Several months after my colleague and good friend, Phyllis Méras, published here her all-inclusive story, “In Search of Belgian Chocolates,” I too traveled to Flanders thanks to the New York office of the Flanders Tourist Board. My assignments were to cover the splendid Egyptian collections at the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels and at the year-old MAS in Antwerp; the annual “Procession of the Holy Blood” and the Fried Potato and Chocolate Museums in Bruges; the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp; and to interview Geert Van Hecke, the first Flemish chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, at his fabulous restaurant “De Karmeliet” in Bruges, already published here; His Excellency André-Joseph Léonard, the Primate of Belgium, in Mechelen; and last, but not least, two of the many chocolatiers mentioned by Phyllis: Laurent Gerbaud in Brussels and Dominique Persoone in Bruges. I consider these two interviews as appendices to Phyllis’s story.
text © 2012
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of food?
LG: I come from a family of pastry chefs and bakers so my first memories of food are of pastries and chocolates. My mother’s father, Joseph Charlier, was the pastry chef. His family had been bakers and pastry chefs for several generations. His shop was in Uccle, south of Brussels, where I live now. He did baking and pastries, but chocolate only at Christmas and Easter. Originally my grandfather’s family had been farmers. Then they started making bread for themselves, then more and more bread for themselves and for the village, and then for the surrounding villages. They were a large family; most of my grandfather’s uncles, aunts, and cousins were also bakers and pastry chefs. From Uccle to Waterloo there was a long red line of pastry chefs from this family.
Are you the last one?
LG: That’s a funny story. I have some distant cousins who are still bakers and pastry chefs, but among my closest relatives, no. My grandfather did NOT want his children to remain bakers. It’s a very tough job. You have to work at night and stand up all the time. He wanted his children to go to university. When my grandfather retired his knees were shot, so he forbade my uncles to keep the business. As for my mother and my aunt, he even forbade them to attend the annual ball for pastry chefs so they wouldn’t fall in love and marry one.
Why did you decide to become a chocolatier?
LG: I went to university. I have a two-year degree in law and one full degree in medieval history, but I was always cooking for school friends, for my girlfriends, for my two younger sisters, Julie and Muriel, catering parties. I loved it. My friends were constantly asking: “Well, why don’t you open a restaurant?” or “Why don’t you go to cooking school and become a chef?” I decided to make sculptures out of chocolate with my childhood friend Serge Finschi, who also loved to cook, so for this I had to study chocolate. At the start of this project I was finishing up university so I enrolled in an apprenticeship at a catering and hotel school in Andrelecht, a municipality of Brussels. The school was called “CERIA.” I had to study baking, pastry making in addition to chocolate making. Chocolate making was considered a third aspect of making desserts. When I went to “CERIA,” chocolate making was considered a secondary subject. Not anymore! You can go and start immediately with chocolate and study only that.
So you didn’t open a restaurant?
LG: No, but I’m often asked by restaurants, hotels or resorts to prepare a chocolate menu where I use cocoa beans, chocolate powder, as well as chocolate, candied fruits like ginger, bergamot, and orange peel, and dried fruits like hazel nuts from Piemonte, salted pistachios, and Persian cranberries.
Why did you decide to concentrate more on chocolate and not food?
LG: Because I really enjoyed my apprenticeship with French-born Frank Duval at his funky store “Planète Chocolat,” now at Rue du Lombard 24 here in Brussels.
You said that now you are the only chocolatier in the family?
LG: Yes, but one of my cousins is studying to be a baker now. So you see we can’t escape. Making sweets is in our DNA.
If you had a child, would you want him or her to be a chocolatier?
LG: Not necessarily. I would want my child to do a profession of choice, whatever he or she is good at and loves. My parents were very open. They let me study law, medieval history, and now chocolate making.
What are the steps for becoming a chocolatier? Do you do internships like potential young chefs?
LG: It’s similar to becoming a chef, learning the basics of chocolate production and taking off from there. With Duval I didn’t study marketing and sales. I loved working alone making the fillings, inventing recipes, and experimenting. Sometimes my inventions were good; other times I had to throw them out. That’s why I’ve continued because I really liked working alone in the workshop and creating my own chocolates. Duval would give me the key so I could experiment on weekends and at night. His shop then was on Rue du Midi. Duval was definitely my mentor. In France he’d first made goat cheese and goose liver in the Dordogne near Neuvic. Then he met a Belgian girl and moved to Brussels where he trained with the very famous pastry chef Christian Nihoul. He started making his chocolates there before opening his shop, where I worked.
What did you learn from Duval?
