May 15, 2012
Damian Allsop is one of the countries top chocolatiers, creator and pioneer of the use of water-based ganaches.
Cat Black: Tell me a bit about your background before you specialised in chocolate.
Damian Allsop: I am a pastry chef by trade, so I lived the pastry chef life for 25 years. I trained as a chef until I was 18. At 18 I went into my first Michelin starred restaurant, which was Walton’s of Walton Street.
CB: Wow! At age 18, showing early promise!
DA: That was really the first place I saw obsession and consuming passion. And I started to absorb that, and get into it. After a year there, I had gone round the starters, the main course, the fish, the sauces, and there was a gap on the pastry. I couldn’t remember how to make a sweet pastry. If you had said; make me a custard now, I wouldn’t have been able to. But I said, yeah I’ll do pastry, and that was it really.
CB: Was it very immediate?
DA: Yes, just the play, the formulations, the structure, the way things are put together. You know I used to deconstruct engines when I was growing up, as a hobby. My stepfather’s hobby was vintage stationary engines. We used to break them down, put them back together and exhibit them at the weekends. So I was mechanically minded.
CB: You have worked through a very high number of Michelin starred kitchens, for some amazing people.
DA: Yes, when I put my CV down it is quite impressive. But as I was there I didn’t think of it like that. A lot of places I walked out of, because that is not what I wanted, although that sounds very egotistical.
CB: So you were learning, but you were also still searching for something.
DA: There is always something to learn. But although I was open there wasn’t enough for me, or I would have stayed in these places. I walked out of Joel Robuchon’s, I walked out of Mark Veyrat’s, places with 3 Michelin stars. You don’t do that. But I was quite happy to do it, and I would do it again, because that wasn’t what I was looking for at the time. I move on passion, I want to do an amazing thing, and if I’m not doing it I don’t stay. That doesn’t mean I have to do all the fancy stuff, I am not saying that, I’d clean the floor, I’d sleep in the dry stores, it’s hard work and gritty. But I wanted to be doing something that was fulfilling and answering something in me. And it just wasn’t hitting those notes.
CB: Being in pastry you must have done a lot with chocolate. Do you remember at which point and why you decided to specialise in chocolate?
DA: I knew that I was starting to change when I visited Amedei. This is my classic story, I came back, put that chocolate in a mousse recipe and it didn’t taste the same.
CB: You visited Amedei in Italy?
DA: They flew me out, with Claire Clark, Sara Jayne-Stanes, John Williams from the Ritz, Terry Laybourne, there were about seven of us. We were the first ones from the UK to go out there and taste the chocolate, and we were taught and educated about fine chocolate. Up until then nobody knew what fine chocolate was about. Amedei started that. Valrhona had paved the way, but none of us had tasted chocolates like this.
CB: First tasting Amedei was also my light-bulb moment.
DA: So putting that into a classic mousse recipe, it lost the acidity, it lost the fruit notes, it lost all of that. It was then that I realised I need to change the way I work. I had destroyed this product that I had just spent £20 a kilo on, which is over double what Valrhona was. So it was a massive investment, and a massive psychological thing for a chef to buy it and justify that. But then it is up there with truffles and those other fine foods. So I began working on trying to make a water-based chocolate mousse, trying getting that texture, the mouth feel, a functional recipe that I could use, deep freeze, defrost, that could work in a restaurant, not just something that collapses after five minutes. In doing that I was already on the road to where I am now.
CB: You were focusing on the chocolate and then your focus got tighter and tighter.
DA: It made me understand flavour, it made me understand recipes. It made me understand the ego of a dish. And it made me understand how a recipe works. I had been working a bit on adjusting recipes before, but now I had to construct one from scratch.
CB: What do you think has happened in the chocolate market since then?
DA: There are two ways to look at it, as a professional working in the industry or as a consumer. I’ve got a nice view of both of them. On the professional side it has changed massively. I am trying to think back, when I was young, watching people come to talk about chocolate and temper chocolate, and the technical things. Obviously I used to be amazed, blown away, and now I am there doing that for the next set of people. I do feel it is different now because we are working more with flavour. The way we talk about, and the way we look at it, the flavour of chocolate has changed.
