The Next Sweet Thing 

High-end chocolate makers such as Scharffen Berger are revolutionizing how Americans view cacao.

Page 2 of 7

Also fueling the revolution, however, is a growing fascination with chocolate as an agricultural product, not simply a flavoring. Americans want to know where their wine grapes, coffee beans, and turnips come from. Why shouldn't they wonder about cacao, too?

Klassen credits a local source for piquing that curiosity. "I think you have to tip your hat to Scharffen Berger," he says. "Before Scharffen Berger, it was very rare to see people source beans and make chocolate from them -- Scharffen Berger was the first American company in over fifty years to start with the raw product."

The Anti-Wonka

You won't find a chocoholic in the Bay Area who isn't familiar with Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. Founded in 1997 by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg, this fast-growing company has quickly become the emblem of American artisanal chocolate making.

An addiction to the dark stuff didn't get Robert Steinberg into this biz. Cancer did. After Steinberg, himself a medical doctor, received a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1990, he stopped working full-time in his family practice and began reassessing his life. He cooked more. He traveled. He took drawing classes.

The 58-year-old chocolatier, who appears dour until you realize how often small smiles punctuate his gravitas, also spent a lot of time hanging out in cafes and restaurants, getting to know the folks who worked behind the counter. In doing so, he befriended restaurateur and small-scale coffee roaster Bob Voorhees. At some point their conversations turned to chocolate-making, and Voorhees, knowing his friend was looking for a project, asked whether Steinberg had ever considered it. "[Voorhees] knew I liked to cook and had this background in science," he recalls. "He had looked into making chocolate, and had found the need to understand the science too daunting."

Voorhees lent Steinberg a technical book on chocolate manufacturing, and the semiretired physician was soon seduced by the combination of agriculture and taste, science and geography. "It was so complex and surprising," he says. "It was like pulling the disguise off of something. Here's chocolate, this thing that we all think we know, but you look under the surface and it's something different."

Steinberg began planning his travels around chocolate. He toured the prestigious Chuao cacao-growing region of Venezuela, and accompanied Voorhees to Lyon to visit the atelier of Jean-Jacques Bernachon, one of France's most reputed chocolatiers. He read more, took technical courses, and began corresponding with chocolate makers on how he could obtain equipment.

American manufacturers were willing to talk machinery, but didn't otherwise open their doors to him. Eventually Steinberg wrote Bernachon to ask if he could intern there. In 1994, the famed chocolate maker, now in his eighties, allowed the American two weeks to observe, ask questions, and help out where needed. What struck Steinberg most was how small Bernachon's shop was, and how it managed to make top-quality chocolate from cacao beans on such a scale. He returned to the States impatient to get started.

If Steinberg gave Scharffen Berger its soul, then John Scharffenberger provided the flair. Quick-witted where Steinberg is pensive, and savvy in managing and promoting a growing business, Scharffenberger has emerged as head of the company. But in 1996 he had just sold Scharffenberger Cellars -- the winery he'd founded fifteen years earlier -- to Veuve Clicquot, and he, like Steinberg, was on the lookout for a something new.

Scharffenberger says Steinberg won him over by handing him a lump of French chocolate. Intrigued by the idea of doing with chocolate what he'd done with sparkling wine, Scharffenberger decided he was in. The partners began to source beans and search for small-scale equipment, largely funded by the sale of Scharffenberger's winery. By 1997, they had imported a collection of old chocolate-making machines from Germany and set them up in a space in South San Francisco. The two started making chocolate in Bernachon's style, with a winemaker's palate and high-quality beans from all over the world.

Even today, there are only a dozen chocolate makers in the United States, and most are what the French call fondeurs, or "melters." Premium chocolatiers in the Bay Area such as Michael and Jacky Recchiuti, Lisa Lerner, and Joseph Schmidt buy couverture (or "covering" chocolate), then flavor, adjust, and temper it to fit their purposes. Few dare to start with cacao beans, especially in small batches. It's just too much work.

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