LG: Duval was and still is an artist. From him I learned to have an artistic view of my product, to make something that you otherwise would not find on the market, to keep an open mind to new tastes, and keep up to date with new techniques and technology. You must keep updating your artistic touch; otherwise you will get stale and consequently only worry about how many kilos of chocolates you can produce in an hour and not about searching for new shapes, flavors, and fillings. In the ‘90s Duval was already far more advanced than his colleagues and it was a great experience to work with him.
You spent a prolonged stay in China, how long?
LG: Yes, I spent two years in China. My first idea was to open a chocolate factory or shop there, in Shanghai. I had a Chinese friend who was an artist who designed the symbol on my business card. I traveled a lot around China, but I had an apartment in Shanghai. I held chocolate-making workshops there. It was completely illegal; I had no license. I started to make chocolates for ex-pats. Slowly I lost my taste for sweets because there was no sugar in the chocolates there. Actually there was no chocolate then in China and there were no sugary sweets in the cuisine. When I came back to Belgium I couldn’t stand the taste of chocolate; it was too sweet, too much fat, too much alcohol. So I started making chocolates the way I had made them in China with nuts and dried fruits.
LG: It was really by chance. When I was a teenager, I went to ski in France and I met a guy from Taiwan around my age, and a girl from France; they were speaking Chinese to each other. I found them fascinating because I love learning other languages. We became friends. The Taiwanese lived in Paris where I visited his family who were wonderful to me. They practically adopted me, even if usually the Chinese are reserved. I became fascinated by Chinese culture.
Do you speak Mandarin?
LG: Yes, I took evening courses here in Brussels. Besides my university studies, I often took evening courses in subjects that interested me: pastry and chocolate making, Chinese, Hebrew…
So did you go to China to study?
LG: No, I wanted to see Shanghai. I had a very romantic, stupid, naive conception of the city, the way it had been in the 1930s. At first I was shocked and disappointed it wasn’t that way anymore — for example, there is no romantic river, which has been replaced by a huge industrial harbor — -but I grew to love it for its energy, its non-stop activity. Sadly, I was there too early. At that time there was no market for chocolate, so I had to come back to Belgium.
What did you learn in China?
LG: To be on my own completely, to manage my finances, to set up a business, to make chocolate without sugar and to package and sell it.
What does the red seal on your business card mean?
LG: Chocolate in Chinese and the LG for my initials.
What are the essential qualities of a top chocolatier?
LG: To love your job and constantly improve your knowledge of your ingredients. What you have now in the industry are people buying more and more ready-made mixes; then they add water or milk, stir it and have their recipe. You need to go back to the basics, to the ingredients, to know their quality, their origin, and how to process them.
What about the chocolate?
LG: You must go back to the beans, their different qualities, and their best suppliers. Otherwise you are just somebody who assembles and puts things together. You don’t create anything. You buy a mix of nuts made by one company and you mix it with chocolate you’ve bought from another company. So what is your job? Nothing, just assemblage. I’m not yet processing from the beans because it’s too expensive, but it’s something I want to do. For the moment I work with Domori headquartered in None near Turin in Italy. They are the best manufacturers, suppliers of chocolate. They process only the aromatic beans like the criollos and trinitarios. I buy their chocolate in blocks. I use almost exclusively dark chocolate from Madagascar, Peru, and Ecuador. My chocolates are genuine. They contain no additives. They have the pure intense taste of their ingredients. I’m not fond of fusion-style chocolates. They are really boring. You cannot taste the ingredients. I believe in one fruit or one spice per chocolate.
How would you define your style?
LG: It’s written here on this wall poster and is in English too as a motto: no added sugar, no alcohol, no butter, no additives, no preservatives, but full of love…
What do you like best about your work?
LG: Everything. The whole process. I like the idea of proceeding from one step to another. However, the most exciting aspect is discovering a new product so I can create a new chocolate. I also like selling, marketing, packaging, running the store, public relations… I do only what I like. When I’m developing a new product, my only guide is my personal taste.
LG: The paperwork, the administration. I’m too messy. Never give me a letter to mail for you.
What zodiac sign are you?
LG: Taurus. I’m stubborn.
What are your signature chocolates?
LG: The ones with roasted cocoa nibs or with dried apricot fillings. The apricot one is my favorites. I also like the one filled with yuzu, a rare citrus from near Kyoto. It’s like a peppery grapefruit with a tang or zest, or with Persian cranberries, or with Physalis or Passion fruit, little orange balls with dried yellow leaves from Ecuador. The three best sellers are the pralinés “Gare aux Noisettes,” truffles, and the one with candied ginger filling. My hazelnuts are from Piemonte in Italy. They are called “Tonda Gentile” from the Langhe region of Piemonte. They are the best in the world.
Where can you buy your chocolate outside this shop?