CB: Also there are new things coming out, and new flavours and makers who bring different tastes to the fore. It feels to me it is ever expanding.
DA: That’s right. That is the fundamental part. The reason for change is because somebody has made something better and brought it to the table and it has made other people, not just me, rethink and question. Ferran (Adria of El Bulli) did that with his techniques and his food. He was definitely a major catalyst for everyone to stop thinking traditionally. That to break things down and come at them from different angles is okay. Whereas before you had to be a purist chef and to do it like so, or you were mass-produced and the two worlds didn’t meet.
That was the way the professional world worked. That has changed, it has changed the way we present things, the way we question things. It has given every chef a whole load of new things that they can use, in order to create a dish; new reasons, new justifications, new ingredients, new textures, new ways of delivering flavour.
CB: So if you were a top chef you would do something because it was a rarefied technique, as oppose to because it was the most delicious thing.
DA: 15 years ago, yes I did. But I have changed. I have matured. You have to have a reason to make a dish. In Spain and France, they make dishes because something is in season, that’s the reason. Nothing else. It’s in season, it’s there and it’s beautiful. They are driven by the product. I have absorbed that mentality and take it on as a way of life.
CB: As someone who is selling chocolate, how do you see the consumer changing?
DA: It is going the same way as wine, is the simple answer. As people travel, educate themselves, or simply taste something amazing, they naturally seek out better products. Remember 15/ 20 years ago we were drinking Blue Nun And Leibfraumilcb by the 5L cartons! Now look at where wine is. Of course there is still bad wine, knowledge doesn’t eradicate that. It just makes us aware and gives us an informed choice and creates a high end market.
CB: It also, happily for producers of fine produce, expands the price brackets.
DA: They certainly move, yes. But the profit doesn’t as it is harder and more expensive to produce a quality product.
CB: So you can still buy a bottle of plonk, but there is understanding that there will be some more expensive ones. At the moment people are protesting at chocolate being really expensive if it is artisan made.
DA: This is nothing to what it could be. Take wine, you can get a £150,000 bottle of wine, and what is the most expensive bar? Ten pounds? But it is a different product, it is not wine, it doesn’t age like wine, it has things against it. But it is similar in understanding quality.
CB: And it needs to be expensive enough to support the farmer’s and correctly pay the artisan who has worked on it.
DA: Yes, if that money does go there. It needs to be more expensive because the people who do put their hands on it put a lot more hands on it. If you have got to sort beans out, one mouldy bean in a bag will turn the lot. It is very easy to get a mouldy bean when you have got moisture involved and heat and lots of bacterial activity, it is tricky. We buy chocolate that pays the farmer 6 times more than the Fairtrade equivalent. I am aware it is not just about the price. Expensive doesn’t necessarily equal quality. Most chocolate is now a bit more expensive, transport costs have gone up, everything has gone up. But there are a lot of institutions like Fairtrade and Organic labels that function as middle barriers. In theory they try and give the workers a better life, but they don’t necessarily work. The alternative to them is education, and a direct route to market; Direct Cacao. We need proof that these people are having a fairer life. We can’t keep on with the same old false promises.
CB: I also meant that not only the farmer needs to be paid enough, but the great small chocolate maker, who has taken time to make a wonderful product, and then someone like you who has done something beautiful with that chocolate. That then, at the end of that chain, people can’t expect it to be the price of a Kit Kat.
DA: There has got to be this understanding, and this is where education comes in. We have it with wine. There are wine tastings, wine clubs that support that end of the market. And we still also have a mass market in wine, selling mass-produced stuff. We need that middle market, we need that every day. You couldn’t possibly eat 3 Michelin-starred food every day, you’d be sick!
CB: Yes you need the knowledge to choose what you would want everyday, and that there is more special stuff that you might choose for a special occasion.
Have you always been a foodie? You have clearly been cooking at a high level for a long time, but do you come from a foodie background?
DA: No, my Mum’s one of the worst cooks I know. I have told her. She makes good roast potatoes now though. So no, I didn’t grow up on good food.
CB: So why did you choose to go to catering college then?
