Kate Johns – Interviewed by Cat Black.

October 8, 2013

I talked to the creator of Chocolate Week and Chocolate Unwrapped about her all her chocolate plans.

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  • kate johns portrait

    Cat Black: Hi Kate, I understand that you are bringing Salon du Chocolat to London. How exciting, tell me something about that. 

    Kate Johns: Chocolate Week and Salon du Chocolat have joined forces. So this year Chocolate Week will run as normal and Chocolate Unwrapped will become Salon du Chocolat and be a bigger show. It is really exciting for the industry, because the biggest chocolate show in the world is coming to London.

    CB: It’s massive. I know Salon happens all around the world. My experience of it is Paris, I think that is the biggest show? 

    KJ: Tokyo is also huge for them. Paris gets 135,000 visitors each year so it’s a very big show.

    CB: Do you think London can compete?

    KJ: We have got a fantastic chocolate scene here and we have got the interest, so yes. We’re aiming for 15,000 visitors this year and to build from there.

    CB: Also with you behind it, adding the Chocolate Unwrapped philosophy it could have a really fine chocolate focus. How did it all come about?

    KJ: We have been talking since last October, it has been quite a slow process but now we are somewhere where we both want to be and we are equally excited!

    There will be chocolates of every description.

    There will be chocolates of every description.

    CB: Will the Salon run for three days?

    KJ: We will open on Friday afternoon and then hold a Gala evening on the Friday night with music, cocktails and the fashion show.

    CB: And the venue?

    KJ: It will be at Kensington Olympia.

    CB: So now you have a partnership agreement with Salon du Chocolat, I understand that they they have a local partner within each country where it is held. I can’t wait to come to the first ever Salon du Chocolat London!

    Tell me a bit about your professional background.

    KJ: My professional background is in PR. I started off in the computer games industry. Then the company I worked for was sold and I decided to set up on my own. I thought I would be working in games, but life takes you towards your passions. Despite not having done food pr I started with a restaurant in Soho. Then that led on to food pr. I did some work for Pierre Marcolini when they launched in Kensington. I went over to Brussels and saw their attitude to chocolate, how it wasn’t so seasonal, they buy a little bit every day. I thought we needed to do something to promote fine chocolate in the UK. Green & Blacks was doing all this wonderful advertising about where the cocoa beans come from and percentages and things. There were some fantastic chocolate shops opening up. So the first London Chocolate Week was just four chocolate shops taking part, and it has grown from there.

    CB: When was that?

    KJ: That was nine years ago.

    Truffle rolling with Paul A Young is always hugely popular.

    Truffle rolling with Paul A Young is always hugely popular.

    CB: So this one will be the ninth. What are your other projects?

    KJ: We do the publicity for RAW Natural Wine Festival and for the Cake & Bake Show, which launched last year in London in September, we had another one in Manchester, and then it will be back in London in September at Earl’s Court. That has been phenomenal, it has really taken off.

    CB: It has been huge! How many people are you expecting?

    KJ: 35,000 visitors.

    CB: I better make sure I get my ticket! Will there be any chocolate?

    KJ: Yes there will be chocolate there.  Paul Young is a nudge client and he’s hugely popular with the Cake & Bake Show crowd so he’ll be there doing demonstrations.

    CB: So why chocolate? Partly because you focused on it after that trip to Belgium, and seeing that it had a different place there. Here chocolate has been mostly for Christmas and Easter. 

    KJ: Yes, one of the reasons Chocolate Week is in October is so it isn’t in the expected peak season for chocolate and I wanted to encourage people not to be so seasonal with their chocolate buying. You wanted to know why chocolate? Chocolate is such a special food, it is difficult to even call it a food as it is so much more.

    You will never go hungry at one of Kate's events.

    You will never go hungry at one of Kate’s events.

    CB: Yes, that is a bit like calling wine a drink.

    KJ: It brings out a lot of emotions in people, so it has become one of the most popular foods in the world, certainly in our part of the world. And yet there was nobody in the UK doing anything about it, events and promotions around fine chocolate.

    CB: And right from the beginning, although you said it started with only four participants, it got a great response and grew year on year. 

    KJ: Yes Chocolate Week started with just four in London, but very quickly grew to a nationwide event. We have things going on all over the country. Scotland has a really vibrant chocolate scene at the moment. People like Divine and Hotel Chocolat ensure that it is national because they have events all over the country.

    CB: I have been working with The Curlew restaurant on their chocolate, there is a way for restaurants to take part isn’t there. 

