February 12, 2013
In the beautiful surroundings of Rococo’s Motcomb Street café I was enchanted by Chantal’s story and vision for the future.
Cat Black: Rococo has always had a very strong beautiful visual style. I love it. How did that come about?
Chantal Coady: My background is in design, I studied textiles and fashion at Camberwell. I was never that much into the fashion bit so I opted to do photography and print-making. It was fabulous, I loved that. Possibly, if I was to rewrite my life, I might have done graphics.
It actually took a few years to settle on the blue and white thing for Rococo. We started off in that punk, nouveau romantic thing of lots of cherubs and lots of pink involved, slightly cheesy styling, but quite rococo in a way. Then I went over to this very austere, black and white, very beautiful 18th Century design, which I had taken from an old book, and turned into a repeating design. Then someone came in with the catalogue L’Etangs Fils which is a 19th Century chocolate mould maker from Paris. I just took all the images I really liked, photocopied them, trimmed off extraneous bits and stuck them together to make a random repeating pattern. It was just crystallized in ten minutes.
CB: You were starting out as a visual artist. But were you a great foodie?
CC: Always! My whole family are great foodies. Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden, they were the triumvirate for my parents.
CB: What was the catalyst to start working in food, and was it always chocolate?
CC: I was always very into chocolate. I got a Saturday job in Harrods selling chocolate when I was a student. I was talking about that the other day, Saturday jobs don’t seem to exist any more. It was like a dream to be paid to go and sell chocolate.
CB: So you were selling other people’s chocolate, and fell in love with it. At what point did you decide to do it yourself?
CC: Well very early on in the whole experience I could see that there was no love going into it at all. Chocolate is such an emotional subject, and if you can’t bring that into the experience then you are just missing out about 90% of it. That was where I was coming from on it. That sounds quite contemporary, and at the time no one spoke in that language, but I could just feel that transaction was very empty.
CB: Your feelings have succeeded in translating into a chocolate business that is utterly unique, it has so much soul and has stayed the course. I was aware of Rococo since it opened in 1983. I still remember it although I was just a kid.
CC: We are doing an archive as we are about to have our 30th anniversary next year. I am digging out old pictures of some of the things we were selling and some of the displays. Even then there were some fantastic things. We didn’t have the range we have got now, but it always looked beautiful and tempting.
CB: You have seen the industry grow since way back when you were a student. Can you say how it has changed in that time?
CC: It is massive. I think the last ten years have seen the huge shift. We have people like Paul A Young and William Curley and those people who are essentially very skilled pastry chefs, people who have decided that life might be a bit nicer as a chocolatier. They say patisserie is the worst job in any kitchen, because you are there first and you are out last.
CB: That’s true.
CC: Some of them are there at 8am or earlier, and they are there til 2am!
CB: When I interviewed William he was saying how the restaurant where he started, a small town place, was quite happy to let him do the pastry, that it was regarded as the lowest. And yet it is the discipline that many major chefs cannot do. It is the most precise and requires some of the greatest skills.
CC: It has been wonderful to see what they are doing and have awareness of chocolate spread around. And each one is gently nudging the other ones along. You can’t afford to be complacent, you have to raise your own game.
CB: Each one is so distinct.
CC: I think from that point of view London has become the chocolate capital of the world. That might sound weird, of course there are great people in Paris, but they are all doing similar things.
CB: There is a very refined style and apart from a few exceptions it has relatively little variation.
CC: It is very conservative.
CB: The chocolatiers here are wildly different from each other. I think it is very exciting.
CC: And fun! It has got to be fun. The British generally are a bit irreverent and will give things different interpretations, whether that is chefs, or chocolate or fashion. We are very good at being eccentric and individual and quirky, and hopefully not take ourselves too seriously.
CB: Where do you think things are going now? You have a connection with Mott Green (of the Grenada Chocolate Company) don’t you?
CC: We do, to the extent that we have a little cocoa farm together, that we have invested in as 50/50 partners. We have been supporting The Grenada Chocolate Company for about ten years, roughly from when they started. They sent us their first bar of chocolate that they thought was ready to go out into the big world, and it arrived on my desk in an anonymous brown box. Looking back, it was one of those life-changing moments. At the time I was a bit bemused. Where did the chocolate come from? I opened it up and there were a couple of bars, and I think a packet of Smilo.
CB: What is that?
CC: Their cocoa powder. This was the result of the famous story about Maurice Bishop, who was saying that Grenada should be self supporting, not importing stuff. And Milo (a chocolate drink made by Nestle) is one of the big things they import. He was saying “We don’t want Milo we want Smilo!” So Mott took that on and has made it. He is known as Smilo on the island, when he is driving along the road people call out “Smilo!” or “Chocolate Man!”.
CB: You have been very material to it all happening.
CC: I hope so. It has been a really important two-way relationship and conversation. We have helped them technically with the taste profile of the chocolate, they taught us how important it is to have that kind of engagement with the farmers and the chocolate makers. It is absolutely a revolutionary and radical model of farming and chocolate production, which just turns all convention on its head. It is so beautiful in that respect. It is also so technically challenging to make chocolate in the tropics, because there is everything you don’t really want when you make chocolate: incredible heat and the humidity.
CB: Hopefully there will be more examples like that.
CC: Absolutely, I think so. Fairtrade is a wonderful idea, but it has got a long way to go before it really makes a difference to people’s lives. Going back to Maurice Bishop, when it comes to little Caribbean islands, which do have other economies operating on them, if you were growing up on Grenada, would you want to be a farmer? Globally we have a problem of ageing farmers. The average age of a cocoa farmer in Africa is about seventy, and they are not being replaced. It is not a glamorous job and there is very little reward. Personally I would love to do something to affect a quantum shift on that. Perhaps so kids could go to the agriculture colleges and learn not only about the agriculture but also learn about record keeping, IT, Twitter, Facebook, communications in the real world. Those things could just change everyone’s lives.
CB: If everyone was connected then the young wouldn’t see it as a thing of the past.
CC: I think we need to help bring about an understanding that this is their future!
CB: You have made a bar with The Grenada Chocolate Company.
CC: Yes we have. You must taste it. It is one of my proudest moments, a single estate, single origin from our own cocoa farm. It doesn’t have any vanilla in it, because we just wanted the cocoa to shine through. It is a 66% and is called after the farm; Grococo. We are retailing it for £11.95, the money is going back to the farm in Grenada. We just want people to start thinking about paying more for chocolate. It was shipped across from Grenada on a boat so there is an amazing story there too.
CB: Would that Gru Grococo bar be your desert island chocolate?
CC: Yes it probably would be.
CB: Does Rococo have any other plans? You have always written about chocolate, but I imagine you are being asked more and more for personal appearances and talks.
CC: Yes, and I probably need to do some TV, which hasn’t really been done properly yet. I am talking to a few people about that. The other thing we want to do is to narrow down what we do a little bit. When we did the last stock take there were over 500 different lines. That is out of control!
CB: I imagine that is impossible to sustain.
CC: It is. We need to concentrate on what our core strengths are and then be a bit ruthless. We will upset a few people. You have the cream on the top, the award winners, which make a lot of noise. But there are the things that really make money, they need to be concentrated on too. It is a case of constantly refining and perfecting. I think that I am quite good at embracing change.
CB: You would not have survived and thrived and remained at the forefront of an industry that has altered all around you, if you hadn’t been able to change and stay a step ahead.