder form. The bars come in seasonal and year round flavors using only dark chocolate. Some of our flavors are Cherries & Almonds, Chocolate Daisies, and Coffee & Vanilla, and everything is all natural. We do not use any artificial flavors.
How did Chocovivo come to life?
It was a five year journey from idea to product. I was truly inspired by the cacao culture in Oxaca, Mexico. I quit my corporate CPA job and went to Oxaca on a culinary tour and soon decided I wanted to learn to make traditional chocolate using old world Mexican stone ground methods. With no idea what chocolate was all about, here was this great educational trip! I was further motivated to create that “third place experience” that Howard Shultz of Starbucks talks about as I dreamt of opening a chocolate retail shop, so I found a teacher in Mexico who would teach me the process from resources to machinery. Within a week of training I discovered I was conned out of my capital. However, I met a cacao grower during the process. While in a restaurant dining with the woman I was training with, a local man, an acquaintance of hers, joined us for lunch and we began talking about cacao and chocolate manufacturing. Needless to say, my “teacher” was very uncomfortable with it. But, after having already exhausted all my previous resources, an international relationship was born with this man who would become my cacao grower and educator. This grower, who is a trained engineer, built me my first stone grinder.
Tell us about the “Chocovivo” name.
It’s a long story. Basically I had already come up with another name, had promotional material made with this brand — t-shirts, stickers, et cetera — only to find out that the name was already trademarked! So my grower helped develop the name Chocovivo which loosely translates to “I Live Chocolate”.
For a moment, let’s take a step back into the past. What are your childhood memories and experiences with food, and chocolate in particular?
Looking back, I remember as a child of second generation Taiwanese immigrants living in a very rural area of America and my parents were living their own American dream. We moved to Oklahoma and it was like [the TV show] “Little House on the Prairie”. We were the only Asian family in the area. So when it came to groceries our options were limited, so mom attended community college to learn American cooking. Mom would eventually cook from scratch dishes like soy bean milk, and that had a huge influence on how I eat today –– no processed foods with an understanding that everything should be whole and natural. I always questioned foods that contained extracts, How were flavors extracted from food? I attribute my high standards of food to mom. The world of food really opened when I studied at the University of Pennsylvania where I discovered other Asian ethnic groups. College opened up my eyes to food, but moving to California really opened up my eyes to Latin American foods.
Patricia on cacao beans.
Cacao origins are rooted in Mexico, and Africa is currently the world’s largest exporter. The idea is that as Chocovivo grows and creates a larger market, I can get beans from other different areas. Beans are currently single origin. I get the roasted nibs from Mexico, which are cracked and de-shelled beans done by a process called willowing, directly from the grower and I make the final products.
Patricia on Tasting.
Roasting brings out some flavor, but what really brings out flavors for chocolate, because cacao beans are more delicate than coffee beans, is the fermentation process. Fermentation brings out flavor and creates acidity and tanin, much like in wine. Our fermentation process is shorter than, say, a brand like Nestle. Bolder flavors from longer fermentation come from higher levels of tanins and acids. To get rid of the acid and to smooth out the product the method of conching is used. Conching is a step we don’t have to do; in other words, because we don’t extensively process cacao, our shorter fermentation process maintains the overall purity of the bean. A typical chocolate maker goes through a series of 16 steps. I just do 6. I want it to taste good and keep the integrity of the chocolate. I stand by a standard of practice what you preach, so my chocolates are quality products.
Unlike the more traditional smooth textures and milder flavors of processed Euro-American chocolate brands, your minimally processed chocolate offers a more down-to-earth tasting experience. Do you find that people are embracing the gritty texture of Chocovivo’s niche product?
That was my concern in the very beginning, “How would Americans perceive this kind of texture?” I was encouraged by friends to go wholesale first. The numbers to build out a retail store were too frightening, and I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. So I sought out the feedback of pastry chefs to see how they would respond and so I began pitching my [bar and powder] products to them. I also used the local farmers’ markets as my test market. I encourage people to look at chocolate differently: How about drinking chocolate with water? As they do in Mexico. Like coffee with water.
Cacao is increasingly being recognized as a superfood with its high nutrientcontent and its healing properties. You work with a very pure product straight from Earth, cultivated and harvested in Mexican tradition. Do you find your chocolate making process to be somewhat of a spiritual practice?
The journey of becoming a chocolate maker from where I started off growing up in Oklahoma to where I am now, when I take a look back, I look deeper as to what is my purpose in life. I still question that even though I’m making chocolate. I still want to make an impression on people’s lives. I want to be able to create change. It’s about impacting the world with chocolate. It’s not just about pushing product, it’s how can I enrich people’s lives with the product I’m creating. Getting people to appreciate it is more than a million dollars. How I measure my success is how I can grow the business.
Tell us, what is a typical Chocovivo work day like?
It’s ever changing! An average day…. making chocolate from 5:00P to 1:00 or 2:00A from a commercial kitchen. I also organize, work on flavor development, apply for permits, pay bills, respond to requests, deliver chocolate and work the farmers markets.
Any advice for aspiring artisans or anyone starting out in the specialty food business?
Just to reiterate all the other entrepreneurs: Never give up. Continue to work on your craft and all the doors will open.
Can we expect to see Chocovivo in more stores this year?
Working on it! We are looking for investors.
You can reach Patricia Tsai and her Chocovivo product line at www.ilivechocolate.com