DA: I started when I was school. I was looking at mechanical engineering as a profession. But I was working part time in a restaurant while at school, doing the washing up, and then on to the salads, then I was on the grill, and I loved it. They saw I could handle a grill at 15. This company, who owned the place where I was working, had an apprenticeship scheme they were developing, which had different levels. Bentley’s in Swallow Street was the top, a seafood restaurant, and it went down to MacArthur’s, which was the burger restaurant where I was working up in Wimbledon Village. So I did that. It was like school drop outs on this apprenticeship scheme. I walked it, so they said I could go in the top restaurant. I’d never eaten fish in my life, apart from fish and chips, which really doesn’t count. I don’t like the taste of seafood, I don’t like the taste of fish. But I was in there.
CB: You don’t like the taste of fish now?
DA: I do now, I have adapted to it.
CB: Thinking about palate. How do you see your relationship with chocolate now, is it still developing?
DA: It is constantly developing, your palate constantly adjusts. We are in an interesting place now, where we are making things with the best chocolate in the world. That is a very easy statement to make; we do the best this and do the best that. But we can pretty much say that we are working with some of the best chocolate in the world, which is a privileged position. The whole industry is changing and there is loads to learn, to absorb. To increase our understanding of fermentation, of what makes the flavours of chocolate. I am really getting into this now, as I am writing my book, I am trying to quantify that; to explain that clearly. What we are writing down now, and Martin Christy is up there with this and has taught and inspired me, hasn’t been written before because people haven’t been focusing on it.
CB: I don’t think people have been using that vocabulary around chocolate. I don’t think people have been experiencing those things in order to articulate them.
DA: Some people have been looking at this and, as always, we build on what we have. It’s because of the work done before that we can reach where we are now.
I could say right now that we are tasting the best chocolate experience that has ever been made, in history. I would say that pretty confidently because of the mechanical techniques, smoothing it out, so the particle sizes are smaller than the holes in our tongue. They wouldn’t have been able to do that without current machinery. But as far as good flavour is concerned, people would have had prime plantations. We are humans, so they would have had levels of hierarchy. And the emperor Montezuma (and the elite) would have had the best. So I think people have tasted good chocolate before. We will have had some good wine before; but we have only been able to explain it and control the production for the last hundred and fifty years due to scientific understanding.
CB: When people start to articulate something then they start to experiment and refine it. Once you start to examine things you have the drive to do them differently.
DA: Whereas before it was; this is it, eat it.
CB: What new things are you making?
DA: Well we are launching our flavoured bars. We have got a concept we have developed called Eat London. It is a celebration of cultural diversity, looking positively and inclusively at cultural diversity. So that is our next major project, and that will be followed up with an afternoon tea of the same concept, at the Wyndham Grand in Chelsea. There are fifteen million things after that! We are looking at distribution in Tokyo for next February. And I’d love a shop…!
CB: What is your desert island chocolate and why?
DA: Can I say that I don’t like top tens and bests of. Again not wanting to do what everybody else does. Right now I enjoy about 6 or 7 chocolates. And I am sure if I set out to I could find more. So it is not fair for me to say. I like beautiful chocolate. There are many small independent companies that are making wonderful flavour journeys. There are not many big companies making great flavour journeys. We have got to look at and decide what we want at a given time of day. We can say Amano is there, in order to fire off names. But there are quite a few of them. And there are more people that I haven’t tasted yet. I would be doing them a disservice by saying one of them is the best.
CB: Understood. The reason that I have asked that, and included the Desert Island Chocolate feature on my blog, is that there are so many types of chocolate. I want to celebrate that diversity. It is not to be exclusive, it is not meant to be just about brands. I have asked a lot of people, from Michel Roux, to the founder of GU. It gives people coming to this for the first time something quick to read, that might intrigue, and start them thinking that they might like to try this or that.
DA: Okay, well you can put Amano Madagascan. We are the only people in England to have that as a wholesale product. It is a collaboration, because of its complexity. We are saving that to work with Marcus Wareing, it is going to be in his restaurant. The water ganache of that chocolate is the best I have done so far. Obviously I didn’t make the chocolate, but as a pure chocolate, as a 70%, the flavour journey it gives, it makes us rethink what our chocolate is. If I had to give one example to someone, as a taste test to tell them about dark chocolate, I would give them that. It shatters any preconceived ideas about what chocolate is.
But ask me next week and I will have a different answer.