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Choc tactics (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by markcoflaherty

Weekday afternoons at the tiny Mast Brothers chocolate factory in Brooklyn are a family affair. A close-knit team of ten sit down for lunch before Rick Mast and his wife take turns, along with friends and brother Michael, hand-wrapping chocolate bars in exquisitely patterned papers. The Mast Brothers operation is one of a growing number of small-scale, young chocolatiers who have a fresh, contemporary style of presentation as well as an innovative, artisanal approach to production.

Many of the new brands are bringing aspects of fashion and graphic design to the table. While the Mast Brothers have been celebrated by foodies as the sole bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers in the US, and had most of their kitchen hardware designed and created exclusively for them, they’ve also captured the imagination of the hipster neighbourhood of Williamsburg – they look like Amish Comme des Garçons models and have been feted for their natty attire, luxuriant beards, and choice of typography as much as for their wonderfully pure dark chocolate with fleur de sel. More tellingly, they are Thomas Keller’s source of choice for chocolate dishes at Per Se and French Laundry.

‘We started off by wrapping our chef’s kilo bars in butcher paper,’ says Rick Mast. ‘And then found some old vintage Italian papers from New York Central Art Supply to wrap the smaller bars in. But that was dead stock, and our dream was always to design everything ourselves. So we design and print everything with our friends. We’re not businessmen with marketing majors, we just like the imagery and the typography that we’ve used. We have an appreciation for an old world aesthetic and the handcrafted. It’s one of the reasons why we created a chocolate with Stumptown Coffee Roasters from Portland – they have a similar ideology.’

Mast Brothers’ chocolate ($10/bar) sells extremely well at the Manhattan branch of Stumptown Coffee, where each tattooed barista wears a variation on a 19th century pioneer-cool outfit with waistcoat, braces and flat caps. Twenty blocks uptown, at Bergdorf Goodman, Alice Chocolate ($30) has a very different, but no less distinctive look. Alice is a Swiss product that echoes the minimalist sleek and impact of Chanel: each stark white flip-box has the silhouette portrait of a young girl on the front and contains five slender silver bars of Wild Amazonian Criollo 68% dark chocolate. The high style, glossy milieu of Bergdorf’s is its ideal home.

Many of the most interesting arrivistes to the world of haute chocolate have direct links with fashion. The scene at Cocomaya in London’s Connaught Street, is colourful, gossipy and very chic – all zesty acid colours and gold cups. The café is a favourite hub for high tea, thanks to the bonhomie of cofounders Joel Bernstein, former head of concept at Liberty, and luxury accessories designer Walid al Damirji. They create incredible chocolate – their passionfruit, olive oil and fig and sugar-free rose ganaches have customers ordering large bright orange selection boxes (£36) – and they have just launched a collection of colourful bars, adorned with bright florals and butterflies. They’ve worked with Manolo Blahnik on a chocolate shoe and have just opened a concession – Chocolate Wonderland – at Liberty.  ‘We’re very image conscious,’ says Bernstein. ‘The aesthetic is very important for us – our background in fashion brings a unique attention to detail. And we like kitsch.’

The artist Andreas Gratze has created all of the imagery for Zotter, the Austrian bean-to-bar company that specialises in offbeat but delicious ‘hand-scooped’ slabs (£3.25) that coat layers of fruits and other ingredients (including Scotch Whisky and Peanuts and Ketchup) in couverture. Collectors of Gratze’s work ensure they buy and keep the wrapper from every new bar that appears, and rather like buying someone a box set of anything else, gifting a set of 10 or 20 different bars is as exciting for the aesthete as it is the gourmet. His work has something of the flourish of the graphic novel about it, particularly the voluminous male and female silhouettes on Zotter’s Rose and Basil bar. The imagery on the Labooka bars have the essence of vintage fashion illustration, with a man’s hand, in a floral-printed Edwardian-style smoking jacket, reaching onto the petals of a rose on the wrapper for the Bouquet of Flowers duo bars.

Both Mariebelle founder Maribel Lieberman, and Chantal Coady, who established Rococo, the UK’s default high end chocolatier, have backgrounds in textiles. Lieberman grew up amidst the cacao fields of Honduras but moved to New York City to study fashion at Parsons. She segued into food ten years ago when she opened Maribelle in NoLita, selling chocolates emblazoned with fashion illustrations. ‘The images were based on my lifestyle in New York,’ she says. ‘The pistachio ones had hats and mannequins on, and the espresso one has a woman walking energetically in the street. When I first started it was very hard to put the graphics on the chocolates and I had them done in Europe. Now we do it in house, but it’s still very complex – each colour is its own layer, and takes 24 hours to dry. The lavender has five colours, so takes five days to do.’ Boxes at Mariebelle range from four pieces ($14) to 100 ($260).

The blue and white antiquarian literary illustrations on the packaging at Chantal Coady’s Rococo have become as classic as Coca Cola in many discerning households. This year, they redesigned 18 of the bars with a distinctively different look. ‘I was looking out of the window on to the Moroccan garden at our Motcomb Street store, staring at the patchwork of different colours in the tiling,’ recalls Coady. ‘I had a lightbulb moment.’ The result was a collection of bars with emotive colours and patterns, including spicy orange for chilli pepper and crystalline blue and white for sea salt. For Christmas, Rococo will be producing gift sets containing three bars (£14.50).

