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Interview: Barry Johnson, Rococo’s Principal Chocolatier

Photograph: James Murphy

Barry Johnson, Rococo’s new Principal Chocolatier, is a man with plans and projects. Having just completed his first “very busy” year at Rococo taking over from his predecessor Laurent Couchaux (during which time production of fresh chocolates has doubled), Johnson wants some of his ideas for the company to take shape; “I see this as my year to be more forward looking, less reactive.” Incidentally, 2013 is the year which sees Rococo celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, so the spotlight will very much be on this pioneering quality chocolate company and its creations. Thoughtful and deliberate in his speech, one senses that Johnson, who radiates a calm professionalism, prefers to get an overview, rather than rushing in. On Rococo’s collection of fresh chocolates he explains, “a lot of the flavours we’ve kept or honed from Laurent, because they were such good chocolates in the first place. I’d have loved to have spent more time with him. Although the development of new flavours is important, we don’t want to change everything, so small changes.”

Johnson’s career reflects a quest for experience and a genuine interest in learning. When interview him, he’s recently returned from three days in Lyons at the World Pastry Champtionships, “looking at new techniques, new equipment, meeting suppliers.” He speaks with affection and respect of the people who’ve inspired him to cook – from his two grandmothers (“both fantastic cooks”) to mentor figures, such as chef Michel Bourdin and Benoit Blin (Executive Pastry Chef at Manoir aux Quat Saisons). “ I think if you have an inspiring teacher or boss you’ll be driven to improve and succeed,” says Johnson. “When you’re working, you need to get everything out of the job you can.” As with a number of other chocolatiers in London – such as William Curley, Gerard Coleman and Damian Allsop – Johnson’s first training was as a patissier and he smilingly acknowledges that he has that perfectionist streak which working with pastry demands.

Following two years working at The Connaught under the legendary Michel Boudin (“a very classical training”), he then went to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir de Quat Saison under Blin, whom he describes as “very inspirational, hard sometimes, but always fair.” During that time he did the Academy of Culinary Arts Awards of Excellence and won the “won the pastry outright”, with the prize being a scholarship to America, “an amazing trip”. He talks warmly of The Manoir, declaring simply “It is perfection. Everything about it – the equipment, the way you work, the ingredients, the number of staff. Twelve in the pastry kitchen at the Manoir for a 30-bedroom hotel and a 100 coer restaurant.”

By now Johnson had realised that he couldn’t see himself “doing the crazy hours of hotels and restaurants for the rest of my life”, so when Claire Clark asked him to help her open The Wolseley, he leapt at the chance to “see another side of pastry”. Interested in working in retail, he then moved to Harrods, working under Bill McCarrick, the then Executive Pastry Chef; “a lovely guy, really down to earth, wanting you to learn more, willing to spend time with you.” The scale of work at Harrods was formidable, but Johnson enjoyed the challenge. “It’s a great feeling to come in at 6.30am every morning and by the time the shop oepns at 10 o’clock you have all your pastries ready to go and beautifully displayed on the counter.”

Johnson had further come to realise that not only was he interested in pastry but also in chocolate, which, of course, he’d worked with during his pastry work. He took over two years out of work in England to follow a long-held dream to travel and see the world, visiting India, South East Asia and Australia en-route. As he travelled, Johnson kept his eyes open for chocolate shops; “I found some great chocolate shops on the way; I’ve photos of chocolate shops from all around the world!” He also visited a cocoa plantation in Papua New Guinea. “That was brilliant,” he enthuses, “the owner drove us around the estate, machete in tow, and we cut down fresh cocoa pods, which are very sweet, not the cocoa flavour you’d expect. It was really interesting to see the fermentation process, feel the heat.” While in Australia, he worked for a chocolate company and, enterprisingly, entered the Australian Chocolate Championships, winning the Innovative Chocolate category with a mojito-based creation – lime and white rum jelly and a fresh mint ganache, layered in a moulded chocolate, flecked with green and silver.

On returning to England, he was taken on at Cowarth Park hotel, which featured its own chocolate room. “We did well, won a Michelin Star, had great reviews and a lot of customer contact which I really enjoyed because John would often bring customers through into the chocolate room and I would do a chocolate tasting for them.” When the opportunity came to work for Rococo following Couchant’s departure, Johnson seized it and is relishing working for a chocolate company, especially one with a pedigree like Rococo’s. “I love coming into the shops, when I get the time. It’s rewarding as I can pass on knowledge to our shop staff.”

Working in retail, naturally, presents challenges. “It’s finding the line between being a craftsman and the practical side of running a business that’s interesting to me.The difference you have in a shop environment over a restaurant, is that in a restaurant you can make something and you don’t have to worry about shelf life. In retail, you can make the best chocolates in the world but if they only last two days, you won’t have a business! In Rococo, we recommend that our fresh chocolates be eaten within two weeks.” Johnson brings a meticulous approach to his new role as Principal Chocolatier. He’s a firm believer in technique, which is where he feels his pastry background helps. “If you don’t need to add something to a product, then don’t add it. Technology can help us. For instance, by making ganache in a vacuum you get better preservation without adding sorbitol because oxygen is one of the things which causes decay.” In Rococo’s classes, which he very much enjoys teaching, the emphasis is on technique; “Chocolate is about technique. Half a degree difference can make it work or not; those small details are so important.”

Rococo’s classic, elegant style – “we have our more traditional flavours and look” - matches Johnson’s own personal approach to creating chocolates. “A lot of chefs cook for themselves, which I don’t believe is the right way to go,” he declares firmly. “You’re creating products for the customers; there’s no point creating something which you absolutely love, but no one else will like. I’m not into novelty for novelty’s sake.” He’s pleased that his salted chocolate toffee, created for the autumn collection, has been so popular that will now go into the full range. “We had lots of caramels, but I felt we didn’t have a very British toffee, slightly chewy, so I created a salted chocolate toffee, using the 100% Grenada chocolate just to give it that edge and layered it with a very crunchy praline – not completely smooth, with tiny pieces of broken nut. It’s sold amazingly.”

With his track record in doing well in competitions, Johnson is looking forward to Rococo entering this year’s chocolate awards. “We’ve got quite a lot of entries, some new creations which will come out in the spring. Passion fruit and rosemary caramel – you get the passion fruit first and the acidity and caramel flavour, then the rosemary comes through at the end.” So, with awards to enter, production to maintain, staff to train, new products to create, classes to teach, Rococo’s new Principal Chocolatier has a lot to do. One senses that this is exactly how Barry Johnson likes it.

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