LG: Only here. I ship a little bit. I used to do it more to Germany and to the UK. When I opened this shop, I was too busy and had to reduce my shipping, but now I can start to export again, slowly but surely.
What are the reasons for your success?
LG: I’m not sure you would call me “successful” yet. I’m happy with the chocolates I make, and the public is more and more interested in them. Since I’ve had the shop, I’ve been reborn. It’s like a second life. It’s like starting again from zero. For eight years I just produced and distributed my chocolates to shops. I had no outlet, no shop. Nobody saw me. Now I even give workshops here several times a week, always by appointment, usually for groups of a minimum of ten and a maximum of 15 or 20.
Other Belgian chocolatiers that you admire?
LG: That’s tricky. I’d prefer not to answer. I might forget someone.
Non-Belgian chocolatiers that you admire?
LG: There’s a Frenchman I really admire: Patrick Roger. He has several boutiques in and around Paris. He just opened a namesake boutique near here at Place de Grand Sablon 43. He is particularly famous for his chocolate sculptures. He invited me to visit his workshop in Paris last December. He makes everything from scratch just like I do, but ten times as much. He produces fifty tons of chocolates a year, fully handmade. The quality is amazing! He starts from the raw materials. For example, for his marzipan, he starts from the almonds. He doesn’t buy his marzipan from a factory. He roasts and crushes the almonds himself. He makes pralinés the same way by roasting and crushing the hazelnuts himself.
Is there a guide book to Belgian chocolates?
LG: Yes, there is one published by Le Petit Fûté, the French equivalent to Lonely Planet. I know it’s been translated into English and is probably available on Amazon.
Up to now you’ve told me about Laurent Gerbaud the chocolatier; I’d like to know more about Laurent Gerbaud the person. For example, what are your favorite foods?
LG: I love Japanese and Italian cuisine. I am very good at “do-it-yourself,” “improvised” cuisine. I love cheese actually with a glass of good wine. I’m not very complicated.
A favorite chocolate?
LG: As I told you, the one with my apricot filling, because of its acidity.
A dish you dislike?
LG: I’m allergic to nuts if they are not cooked. I can stop breathing. I’m also allergic to some fresh fruits: figs, kiwis, peaches, apricots. Chocolate doesn’t help because it weakens your immune system.
I don’t like eel or salsifis, a root vegetable that looks like cassava and tastes like parsnips. Luckily people don’t eat it anymore.
A chocolate you don’t like?
LG: Very sweet or white chocolate. I am not very fond of Belgian pralinés. I prefer pure chocolate bars made directly from the beans by my colleagues like Pacari in Ecuador and Stéphane Bonnat in Paris and, of course my supplier Domori.
Your favorite wines?
LG: To drink with chocolate I recommend a cherry wine from Roisin here in Belgium. The combination is superb thanks to the Pinot noir flavor that evokes Irancy Burgundy.
Your favorite dessert?
LG: Fruit sorbets, especially those made with citrus fruits.
A dessert you don’t like?
LG: I don’t like chocolate desserts. They are too heavy.
Your favorite spice?
LG: Black pepper from Madagascar; it’s very aromatic, but not too spicy. I also use it in my chocolates. I also make my own mix of spices.
Your favorite color, flower?
LG: I always wear simple colors, a pair of jeans and a white shirt. Never stripes. I am very classic. My favorite flowers are peonies.
Do you have a favorite artist?
LG: Patrick Villas. I do not know him personally, but I really admire his animal sculptures: www.villas.be. He was born in 1961 and lives in Antwerp. He is not the friend I talked about with whom I made chocolate sculpture. My friend’s name is Serge Finschi; I have known him since kindergarten.
A favorite animal?
Chefs are well known for having collections, often of motorcycles, fast cars, or watches; what about you?
LG: I don’t have enough money now to have a collection. All my money is invested in this shop, here at Rue Ravenstein 2D, which I opened in 2009. Its hours are from 10:30 AM to 7:30 PM seven days a week. I have to pay the bills.
I like old cars and watches, even if I don’t wear one. I have a small collection of paintings and sculpture. I just buy what I like, mostly animal sculptures from my friend with whom I started to sculpt chocolate. I buy them in installments.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
LG: I like sailing. I love to go to Brittany and the Belgian coast. I would love to do solo sailing and I’m gaining experience every year with courses at “Les Glénans,” a French sailing school.
So your hobby is sailing?
If you hadn’t become a chocolatier, what profession would you have chosen, a lawyer or a professor?
LG: No, never. I’m a very bad teacher; I have no patience. My poor apprentices and co-workers here, they have a difficult time. I’m very hard on them. To make good chocolates you must always be focused on the product and the result you want. You cannot be distracted. No matter what I would have done something connected to food. I’m not sure what, maybe a chef, but the hours are too long.
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