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The glamorous life of a chocolatier

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Michael Kibblewhite Michael Kibblewhite | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Imagine starting the day dreaming of chocolate. That’s your job. First up you’re putting the final touches to a perfect tray of cassis and hibiscus truffles, then calmly unleashing alchemy with unlikely combinations like thyme and Scottish heather honey – or Szechuan pepper chocolates. Meet William Curley, he’s the man behind these creations.

William’s been tempering – manipulating chocolate with a calm hand – for years now, initially apprenticing and working in pastry sections in some of the country’s leading restaurants until opening his first small boutique in 2004.  “The patisserie section starts at 6.30am”, say William, “to finish the products for the counter in the shops and Harrods; then the chocolate section starts at 9am.” He’s got nine chefs, but the intricacy of the work requires an eagle eye, and he likes to watch over virtually everything product that will make it to the counter. The production process enables originality – giving each bite-sized item an identity – as Raymond Blanc found out in his Kitchen Secrets programme when he visited William.

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How can you start a career in this industry? "There are opportunities,” says Sara Jane Stanes, head of the Academy of Chocolate. “Rarely has a good chocolatier succeeded in using chocolate alone – understanding pastry is important. But, apprenticeships with chocolatiers and pastry chefs are the best way to learn – NVQ’s are available too.” Sara is often asked about chocolate-only qualifications – these aren’t currently available, but she’s working on the possibility with leading catering colleges. Would you sign up for a course?

The terrain for starting a career seems bright.  “There is a revolution happening.  New-wave chocolatiers are doing amazing things and the public are coming round to the idea of quality”, according to William. Across the country there’s seems to be a hungry generation seeking to define our identity in the chocolate world, shifting attention beyond the big candy sale recently, and into small-scale production.  

A career change, for the more mature, is also a possibility.  “We opened our shop nearly nine years ago and haven’t stopped to catch breath since,” says Claire Burnet who owns a handmade chocolate retail business in Dorset with her husband, Andy. “I got the idea into my head that my palette was good enough for us to set up a chocolate business based on principles that I care very much about: freshness (our ganache chocolates have a shelf life of two weeks), purity and provenance.

Claire and Andy Burnett

Teamwork: Claire and Andy Burnet

"We now employ a core team of 15 local people, and more at key seasonal periods when it’s all hands on deck to get our chocolates made, packed and despatched in time for Christmas.”

Advent is a “manic” time, unsurprisingly, and has started already for her team. “We will be making thousands of chocolates by hand each day and so it can feel a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’ -especially as we are still taking orders until December 18th this year. The logistics are intense, but we’ve been doing this for a few years now, so we know what to expect.”

Claire’s a working mum of two, and besides  making the chocolates has been managing the bigger picture with Andy – “the marketing and PR, leading the product and packaging development, supporting the team and building long term relationships”.

Although she may not have cocoa-covered hands every day, Claire can still feel the warmth of the immediate customer satisfaction – hearing the “wow – which makes all the long hours, missed holidays and self-sacrifice worth it.” Maybe ‘glamorous’ is a bit misleading for describing life as a chocolatier. ‘Rewarding’ may be closer, and that’s no bad thing.

Are you keen to become a chocolatier? Do you think Britain can rival the Continent in making handmade chocolate?

Michael Kibblewhite works for the BBC Food website.

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