Q&A With Patricia Tsai: The Oaxaca Fiasco, IMing With Her Grower, and Chocovivo's Future (Part 2)
J.KoslowChocovivo assembly line
In the first part of our interview, Chocovivo's Patricia Tsai discusses her trajectory from CPA to chocolatier and the decision she made to opt for flavor thereby leaving her chocolate untempered. In this second part, Tsai shares her mind-boggling and almost futile experience trying to learn the art of stone grinding in Oaxaca, Mexico; how the kindness of one man turned into her biggest asset; and what the future holds for Chocovivo.
Turn the page for our interview, and check back later for a recipe from the chef.
SI: Straight to the point. What happened in Oaxaca, Mexico?
PT: Long story. First I went down to Oaxaca, and was introduced through a friend, to a man who was the first to create an organic co-op for farmers in Mexico. My friend acted as the negotiator, and told them I was willing to pay him $3000 to show me what kind of beans to use, and the proper stone grinding process from bean to bar. It took a month to negotiate. Finally I got a phone call from him asking if I was sitting down. I asked him what happened, and he said that he spoke with his wife, she was very serious about my offer, and she wants to counter offer. She wants to counter with 1.5M dollars. The negotiator told them that if Bill Gates was to buy their business it would not be worth 1.5 million dollars...and that was that. I never contacted them again.
SI: Dead end. But seeing where you are now, it's safe to say you persevered. What happened next?
PT: My friend somehow put me in touch with this woman, Norma, the chocolate expert of Mexico. I contacted her and she happily agreed to show me the process. We made the itinerary; I paid her in advance; flew to meet her -- and met her with a translator.
The first day, I knew I wasn't going to get what I wanted. At the plantation I was told that there was an extra $100 fee per person to enter. I had to pay for all three of us. Then she kept pushing me to use the non-stone ground, European method.
I couldn't understand why she was deterring me from the stone ground method. But, I understood when we met the machine supplier in Mexico City. The machine supplier reeked of alcohol and was...her husband. His store had not a single stone grinder. That was the end of that.
SI: I can't believe it. Where's the silver lining? Please tell me it's coming soon.
PT: In the middle of the trip, we ran into the grower/owner of a plantation we visited in Tabasco, Mexico. He was sitting next to me at breakfast and he said something in English. Norma kept intercepting our conversation, but I got his information before I left.
I came back to the US and I was really concerned. What am I going to do? I emailed the grower and fortunately he emailed back. I told him what I wanted to do and he told me to come back to come back to Tabasco, Mexico. He was the ticket. My mentor, really. He built me the machine, sends me the beans, but I had to figure out how to make the product I wanted to make. There's no book on untempered chocolate because everyone tempers it. So he came to Los Angeles. He's actually IMing with me right now.
J.KoslowThe grower's goods
SI: That's incredible to have a personal relationship like this with your grower. Can you tell us a little bit more about the farm that the beans come from?
PT: The farm is in a very rural area in Tabasco, MX. The plantation is called Jesus Maria. Although the plantation primarily grows cacao, you'll find some vanilla and coffee bean trees sprinkled through the area. The plantation is in an extremely humid area so if there are any future trips down to the area, visitors beware of the humidity. It's like walking into a wall.
SI: And the practices?
PT: The farm practices sustainable and organic farming methods. Harvesters use machetes to get the cacao pods off the trees, and you'll see piles of pods on the ground where the harvesters had to manually break open each one to harvest the beans. The beans are very wet and pulpy. After they are harvested they go through fermentation and then drying on the ground.
SI: Your product is mostly sold at the farmers' markets, correct?
PT: Yes, 90% of my business comes from the farmers' markets. I sell around 10 different chocolates, from black sesame and goji berry to a triple spiced bar, at 8 farmer's markets a week. It's pretty rewarding because you really get to meet your clientele and interact with them. People are encouraging and help me keep going because they love what I'm doing.
Some chefs around town are working with it too, and that's neat to experience. Off the top of my head, Akasha is using it in her hot chocolate and Nickle Diner has it in their S'mores cake. There's a handful more too...including Intelligentsia. The stores use my chocolate for their mocha's!
SI: So what's next? Are you looking to expand Chocovivo at some point?
PT: I'd love to. I dream of a place where people can come in and order custom blend chocolate. The chocolate stalls in Oaxaca inspire this dream. At a stall, for example, you tell the chocolate grinder that you want a pound of cocoa nibs mixed with 1/2 a pound of sugar, almonds, vanilla beans, and then they go and grind this and return 20 minutes later with the chocolate (for us it's 20 minutes to do the whole grind). What they do in Oaxaca is take this chunk of chocolate home - and when I say chuck I mean it because the copious amount of sugar makes it more like Play-Doh. It's only 30 percent chocolate. They mold it into big balls or a log --- it's a staple in every family. Oaxacans drink chocolate morning, day and night like we drink coffee - it's so prevalent down there. Parties always include hot chocolate. So I'd love to do that here...but with less sugar and more options. The Chocovivo way.
J.KoslowChocovivo in its ready to eat stage
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