Interview by Catherine Jang
What was your culinary education?
My educational background is just me working in the industry. I never actually went to college per se. I never went to culinary school. From the time I was a young boy growing up, I worked with food people: my grandmother, who was from Italy, and a lot of different people and influences. I trained and worked with people throughout my life to hone those skills.
How did you get interested in chocolate?
A big inspiration was when Cacao Barry, the chocolate company, moved into the United States. They were trying to bring themselves forward in the U.S. market during the '80s. They opened up a manufacturing warehouse facility and also a classroom, a really beautiful lab. They brought in all these European chocolate specialists and chefs. There was one resident chef, whose name was Jean-Marie Guichard. I would go there and work for free and do whatever they'd like.
When did you arrive in San Francisco and how did your business evolve?
I was in Philadelphia for a while working, and then I made my way out to the San Francisco area in '85. I ended up working for a catering company, and I basically took care of all their desserts. In conjunction with that, the company allowed me to start my own dessert catering business and use their kitchen to do my own thing for other caterers, which I thought was pretty cool. Because they couldn't hold on to me as a full-time employee, they needed some way to make sure I wasn't going to go away or work with someone else. It was a great experience, and it was a way for me to tap into the San Francisco community and get involved in a lot of different things. I did that for five years, and I was also teaching some classes out here at some different schools. In 1990, I had an offer to teach at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, so my wife, Jacky, and I moved to Vermont.
Why did you settle on chocolate?
Later, after almost five years working at a resort property in Vermont, Jacky and I were able to think about the fact that we wanted to move back to San Francisco, and we wanted to have our own business as opposed to working for someone else. Chocolate seemed to be the thing to do, because it was one of those mediums that I really enjoyed working with, and it had some life to it. It's like making wine or something: You can build a collection and release it. We developed the idea and developed the first line of chocolates: We figured out the packaging, equipment, everything, and shipped it back to San Francisco. We started making the chocolates and peddling them around San Francisco in '97. I was able to get chocolates into Chuck Williams's hands for his 80th birthday, and that's what established our relationship with Williams-Sonoma. Then we started selling my chocolate every Saturday at the farmers' market and started meeting all the local people and different press people.
What cookbook is on your nightstand right now?
Chloë Doutre-Roussel's book The Chocolate Connoisseur. She did some work with me. She was a buyer for Fortnum & Mason in London; she's a real chocolate fanatic, and she knows a lot about it. She's traveled all over. Her book is basically on how to taste chocolate and really understand what it's about.
She combines a lot of passion with her understanding, and she also has a lot of field experience. She's cutting cocoa pods down from trees, she's meeting farmers. She speaks a variety of languages fluently, so she's able to assimilate into these cultures. I think her second or first language is Spanish, so she's dug deep into the whole chocolate scene and associated herself with every chocolate maker you could possibly imagine—from confectioners to people who run companies that make the bars. She's really got herself into the whole process.
What's your guiltiest pleasure?
When I was on the book tour, I think people were looking for some lofty statement from me in regards to what type of chocolate I liked. After a while, I got really put off by it. One of the things I like—and I do have if I go to the movies—is Junior Mints. Every time I would teach a class, I'd have a box of Junior Mints sticking out of my top pocket. I like them. I realize they're not four-star chocolates or varietals, and the mint is just gross corn syrup. I understand that! But I like it, and it's something I can attach myself to. I like the whole experience.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
Withholding information or not testing recipes well. One thing we tried to do for Chocolate Obsession, we tested these recipes over and over and over again. Some books are written from the perspective of an ego that has nothing to do with sharing information, and I find that really irritating.
My co-author, Fran Gage, and I did a test with 20 nonprofessionals using the cookbook. We gave them three or four recipes each and the ingredients and let them wander off for two weeks and make their way back to us with a checklist and critique sheet. We were really nervous—we thought we would have to rewrite the book at that point, because we didn't know what they would come back with. We had one little criticism, and we realized that what's essential is really maintaining the clarity. That's the focus of the book.
Do you have any recommendations for the Rocky Recchiuti Brownies we're featuring in Best of the Best?
All of the brownies should be underbaked. That's the best way to enjoy them. There's two different types of brownie people in the world: the cakey brownie people and the fudgie brownie people. If you're a cakey brownie person, you just cook it longer, and it becomes cakey and dry and not that interesting to me. I'm a fudgie brownie person; I like it kind of gooey. When you press your finger into it, there should be this light, sugar, crackle surface that's almost like ice forming on water. When you touch it, it should break, and it should not spring back. All this underbaked stuff, like the molten chocolate cake, it's just raw, it's just cake they didn't finish baking. Of course it's going to ooze. With the brownie, it's just enough to set it, and there's enough chocolate and butter that once you cool it down to room temperature, it's somewhat manageable.
Was there a specific inspiration for your Burnt Caramel Pots de Crème recipe?
I was inspired to explore the burnt caramel flavor by reading and working with a lot of different chefs and pastry people. Everybody bakes using a system of ratio, where on a scientific level you have to use so much of certain things. Let's use a pound cake for an example: It's a pound of sugar, pound of butter, pound of eggs, pound of flour, bam, you have pound cake. When you teach in culinary school, you tell the students, if you're going to use this much flour, you need this much whatever. So I try to get away from that by using sugar but I want to find out if sugar can have some other flavor profile. When I was cooking sugars—when I would make caramels—the recipe would say to cook it to a certain temperature and turn it off. I always found that the result was kind of bland and boring and not that interesting, so I decided to take it to another level. There are times when I destroyed it and burned it and it didn't work at all, but I was trying to find this other level of intensity. I think that really speaks to what we do here. We go for robust flavors, we try to really distinguish different types of chocolates by blending, and we do the same with the sugar, using really bold sugar flavors.