How a Chemistry Geek Became the Top Chocolate Chef at Godiva
This piece originally appeared on Fortune.com.
When Thierry Muret smiles, one side of his grin disappears into a dimple hidden in his beard. The smile continues up into eyes the color of cocoa beans. Fine lines mark the years he’s enjoyed in Belgium, in Chicago, in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Muret eats at least 20 pieces of chocolate a day. It’s his job. As global executive chef chocolatier and head of consumer sciences at Godiva, he’s is in charge of creating new products for North America and serves as the upscale chocolate maker’s food spokesperson. He’s been in the role since 2012 and with Godiva since 1988. Next spring, Muret will celebrate 29 years with the company.
Looking at Muret, 56, it’s hard to imagine he ever dreamed of doing something else. But his career, like so many others, was equal parts ambition, curiosity, and chance.
Growing up in Brussels, Muret excelled in math and science. In middle school, a teacher suggested he enroll in a special program where he could finish high school and college at the same time. During his first semester, he fell in love with chemistry and graduated four years later with degrees in chemistry and crystallography.
In 1981, when Muret was starting his engineering degree, his sister Martine asked if he would consider moving to America to start a Belgian chocolate company with her. She was living in Chicago, and artisanal foods were starting to become more popular.
He was interested, but he didn’t know anything about making chocolate. Encouraged by his sister, he dug around and discovered a strict apprenticeship program in Belgium that’s run by the state. Hoping to start his career as soon as possible, he set out to find the hardest, meanest boss he could to teach him everything he needed to know about chocolate. He began as the apprentice to Rene Goossens, a tough, stocky chocolatier with 30 years of experience. It was a rough start — Goossens made him wash dishes and clean the floors for a while before he let him near his hundred-year-old steel chocolate molds — but eventually Muret began learning the chocolate-making process.
His first lesson: how to temper chocolate on marble. The process involves pouring melted chocolate on a food-grade marble slab and mixing it with a spatula to cool it down; Muret likens it to what workers at the ice-cream chain Coldstone Creamery do. The key is to know when to stop mixing — a matter of time and temperature. Finally, the chocolate is put into a container, which goes into a machine that keeps it at the proper temperature.
Muret was surprised at how scientific it was and caught on quickly. Apprenticeship programs usually last four years, but after two, Goossens told him he couldn’t teach him anything more.
Muret moved to Illinois in 1984 and started a company with his sister called Le Caraque. They had five employees, and they sold directly to consumers. The chocolate stop was located in Highland Park, about a 20-minute drive from their own kitchen in Glenview.
In 1987, at the New York Fancy Food Fair, a man approached Muret’s booth and asked to taste some chocolate. He ate one piece after the other without saying a word. Annoyed by this, Muret told him he could buy the chocolate if he wanted to. He remembers the man saying “Come see me after” and handing him a business card that read “Tom Fey, CEO of Godiva Chocolatier.”
Muret stayed an extra day after the show to meet with Fey. Godiva was looking for a master chocolatier to lead development of their candies in North America, and Fey had someone relaxed, open-minded and driven by the food in mind. Muret told Fey he wasn’t sure it was the right role for him — he had his own business, after all.
Three days later, Muret accepted. His reason: the prospect of creating freely. In running a business, he was often distracted by shipping, bills, and inventory. With Godiva, he could turn his complete attention to creating the pieces he so loved.
After Muret and his sister closed Le Caraque, Godiva bought all the equipment he used in his store’s kitchen, which he had modeled after Goossens’ own. Muret still uses them to this day.
A sweet career
Muret rose quickly through Godiva, starting out as supervisor of product development and being promoted several times before becoming a global executive chef chocolatier in 2008. He spent up to 21 weeks abroad every year, working from Japan, the Middle East, Shanghai, South Korea. It became his job to learn about the flavor expectations of different populations — and he’s enjoyed the learning process tremendously. At one point, he was a sort of bridge between six different Godiva chefs located in different parts of the world.
Godiva’s Thierry Muret with celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis in 2008 © Seth Browarnik 2008
The company he works for has also undergone several transitions during his tenure. When he started, it was owned by the Campbell’s Soup Co. In 2008, it was bought by Turkish food giant Yildiz Holding for $850 million, and became part of its biscuit and confectionary division, Pladis. In June, Yildiz split Pladis into a separate company that’s expected to list on the London Stock Exchange by 2020. Godiva plans to open nearly 200 stores in mainland China by 2019 and sees sales topping $1 billion for 2017.
Muret isn’t sure exactly what the future holds for him, but hopes to keep building the brand for as long as he can.
“I would love to retire from the company,” he says. “The legacy would just be that I was a little part of this beauty.”