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Q&A With Patricia Tsai: LA's Only Bean-To-Bar Chocolaterie (Part 1)

Working hands
Working hands
J.Koslow

Your first thoughts may be indelibly linked with nostalgia when asked about chocolate. Perhaps the blame falls on that popular silky, milk chocolate bar that's either snacked on directly from its brown and white packaging, or broken and inserted between a well-toasted marshmallow and twin graham crackers.

Or just maybe the new influx of hand crafted, bean-to-bar chocolates from Mast Brothers in Brooklyn, Tcho in San Francisco, or Taza in Massachusetts, are making you see chocolate in a whole new light.

Either way, residents of Los Angeles should get to know Patricia Tsai, CPA-turned-chocolate-maker and proprietor of Chocovivo, who has quietly been making the only untempered, bean-to-bar chocolate in the United States -- right here in our hometown.

While in the throws of a chocolate making session, Tsai took a few moments to talk about her enthusiasm for chocolate, the reasons she leaves the product untempered, and her perseverance in starting Chocovivo, after a particularly rough beginning.

Turn the page for our interview, and check back for part two, and a recipe from the chef.

Step 1: Weighing the beans
Step 1: Weighing the beans
J.Koslow

SI: You are the only person making untempered bean to bar, stone ground chocolate in the United States. That's a lot to say in one mouthful. What does it all mean?

PT: For me bean to bar means purchasing the beans from one singular farmer, roasting them, stone grinding them with a minuscule amount of sugar and desired flavoring. After the stone grinding is done, I don't temper the chocolate, instead I pour it flat and let the chocolate set as it cools. Each batch takes about 3 hours.

SI: So how did you decide on not tempering your chocolate?

PT: Tempering chocolate is a way of increasing and decreasing the temperature of chocolate so that you get two things -- the snap when you break the bar, and the shiny finish. Those are the two goals of tempering chocolate.

I did initially temper the chocolate because I thought that people wanted the typical, shiny texture. But, some years ago when I was doing a chocolate demo at Andrew's Cheese Shop, I gave him samples of untempered chocolate. I said to Andrew, look - I'm giving you samples of untempered chocolate but when you do get your chocolate it will be tempered. He put one piece in his mouth and said that he didn't want that tempered stuff. He wanted this.

Andrew made me realize that I needed to go with my gut - I want to show people the true taste in chocolate. The heat involved in tempering reduces those flavor profiles.

SI: But is there really a taste and texture difference?

PT: Definitely! Untempered chocolate is soft. The texture is also noticeable due to stone grinding. Not tempering the chocolate allows those tannins and acids to really shine through. It's like red wine. After you open it and expose it to a bit of oxygen the tannins will mellow out. One customer actually likes to let her chocolate sit out - like decanting.

SI: Are there tips for eating untempered chocolate?

PT: I tell people to eat it within two to three months for optimal flavor. If I had it in a temper, the reduced flavors would be preserved for a long time.

Also, chocolate hates fluctuations in temperature. The whiteness that can occur is called a bloom -- when sugar crystals and butter crystals rise to the top. Tempering helps to connect these crystals, thereby slowing the blooming process. But it's at the cost of flavor. So don't put the chocolate in the fridge because my chocolate will bloom faster.

 

Step 2:  3-4 passes through the stone grinder
Step 2: 3-4 passes through the stone grinder
J.Koslow

SI: Back to you.

PT: Yes. Back to me -- the dessert girl! I've always needed to have a small piece of chocolate after dinner.

SI: Well, a life as a chocolatier suites your perfectly then.

PT: Yes. Not sure if I knew that I would be a chocolate maker, but probably knew that I would be an entrepreneur. That was probably when I locked myself in my little brother's room and would pretend that I was taking orders from imaginary customers who were ordering from my mom's old Sears catalogs.

SI: That's such a sweet memory. How did you decide on this path then?

PT: I was a corporate CPA. Did everything I was supposed to do. Went to Warton School of Business at UPenn and then received my CPA. One day I just woke up and knew it wasn't the future that I envisioned for myself.

So I quiet my job, and never told my parents that I quit. I asked myself what I was passionate about and I realized I loved people and food. I flew down to Oaxaca, Mexico to do a bit of soul searching and found myself at every chocolate demo I could go to.

At one of them, someone suggested that I try importing Mexican chocolate and molding. This was 2004. I got a company's contact information and started importing it to the United States, but I wasn't in love with it. It had too much sugar. I had ideas that I wanted to see come to fruition. I wanted to make a chocolate that honored the beans....

SI: Wait. Your family doesn't know about Chocovivo?

PT: They do. We just don't really talk about it. Until I'm on Martha Stewart it's just not something we talk about. They wonder why I want to work so hard when I can just work in corporate and be comfortable. It works for many of us, but for me it's about following my passion.

SI: Sounds like everything just fell into place for you...

PT:Yes and no. I did start Chocovivo, but first I had to go back to Oaxaca to learn the correct way in which to stone grind. And to be honest, the experience I had was so unbelievable - it's surprising that I'm here, doing this, today.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2.

Step 3: Patricia Tsai of Chocovivo shapes a new batch of chocolate
Step 3: Patricia Tsai of Chocovivo shapes a new batch of chocolate
J.Koslow

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