Reinvigorating an established brand is one thing, creating one from scratch is another. Curious Chocolate was set up last year by Ben Bailey and quickly found favour at Terence Conran’s Albion deli in Shoreditch as well as at Harvey Nichols and now John Lewis. As well as high quality bars (£3.50) of dark, milk, white, marmalade, crystallised ginger and caramalised almond, Bailey produces boxes of truffles and wafers (£9.95), each instantly identifiable by its retro letterpress-style packaging. ‘I found a tiny shop in Amsterdam with drawers full of all kinds of print block,’ says Bailey. ‘The images that stood out were locks, keys, pigeons and cutlery, all of which we’ve used. The graph-paper graphics lend an air of nostalgia, and I found the typeface in an obscure magazine when I was getting my hair cut. Then we chose sophisticated chocolatey colours, with a flash of fluoro pink to keep it fresh and modern.’

Some chocolatiers are creating whole retail environments as well as products. The space-age Chocolate Research Facility in Singapore has more in common with the high concept beauty interior of its neighbour Aesop than it does with a traditional confectionary store. And the 100% Chocolate Café in Tokyo is another sweet-toothed destination that chimes more with stark, clinical and directional parfumeries than with candy vendors. The stand-out item at the café is 365 Days Chocolates, a novel gift that allows you to order a year’s supply of chocolate, month on month (5,500 ¥/£41 per month). There are 56 styles of chocolate (from single-bean to fruit and herb) that appear throughout the calendar, and each is dated in sharp ITC Avant Garde Gothic type.

There’s more to modern chocolate than design, of course. The chocolatiers behind Choki of Brockley sell their pretty, artisanal, pink and gold embossed bars at London’s Greenwich Market, but also create fine preservative-free truffles with fresh cream to be consumed within a fortnight.

Melt is one of the smartest and most progressive chocolate shops in west London. They sell a range of Chef’s Chocolates (£10.50) created by some of the UK’s most renowned kitchens, including The River Café (a 75% bitter chocolate truffle from nine different beans) and Mark Hix (cider brandy). Each is packaged with Melt’s distinctive lower case type, as well as the collaborator’s logo.

Many of the most style-literate chocolatiers have embraced a sea change in chocolate tastes. As Daniel Sklaar of Fine & Raw in New York City says, ‘There’s a trend for darker chocolate, of course, but also single origin bars and an approach that provokes different levels of flavour. It’s more of a wine mentality. You might be a fan of Madagascar bars in the 80% range, or prefer 70% Ecuadorian.’ Sklaar’s attention to detail includes packaging with bold flowing lines: ‘Like the chocolate… simple ingredients with rich flowing flavours’. He claims to have traded a lifetime’s supply of chocolate for his company’s distinctive logo, created by lingerie designer and close friend Kristina Kaye.

Eco-awareness has had a radical effect on the look and taste of fine chocolates. Philipp Kauffmann co-founded Original Beans in 2008 and has just released a newly packaged range, the result of a collaboration with the Department of Graphic Sciences in Los Angeles. It’s intricate and rich and stylish, but also fits with the Original Beans ethos of ‘the planet: replant it’. ‘We wanted a tactile feel, with a lot of detail to discover,’ says Kauffmann. ‘It should feel as much like a gift to oneself as to others. It’s also a product entirely derived from trees – cacao beans, FSC certified cardboard, and wood cellulose foil.’  Original Beans’ Esmereldas Milk (£6) with fleur de sel and 42% cacao has a stand-out taste of creaminess and mild saltiness, but Kauffmann’s own favourite Original Beans product is the Cru Virunga (£6), which is produced on the fringes of the Virunga National Park, home to some of the poorest populace on earth. ‘We’ve started to introduce cacao and make this chocolate to restore livelihoods. And because of its quality, you can find it on the menu of Scott’s and the Ivy in London.’

The best modern chocolate tastes good, looks good and comes with a clear conscience. While the world’s best chefs may be drawn primarily by taste, and the likes of the Mast Brothers represent a new kind of foodie rock and roll, the smaller and more exclusive the operation, the more control the chocolatier has. Although Rick Mast sees the chocolate he produces as a proud Brooklyn phenomenon, from the roasting and winnowing of the beans to the wrapping, he also admits ‘there’s nothing local about chocolate’, because ultimately the beans don’t grow in New York City. ‘From next year we’re actually going to sail our beans here from South America to diminish oil abuse. We want to utilise the power of wind.’ The imagery of the chocolate box has changed radically, and at the same time, chocolate need no longer be a guilty pleasure.


Alice available from Bergdorf Goodman, 5th Avenue at 58th Street, New York City 10019 (+1 800 558 1855;

Cocomaya, 12 Connaught Street, London W2 (020-7706 2770; and at Liberty, Great Marlborough Street, London W1(0207-734 1234;

ChokiofBrockley stockists detailed at

Curious Chocolate available by mail order at 01989 567132 ( and from John Lewis, 300 Oxford Street, London W1  (0207-629 7711;

The Chocolate Research Facility, The Roy Lichtenstein Sculpture Plaza, 9 Raffles Boulevard, Singapore (+65 6338 5191;

Fine and Raw available by mail order at

Marie Belle, 484 Broome Street, New York City 10013 (+212 925 6999;

Mast Brothers available from Dean & Deluca, 560 Broadway, New York City 10012 (+212-226 6800; and from

Melt, 59 Ledbury Road, London W11 (0207-727 5030;

100% Chocolate Café, 2-4-16 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (+81 3 3212 5025;é)

Original Beans global stockists detailed online at (+646 894 2929)

Rococo, 5 Motcomb Street, London SW1 (0207-245 0993;

Zotter available at branches of John Lewis and online at