Chocolate and romance are now inextricably linked together in the popular imagination. Sales of chocolate soar in preparation for today, Valentine's Day, as people purchase chocolate tokens of their affection for their significant others.
Intriguingly, the world of chocolate is filled with couples working together. William Curley and his Japanese wife Suzue met while they were both working as patissiers at The Savoy and set up William Curley, their own patisserie and chocolate business, together. Their partnership has proved a fruitful one, with William acknowledging the creative input that Suzue brings to William Curley, with a number of his hallmark flavours such as apricot and miso or Japanese black vinegar inspired by her. Chococo, a flourishing chocolate company in Dorset, was set up in 2002 by husband-and-wife team Andy and Claire Burnet in a life-changing move, in which they escaped corporate life and went to live in the country. Chocolatier.co.uk tracked down some of these ‘chocolate couples’ to talk to them and find out about living and loving in the world of chocolate.
Founded in 1983 by Chantal Coady, Rococo Chocolates is run by husband-and wife-team Chantal Coady and James Booth. “James really did marry into the business,” explains Chantal, Rococo’s Founder and Creative Director. “Rococo had been going for 10 years by the time he came along. He was quite a chocolate fiend though. He used to make his own chocolate truffles using unpasteurised cream from a local farm, which he’d visit to buy it. I was impressed when he told me that. He continued his acupuncture for a good 10 years after we met, though at busy times he would help out.”
With the birth of their second child, James’s help was needed. “I did a bit more and one thing led to another. It’s a lovely world. People love chocolate and it’s great giving people what they enjoy,” says James, who’s now the Managing Director of Rococo. The couple appreciate that they each bring different elements to the business. “We recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Chantal is absolutely not a detail person; she glazes over when she sees a spread-sheet or a legal agreement! She brings both her creativity and a determination to see certain things brought to fruition, whether it’s a new set of tile-based bar wrappers which have transformed the bar sales or our relationship with Grenada Chocolate Company.”
For Chantal, “it’s wonderful to have a totally trustworthy person. James is such a conscientious person. Even though we have different roles, we’re very likeminded and have a shared set of values.” James concurs, adding “we share a sense of humour. There’s the pleasure of doing something that’s fun – whether it’s the olives that aren’t really olives or the ridiculous names for the Easter eggs, like the workaholic chicken.”
Following a high-flying career as a pastry chef, Damian Allsop set up Damian Allsop Chocolates with his Catalan partner Anna Hernandez Piferrer in 2007. Damian had met Anna in Spain while working there and credits her not only with an excellent palate in her own right, but in educating his own. “She really opened up my palate,” he declares. “I was a famously fussy eater. I remember that very early after we’d met we went to a tiny restaurant outside Girona which only had three dishes on the menu. The first was a tomato salad and I said, ‘No, I don’t like tomatoes.’ Anna said, ‘don’t be silly; try it’. The guy brought out this tomato salad from his garden and I was just amazed by the flavour. That was it – I was converted to tomatoes! She kept on pushing me, getting to try things. Where I am now is because of years of her hard work.”
For Anna the world of chocolate has proved very different from her previous work for publishers and museums. “My background is not catering,” she says, “but part of the charm is the challenges. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours, but it’s really nice when you manage to create something that works. There are so many little things to learn that it’s interesting all the time.” She is very proud of Damian’s creativity. “I do think he’s brilliant. His concepts are good. I really like the way he plays with flavour. You see some products and think no one else will do this they’re so unique, so personal to Damian.” Selling their chocolates directly at fairs and markets allows her to see how the public react to what they’re making. “We’re all the time in our little unit producing away and you don’t realise what the effect of our chocolate is on people and then you do a market and you have the public in front of you and it’s fantastic. For some people, it’s a revelation. Chocolate is very emotional – more than any other food. It has a magical aura around it.”
Denise Gregory, wife of chocolatier Paul Wayne Gregory, also came from a very different work background to work with her partner. “I worked in social care, doing family support. I started working with Paul about a year ago. His work was expanding and I have an overview of the entire business so it made sense.” Working together was something she was initially a little wary of. “If anybody had said to me when I was in my 20s that I’d work with my other half, I’d have said you’re crazy! There’s no way you can spend your working life with your partner as well as spend time with them at home, however, it has its advantages!” she laughs. She, too, is enjoying the work of chocolate. “There’s so much to it – that’s one of the things that has surprised me.” Working in the production unit, Denise has realised for herself what a lot of skill goes into creating Paul’s chocolate. “It’s so technical; I definitely appreciate what he’s doing. I’m starting to understand chocolate more; now I can see when it’s tempered by looking at it.”
Paul Wayne Gregory was keen to bring Denise in to work with him; “She’d seen the dream grow and I wanted her to be part of it.” For Paul, the good thing about working together, “is that we understand each other. I know her strengths, she knows my weaknesses, so we complement each other. We look at things differently. Because I’m a natural creative, sometimes I get caught up in the creativity and don’t think about the practicalities, but she will.” Denise agree;: “it’s really good to have the two viewpoints all the time – whether around creation of chocolate or the packaging or what customers want – we have different visions which we can bring together.”
Paul Maden and James Findlay entered the world of chocolate very much as a change of life style choice, having decided to move to the village of Balkainel in northwest Scotland. “We found this creative little village, which used to be an early warning station for the Ministry of Defence, but got abandoned and has grown into a craft village with resident population of artists,” says Paul. “We loved the idea of moving somewhere and being part of something creative and a friend suggested that making chocolates might fit in very well because it’s well visited the village by tourists in the summer. We’d both always loved food, so we opened Cocoa Mountain in 2006. We keep it simple, keep it fresh - they have a two week shelf life – and we serve hot chocolate and coffee as well as selling chocolates.”
As with all the couples interviewed, finding the right roles and also a balance between work and private life has been important. “There are times when it’s such joy to have a close informal work relationship with your partner, because you’re working with someone that you obviously want to spend time with and it can be very convenient.” As the business has grown, each of them has developed their own role. “We both try to spend as much time making chocolate as possible. As the business grows, other office functions seem to grow with it. I do most of the accounting within the business,” explains James, “Paul works on the website and marketing. He tends to avoid all paperwork!” Living with the person you’re also working with can make it hard to find space. “Sometimes you get to the point where you think I want to spend some time alone,” laughs Paul. “We have four Labradors so we tend to go off and walk the dogs when we want some space,” says James, “There are so many beautiful beaches here and it’s good to go off and walk.”
Ironically, of course, for couples working in chocolate, Valentine’s Day is a far from romantic time of year since - like Christmas and Easter – it involves a huge amount of hard work preparing chocolates for this busy season. “Our work in general is unromantic – it’s relentless!” laughs Damian Allsop. “We don’t get much time off to go out and enjoy ourselves. It’s full-on now.” For Chantal Coady of Rococo, Valentine’s Day is a romantic time for her customers – “We’ve had romantic stories of people putting rings inside our hearts. We nominate couples as our Valentine’s Couple of the Year and give them one of our beautiful chocolate hearts.” – but a demanding time for the business. Paul Maden from Cocoa Mountain agrees; “you’re working so hard, particularly when you’re working with a fresh product because you have to work right up to the last minute.”
It is a “busy time” concedes self-confessed workaholic Paul Wayne Gregory, “but I like making chocolate. I’ve found something I really, really love and Denise definitely sees me more now we work together!” So, when you buy your chocolate love offering, spare a thought for all those couples working away hard together to make Valentine’s Day romantic for us.