‘If I agreed to take such a short roundtrip journey to Paris is because your magazine is of an extraordinary quality. When I said in the workshop that I had an interview with so good.. they exclaimed, ‘wow, that’s great!’ Your publication has the peculiarity that when it comes out, it focuses attention on the whole of the profession and it is a true signature.’ This is the first thing Pierre Marcolini tells us when he meets us for this interview.
He is obsessed with the signature that his chocolates must have, with explaining the history and characteristics of his cocoa. Obsessed with offering a different chocolate, without altering it with sugar or vanilla to reaffirm it on the palette. And by force of passion and conviction, Marcolini has managed to raise an empire with about 40 boutiques distributed in several countries, but without losing the spirit of what he learned in the chocolate factory Bernachon of Lyon: control of the whole production process. A real treat for a chocolatier.
Delegate in France: Verónica Bustamante / Gérard Taurin
How does your family and your Italian origins influence your chocolate-making?
Let’s be very clear, I am of Italian origin, Verona, in northern Italy, the romance city by definition. People will tell you that I am an eternal romantic, but these kinds of claims are not necessary. You must know one and what they do beyond stereotypes, which is a little more difficult. I am an eternal gourmand, who passionately embraces pâtisserie. Even when I travel by train from Brussels to Paris and I see a macaron I cannot resist the temptation, although we all know it’s industrially made. I remember going to Verona only once a year when I was little and my mother didn’t know how to cook. But I am fortunate to have experienced the atmosphere of the whole family gathered around the preparation of typical dishes and wine tasting. It was a kitchen of transmission, a generous kitchen that, like the films of Federico Fellini, gathered mothers and the women of the family. And I remember the bread with wine that we children ate as a way to deceive us and disguise the taste of bread. Without a doubt, it was an alcoholic future! (Laughs).
You often confess that you feel genuine madness for your craft. When and how does the passion for a trade become profitable?
It’s the way we take things in life. At first, I don’t think about doing something because it will be profitable. From the moment I start to do things with passion, desire, strength and conviction, which is where they get interesting, there begins to be a profitability, but in any case we speak of a paradoxical profitability. I started at 20 m2 with the desire to please myself. I had the strength and conviction to say: ‘I want to make chocolates that make me happy’. In 1995 I opened my first shop and I told everyone in Belgium, the country of chocolate, that I wanted to make chocolates that were different, based on infusions, spices … and in formats no larger than 15-20 g. Today this is very common. I wanted to make a ‘signature’ chocolate.
In what format is your style more clearly expressed? In cakes, chocolates, the finger…?
The chocolate bars because it is the basis of what a chocolatier expresses. In this product, we feel that the chocolatier will be able to convey the flavor and characteristics of a cocoa bean in the most faithful way. When you smell cocoa, you will find those notes of banana, flowers, fruits … clues of where it is located geographically. It tells me both its history and its specificity, its flavors, and I try to reproduce them in the bars. My style is to make signature chocolates.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Every morning I value the incredible luck of being able to go to the plantations. When we were a very small company we couldn’t afford it, but those who are too big run the risk of missing out on this type of experience. My sources of inspiration are those I name, the cocoa bean itself, roasting, maceration time, amount of sugar … In my bars, I don’t add vanilla or salt, I look for pure expression, the percentage of sugar that I incorporate is only to reduce bitterness.
“In my bars, I don’t add vanilla or salt, I look for pure expression, the percentage of sugar that I incorporate is only to reduce bitterness”
You control the entire process of chocolate production since 2000. What has this fact meant in your path?
My mentor for me is the chocolate factory Bernachon, it is the embodiment of what was and what still is today the chocolate factory of the 21st century. In 1999 when I left, I told myself that that was what I had to do, make my own chocolate. Bernachon has always been my source of inspiration, an example of the quality of work, of respect for the product. The awareness of the quality and the reality of the cocoa market has set our movements in the control of the whole productive process. We also care that a customer who buys my chocolate bar for five euros requires that that bar be made with our own chocolate.
At the moment, you have about forty boutiques distributed in several important cities of the world. How can you preserve the artisan essence when producing on a large scale to supply so many shops?
We have a company size and a team that produces and covers daily sales and at the same time allows me to go and see the plantations directly. This I love, to be able to go, to feel, to observe and to understand the product with which I am going to work. Today, thanks to the ease of communication through the internet, we can have a more direct dialogue with the cocoa producer. The new technologies are the future of the artisan chocolatier.
On the other hand, I have to maintain the profitability of the business and this doesn’t always coincide with what my accountant recommends. The other day, for example, we grated three tons of lime by hand with the microplane because the difference in tasting frozen lime and fresh lime forces you to lose in profitability and make these concessions. Quality is at stake.
We have a turnover of between 40,000,000-45,000,000 € and we are 80 employees. If I have to invest in expanding the premises, I prefer to invest in labor. I have an exceptional team that I treat with respect and this is seen in the final result, in its effectiveness. Nowadays there are things that I no longer do because I wouldn’t do it better than them.
“I have to maintain the profitability of the business and this doesn’t always coincide with what my account recommends”
What role does packaging play in your creations?
It is part of the five senses. I can’t make a signature chocolate without a package that places it above all the beauty and quality of the product that has just been made.
You recently collaborated with Alexandre Mattiussi, creator of the Paris clothing firm (prêt-à-Porter), AMI. Does collaboration with artists, creators, scientists, engineers, and professionals from other sectors open new paths in chocolate and pastry?
The vision of other artists (dressmakers, designers) opens other fields for creation. For example, collaboration with chefs also helps discover other flavors, other ways to create. It can be interesting to nourish yourself from other worlds in campaigns like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day…
In the last 10 years, I see more evolution, young people are more motivated. They have understood the importance of re-appropriating their work, the need for their products to bear their own signature and that this is a way of being original.
And the consumer’s palate?
Consumers are looking for more of the story behind chocolate and the overall product. Today, more than ever, we value originality, that the product is unique, something that the industry can’t emulate. Customers are clearly looking for our creation of value!
You will find the Éclair Tatin’s recipe in so good #17