Q&A With Patricia Tsai: The Oaxaca Fiasco, IMing With Her Grower, and Chocovivo's Future (Part 2)

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Tue, Dec 28, 2010 at 9:30 AM

click to enlarge Chocovivo assembly line - J.KOSLOW
  • J.Koslow
  • Chocovivo 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.

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