    KJ: We have Chocolate Dessert of the Year. We work with Action Against Hunger. We launched it very small last year, but we are going to do a lot more with it this year because it really worked. Restaurants take part in this by offering their chocolate dessert during Chocolate Week and they donate a pound to the charity for every one that they sell. Then they can enter it at Salon du Chocolat, where it will be judged by pastry chefs and food journalists. There they could win the Chocolate Week Dessert of the Year.

    CB: What and when was the thinking behind Chocolate Unwrapped?

    KJ: People kept asking, and I felt there was definitely a gap in the market for a show. And people couldn’t quite get their head around Chocolate Week, they kept asking where is it? Well it’s all over the country. So there needed to be one focused event. I had been over to Salon du Chocolat, seen how fabulous that event is, and thought we needed something like that here. Yes, there’s definitely space to do that here, the community to do that here, so we have launched it.

    Hotel Chocolat are a great supporter of Chocolate Week.

    Hotel Chocolat are a great supporter of Chocolate Week.

    CB: And up until this year it has been just an independent, stand alone, very focused fine chocolate event. How long has that been going for?

    KJ: Three years. We had two years at Vinopolis, then we had one year at the London Film Museum.

    CB: So this will be the fourth year of Unwrapped, and it is going to be transformed. Last year I was at both, Chocolate Unwrapped and the Salon in Paris, and the Salon wasn’t just bigger, it seemed to have a different remit. How do you see them combining.?

    KJ: It will be a mixture of both. We will have the fashion show, which Salon always has and which is amazing.

    CB: I love some of the mad objects, not just pieces montées, but Salon has a car covered in macarons and things like that.

    KJ: We will definitely be doing that. But also retaining that uniqueness and character that Chocolate Unwrapped has.

    CB: I spent two whole days at Unwrapped last year, I didn’t leave! It took me two days to get round all the stalls because there was such a non-stop programme of demonstrations and talks. I managed most of the talks, and very few of the demonstrations, I couldn’t spread myself thin enough to do all. I would have gone to every single one if I could. But that isn’t really a feature of the Salon. 

    KJ: We are going to carry on with that. We will have a demo room, which is quite a large room. We will carry on with the tasting room. And we are going to carry on with the Chocolate Week Dessert of the Year competition, and the Great Chocolate Cake Off competition where consumers enter their cakes. We will still be doing all of those things. There will be a kid’s area, which we are really excited about. We have always wanted to do that but didn’t have the space for that.

    Fantastically elegant chocolates at Salon du Chocolat Paris.

    Fantastically elegant chocolates at Salon du Chocolat Paris.

    CB: It sounds amazing. So it is going to be like Unwrapped but within the Salon. Will there be some of the same exhibitors, or will it be more UKcentric?

    KJ: It will be a mixture of both. At Chocolate Unwrapped we always get about a quarter international exhibitors. We are very supportive of bean to bar producers, so it will be reflective of that. Lots of French people as well now too. Salon has a lot of international contacts.

    CB: One of the things I thought was wonderful last year was seeing people like Paul A Young and Duffy Sheardown, but also discovering unknown artisans from overseas and seeing them all connecting and getting to know them. Also having the best of the UK and international stars like Friis Holm and Pacari in the same room. 

    KJ: They like that too, it is a chance to get together. We have always tried to find people that people like you won’t know about. We want the bloggers and writers to come along and find someone new. So that you discover something while you are there, it is not just about consumers discovering but the industry too.

    CB: I couldn’t have loved it more, I did spend the entire two days there and was blown away by some of the chocolate that I tasted. Like Friis Holm, whose chocolate is now available at Alexeeva & Jones but at that point wasn’t found anywhere in the UK. It was available at Chocolate Unwrapped, and he was on the stand himself. He also gave a talk, which was pretty special. 

    Tell me about The International Chocolate Awards, that is something that you co-founded. What was the thinking behind that?

    KJ: Martin Christy and I launched the Academy of Chocolate Awards with the Academy six or seven years ago. We got to the stage where we wanted to make it international, to reflect the tastes in different countries. If you have chocolate that you are judging then it is great to do that within that country, with journalists from that country and pastry chefs from that country so that they are truly international. So we conceived it in 2011, and we launched in 2012 in London, Canada, New York and Italy. We had a phenomenal first year in those countries and we are building on that for this year, when we were also in Israel. Next year the plan is to be in a growing country, that is our big aim. It continues to grow, it continues to be really exciting. We get a lot of entries, people get a real kick from it being in their country.

    CB: It also allows for two layers of awards, because there is a local heat, with local awards, and local ceremonies, which creates very significant local recognition. Local makes it sound little, but if that means the whole of Italy that is massive. Then competing on the world stage is the second part of it, the world finals, or in the case of European countries there is also a European semi finals. It allows for local categories and local recognition and then global achievement too. 

