June 19, 2012
Wisdom and energy from the James Beard Foundation 2012 Award winning chef, and author of The New Taste of Chocolate.
As documented in my account of taking to the judges chair for the International Chocolate Awards 2012, I first met Maricel across a table of samples ready for tasting. What I knew was this, that she was an internationally renowned and celebrated chef, that she was the writer of the The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2009], a book which redefined our knowledge of chocolate and put the focus squarely on the bean. And that she was a Grand Jury member of the new, and singularly focused, International Chocolate Awards. An intimidating enough CV to leave me a little anxious on that first day. I had already in principle agreed an interview slot with her, but I was to be judging alongside her, and felt that was the tougher call.
What I had not known was what a thoroughly fabulous woman she would be, all curve and giggle, wide eyes, the sweep of a tomato coloured shawl and a soft Cuban-American lilt, adding up to a much fuller picture than just her wit, determination and considerable smarts. It was huge fun hanging out with her, and an absolute whirlwind. Despite flying in from New York for the proceedings she was the one nipping to Borough Market for a catch up with some Venezuelan friends and to sample some delicacies at Brindisa. She was the one rocking the joint until 2am at the after party of The Guild of Food Writer’s Annual Awards Ceremony with the runners and riders. And she was the one toting about a draft of her soon-to-be published tome Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America (WW. Norton, October 2012), which she turned her attention to proof reading at any spare moment in the week. I think she must have been surviving on a couple of hours a night! I would give my eye teeth for half of that drive and positivity, if I could bottle it I would rapidly have my first million.
She had me pegged from the outset as an “emotional taster” and I think maybe due to that, or the fact that our palates were pretty much in sync, I was given the full benefit of her charm and wisdom. Her curiosity for her fellow judges thoughts and responses was genuine, and her analysis of the chocolates was a lesson in history, biology, culture and fashion. Having grown up with cocoa all around and as a universal ingredient, not just a component of sweets, her love of chocolate is passionate, and her concern about increasing knowledge of this misunderstood bean has lead to her extensive and pioneering written work on the subject. Her first career was that of professor of Medieval History, which means she brings a scrutiny and desire for the background story to every recipe or discussion, and is a fascinating companion. Her hopes and ambitions for The International Chocolate Awards are great, and she has been among those who have created in it a thing of excellence.
Brilliance and bonhomie! Sharp as a die and yet ready with a hug and a wink! The Chocolate cause is in fine and powerful hands. I for one can’t wait until she next blows into town. But I had better get to work on my stamina!