The announcement in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in June 2014 that ‘Ms Chantal Jane Coady, Chocolatier’ was to be awarded an OBE ‘For services to Chocolate Making’ marks a significant moment in the British chocolate scene. It is, as James Booth, Chantal’s husband and MD of Rococo Chocolates, the chocolate company Chantal founded in 1983, observes “a coming of age”. Those who’ve watched the rise of Britain’s quality chocolate scene, know what an important part Chantal Coady and Rococo have played in creating it and are thrilled to see her role recognised in this way. As chocolate expert Sara Jayne Stanes observes: “Chantal Coady is the high priestess of chocolate in the UK – and it does not stop here. In 1983, this chocolate-wonder woman defied the prevailing chocolate confectionery odds and, virtually alone (later with James her husband as her lynchpin) determined to live her dream.”
When Chantal decided to open Rococo on the Kings Road in 1983, the chocolate scene in Britain was in a very different place compared to the vibrant scene there is nowadays. “Looking back on it, opening Rococo was a complete mad thing to do!” laughs Chantal. “The more people tried to persuade me that I was mad to do it, the more I wanted to do it. There I was a punk art student who knew a bit about chocolate from having worked in Harrods and I considered that I could do something which was significantly different to the offering which was around. The offering at the time was really Leonidas, - Leonidas in Harrods were the bees knee -, Godiva, Charbonnel et Walker and Prestat, who were dyed-in-the- wool English fondant creams and Guylan seashells and, of course, Thornton’s Continental.”
Chantal’s motivation in opening her shop was driven by her deep love of chocolate, something she traces back to her childhood. “When I was a child I was quite obsessed by chocolate. I was one of five and chocolate and sweets were not available to me apart from with my own pocket money, which was not very much. I had this constant feeling of not ever having quite enough chocolate. The book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory captured my imagination and I literally would fall asleep and dream that I was walking through those magical places, filling my skirt with sweets, and wake up and look for them before realising it was just a dream. Boarding school was even worse – terrible food, unspeakable food so then chocolate became even more important – I would beg my mother to send me a parcel to arrive on a Wednesday and she would send me a little parcel of chocolate.”
This deep-seated passion for chocolate meant that Chantal’s vision of a chocolate shop was a very personal one. “I think it was about that emotional connection,” she muses “I wanted the shop to be a lovely magical experience and that to go in there would be to be embraced by this wonderful stuff, rather than having someone standing behind the counter giving you a black look.” Having studied textiles at art school, Chantal was able to draw on her own artistic flair to create a chocolate shop which looked beguilingly different. “The theatrical thing was very important, but never too serious; the shop was a little stage set.” In fact, Rococo’s charming Kings Road shop, with stock including the cheekily-named and sensuously-shaped Venus nipples, is rumoured to have inspired Joanne Harris’s best-selling novel Chocolat.
Initially, the chocolate Rococo stocked were bought in, with Chantal hunting out high quality chocolates from abroad, but over the years, as Chantal learned more about chocolate, she moved to making truffles in house. In the early 1990s, Chantal created chocolate bars for Rococo flavoured ingredients including sea salt, chilli, rosemary and black pepper, again very much leading the field in this. With Chantal a noted campaigner for quality chocolate - co-founder of The Chocolate Society in 1990 – and the author of books on chocolate, Rococo became a magnet for those interested in quality chocolate. “Many aspiring young chocolate lovers have cut their teeth at Rococo and gone on to forge successful careers,” points out Sara Jayne Stanes, with, for example, Gerard Coleman working at Rococo before moving on to set up his own very successful chocolate company Artisan du Chocolat.
One of the striking aspects of Rococo as a company has been the way it has sought to find an ethical path in the world of chocolate, with Chantal and James’ close working relationship with the late, great campaigner Mott Green of Grenada Chocolate Company playing a key part in this. Working on the island of Grenada, Mott Green had pioneered an alternative model of chocolate production, one which benefited the cocoa growers by creating chocolate at source in the tropics. “Mott sent a packet of Grenada Chocolate Company chocolate and we immediately begin to import his chocolate.” Following that, James and Chantal visited Grenada to meet Mott “we bonded very quickly and he realised we were kindred spirits”.
The two devastating hurricanes which hit Grenada in 2004 and again in 2005 deepened the relationship. “Grenada Chocolate Company had been they’d been going along well but suddenly things changed and we said we’ll do everything we can to help. We created a special edition Hurricane Emily bar – we got the chocolate that had been in the machine when the hurricane struck – shipped it over and blended it with organic chocolate and gave them the proceeds.” Following the hurricanes, Rococo bought a cocoa farm in Grenada as a joint venture with the Grenada Chocolate Company. “We learnt so much from Mott. I think we were able to help him too with marketing and also improving the quality of the chocolate; it was very good but had a few rough edges.” Today, after Mott’s untimely death in 2013, Rococo remains closely engaged with and supportive of Grenada Chocolate Company, buying, using, stocking and selling their chocolate.
Since she first opened Rococo on Kings Road, that shop has been joined by two other London shops and one in Chester. James Booth, Chantal’s husband, knows all too well what a lot of hard work has gone into Rococo’s success. “We have holidays but she’s never quite off duty; she never properly winds down.” Looking at Rococo’s chocolate journey, James feels “Chantal has done things with a lot of personal love and passion about it – though that sounds like a bit of a cliché – and things which were a lot of fun. We are always trying to do things with some wit as well – both of us would otherwise get a bit bored!” James also feels that the OBE reflects “the amount of stuff we’ve put into charities over the years. We almost never say no to any request , and have consciously supported charities.”
Chantal, naturally, is “thrilled” by the OBE. “It is an amazing thing to feel Rococo has been recognised on an official Prime Minister’s list. I feel very proud and happy to have that recognition. It’s not just me that this award is for. I have had the support of so many people, particularly James and my mother and the family – all the Rococo team – it would not have happened without them. “