    KJ: Exactly, so in Italy for example there is gianduja and the spreads that are very local, very popular there. So it is good that we can reflect that and reward them for that. The International Chocolate Awards have gained a huge amount of credibility already, we have been on the BBC, we have been in Observer Food Monthly, we have been in the New York Times, we have had fantastic coverage really quickly, considering we have been going just over a year.

    Truffles!

    Truffles!

    CB: It is fantastic, and I feel very privileged to have been part of it from the very beginning. 

    KJ: What Martin has achieved on the judging side is just amazing. So much work has gone into it. Which is why it works. The judging forms and system is quite complex behind the scenes, but is actually quite simple for the judges to fill in, it is very clever.

    CB: I was blown away by how rigorous it is, and the whole thing is totally blind, and we are not allowed to discuss or confer on anything. I am at the stage now when inevitably there are things that I know well, and that I particularly care about. But it is actually impossible to influence anything because you watch it go through the selection round with many experts, and you watch it go through the main round judging, which has the purpose of having a more diverse set of palates, people who are food experts but not necessarily chocolate experts. 

    KJ: In the UK there are one hundred judges for that part of it.

    CB: And then the Grand Jury who cannot influence or throw out those findings. And yet through their expertise they are able to ensure that nothing that is really wrong gets through. It has been really exciting. It is also amazing that it is wholly transparent, anyone can look at all the forms online. You can see the way that, as Martin calls it ‘managed subjectivity’, works. You can’t just write a feeling or an opinion. 

    KJ: Yes, there is a lot of guidance. I would love the chocolatiers to do a judging session so they could see how much work has gone into it.

    CB: That would be good. It has rapidly gained deservedly high reputation. 

    You have been involved in this for more than ten years. What have you seen change in that period?

    KJ: When I launched Chocolate Week there were four chocolate shops in London that took part.

    CB: There were probably four chocolate shops in London!

    KJ: Exactly. Since then we have seen a huge amount of chocolate shops open, a lot of creativity and innovation in London and it has spread out to the country. With people like Paul A Young, William Curley and Damian Allsop and the amazing things they achieve. Those guys are so clever that they have really helped to put the UK on the world stage in terms of chocolate.

    Chocolate fondant is one of Kate's favourite puddings, of course.

    Chocolate fondant is one of Kate’s favourite puddings, of course.

    CB: What do you think is going to happen next? Where is it going?

    KJ: I think it is going to feed out more. I think there are going to be a lot more bean to bar makers. There is a lot of that going on in the States and you can see it starting here. That is really exciting. Not knowing who is going to appear, but knowing they are going to appear in the next year or so. Also, more awareness for the farmers. Martin and a whole group of us are very involved in Direct Cacao, which is all about traceability and sourcing and putting the chocolate makers in touch with the growers. So there is some more transparency there in terms of fairness and fairly traded cacao. So that is going to be good for the industry.

    CB: That is going to be essential for the support of fine cacao, which doesn’t always make sense economically at present for the farmer. But also from a selfish point of view, from the point of view of a chocolate lover and writer, the closer you are to source, the closer you are to understanding the beans, the better the final product. If a wine maker just dialled up for grapes, never went near a vine, never tasted different grapes, how would they be able to make decent wine? The closer you get to the soil, the more really stunning chocolates are going to be made. 

    KJ: The more you understand the product you are working with.

    CB: Your company Nudge pr, will be carrying on with RAW and Cake & Bake?

    KJ: Yes very much so, we are growing, we are four people at the moment.. Francois and Sylvie who are behind Salon du Chocolat have a pr company in Paris as well, so there is this great synergy between the two companies.

    CB: Also that means that the London show will get their international focus and publicity. 

    Do you ever get sick of chocolate?

    KJ: No! We have always got a bar open in the office, come 11 o’clock that’s it, we’re discussing what we’re going to open that day.

    CB: What are your favourites?

    KJ: That is difficult! It really depends on how I’m feeling and what I fancy that day. I’m a big fan of dark chocolate but one of my favourite indulgences is Pralus’ Infernale milk bar. You can get it at Wholefoods, you’ll be able to get it at Salon du Chocolat in London! I’m obviously a big fan of Paul a Young’s, my current favourite is his cigar leaf caramel. He has a basil, lime and almond truffle on the collection at the moment that is not only delicious but it’s one of the most beautiful chocolates I’ve ever seen.

    CB: Oh sounds wonderful, I want one now!