Practice makes perfect. But it also makes for more tastings.
Whether you're a stalwart fan of dark chocolate or a defender of milk chocolate to the end (white chocolate fans, wherever you are, you count somewhere, too), you're likely familiar with the overwhelming need that grips you on occasion—mabye every day at 4pm—for a piece of chocolate as if your life depended on it. Chocolate just has that effect on people. But if you feel like your love of the cacao bean runs so deep that you would devote your whole life it, perhaps it's time to consider a job as a chocolatier.
For Guittard Chocolate Company’s executive pastry chef Donald Wressell, it's not just about love, but about a challenge. “I love the challenge chocolate present," he says. "It is an extremely technical ingredient that demands your respect and undivided attention.”
No, it's not an easy job: “You are on your feet for long hours, and carrying heavy trays,” Melanie Boudar, master chocolatier and co-owner of The Art of Chocolate, says. And the days start early—as early as 5:30 a.m., says Fran Bigelow, president and founder of Fran’s Chocolates. “Our palates are fresher in the morning,” she explains, so tasting new chocolate creations happens even before sunrise.
But nothting good, and definitely nothing as deeply satisfying as chocolate, comes easy. So if you're ready to devote your life's work to chocolate, here's what you need to do, according to the pros:
1. Learn all you can about chocolate.
To become a chocolatier, Godiva’s executive chef chocolatier Thierry Muret recommends that you attend culinary school and earn a degree in pastry and baking arts. But there are other ways to learn about chocolate, too. "Read as much as you possibly can about chocolate, and spend time cataloging recipes," Wressell recommends. "Research and learn about it, from a technical and a practical angle. Both this and the last point can be accomplished through school, apprenticeships, and home study." If you don't have the option to attend a school in person, Fran’s Chocolates president and founder Fran Bigelow recommends the online courses offered by Ecole Chocolat school.
Home study will, of course, include tasting lots of chocolate. "Taste as much as you can to learn what you like in terms of flavor and mouthfeel," Boudar instructs. "This way, you will have a benchmark to what you're trying to achieve in terms of look, texture and taste."
2. Get a close-up look at what a chocolatier's day is like.
Consider taking a tour of your local chocolate maker, Muret suggests, or enroll in a class at their production site. "I highly recommend broadening your knowledge before leaping into the industry," Muret explains. It's a move Wressell agrees with very strongly. "I teach at culinary schools and have noticed that a lot of people entering these programs expect to graduate and immediately become a world-class chocolatier," Wressell says. "The reality is that there is a lot of routine work and practice involved. So you need to really and truly make sure that you love the process."
3. Practice, practice, then practice some more.
Chocolate isn't the easiest ingredient to manipulate, Boudar warns. "You need experience to 'read' chocolate—especially to temper it," she says. Why? "It behaves differently in changing climatic conditions such as ambient temperature of a room or humidity. I can't stress practicing enough," she says. In addition to getting better, you'll experience another benefit: "Your friends will love you," she says.
4. Work in another chocolatier or baker's kitchen.
You may one day want to own your own chocolate company—and that is an amazing goal you can certainly achieve. But Bigelow recommends working in someone else's kitchen first. "There is no substitute for actually working in the kitchen of a baking or chocolate making business," Bigelow says.
While you're working with other chocolatiers, ask for feedback, Boudar recommends. Ask, "Can you taste the flavor you're trying to achieve? Does your tempering hold and not bloom the next day? Does it still taste good after a week? What type of coverture will you use?" Boudar recommends. "I did many kinds of focus groups to get feedback and improve my products."
5. Never stop learning.
"The industry is vast and there's always something to learn, from the chemistry of chocolate making to the visual appeal or current flavor trends," Boudar says. So it's important to stay abreast of trends and others' work in the industry. "Read [industry-specific] magazines like Dessert Professional," says Boudar. "Peruse packaging websites. Visit a cacao farm to learn how good chocolate starts with the plant itself."