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One day with ... chocolatier Louis Barnett

by Emma Tracey

15th December 2008

When the opportunity arose to spend a day with interesting disabled people in their own surrounds, my coat was on and the photographer booked in record time. Off I went to Shropshire to meet Louis Barnett.

At 17 years old, Louis is an established and successful chocolate maker, with a burgeoning conservation campaign and much more besides. He has dyslexia and dyspraxia too, making him something of a role model for younger disabled peole.
Louis Barnett
As I arrived at a small, sweet smelling unit on an industrial estate in Bridgnorth (blindie perspective only, perhaps), I was greeted warmly by Louis himself, who handed me a white coat and hairnet. As I donned the not-so-glamorous gear, our host told us about the humble beginnings of his business, Chokolit.

"We started in the kitchen in 2005, making chocolates for family and friends. Then we began selling to delis and restaurants, so we had to move everything to the garage for more space. When both Waitrose and Sainsbury's made me a listed supplier, and we were looking at a 65,000 product order, we got this building, which we moved into in August last year."
Click here for a photo slideshow of Emma's day with Louis

The building Louis mentions is no less than a bespoke production facility, with the food unit on the ground floor and an office upstairs. Working in the production area is his mum Mary and a bloke called Dave, who used to work in a Sainsbury's bakery. Louis’s dad Phil and ex-home tutor Jan work in the office. According to Louis, there's no leader: "Everyone's roles change daily, and everybody knows what's going on".
Louis and Emma before entering the production area
Louis's trademark products are all edible: chocolate boxes, bags and Champagne flutes you can actually drink out of - surely a heavenly place to work! But dreams and choc love aside, he knows more than anyone could ever need to about the properties of the magical substance, and the politics around producing it.

"It is one of the most complex and numerous ingredients on our planet. I tasted hundreds of blends before choosing the one we use. It's 53 per cent pure dark chocolate, so it's mild and creamy, and we get it from an ethical supplier called Callebaut. They source their products right down to the communities, paying for education and even subsidising mortgages so the farmers can own their own land."
I was a tad smitten by this charming, sociable 17 year-old, who sounded - and apparently looked like - the teenager he is, but handled himself in a far more mature manner. I knew he had a secret recipe for the chocolate, but I needed to get to the bottom of his recipe for success. And how do you really find out what makes someone tick? Answer: speak to their mother.

Mary was busily packing boxes when I found her. As Louis's venture appears to be all consuming for the family, I was interested to know if there were any other brothers or sisters also vying for her attention. She was quick to tell me that he is an only child.

"If somebody wants birth control, borrow a Louis! From day one, he never shut up. At six months old he was actually having a conversation. At a year old he was asking how traffic lights worked. He spoke like an adult, he thought like an adult, but He couldn't do normal things like holding a pencil, getting dressed, making a decision."

I learnt from her that the education system hadn't been too good to Louis. He had yet to be diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia. No one understood him and while his reports said his vocabulary and general knowledge were fantastic, to her dismay they focused on negative points like maths and written work. After just six weeks at secondary school, his problems increased and he was removed. Mary told me what happened then.

"We spent three months doing some reading, chatting about things, and making everything you did in your day to day life into a lesson. This gave him time to adjust and to become the person I knew he was."

But Mary remembers the point where she and Louis's dad realised that they couldn’t home school him alone. They employed a tutor called Jan, who worked with Louis to discover what interested him most.

"Suddenly he told us that he'd love to research Champagne and chocolates. We said do it. Then, we were having tea one night and he said, mum, dad, I want to be a chocolatier."

Click here for a photo slideshow of Emma's day with Louis
Some of Louis' chocolates, pictured close-up
After a long hard slog, he got there. And though I might dream about being surrounded by chocolate goodies, I had a hunch that the day to day process of manufacturing the confectionary involved a lot of hard work and wasn't quite so delicious. Louis told me how it all works in the food unit.

"We have two machines which temper the chocolate ..." he began, but then quickly lost me as he spoke passionately and in much depth about beta crystals and adjusting temperatures. Basically, I think he was saying that this is where chocolate is placed in a sort of bath with a wheel, stirred, heated and cooled until its properties are in the right order and it is at the desired consistency. I could be completely wrong, though. Louis's mum kept handing me spectacular chocolates; it was very hard to concentrate, to be honest. But Louis was back on my wavelength as he continued with the next part of the process, which thankfully is a little less scientific:

"We then pour chocolate into moulds, and tip it out to leave shells so that the fillings can be added. These are all made to taste, not to recipe. I like the strong flavours, mum likes the fruit-based chocolates, and Dave has recently invented a lavender one. They are backed off with a layer of chocolate, sealed, left in the fridge to set and then knocked out and packed."
Louis Barnett has had quite a lot of media attention recently, and anyone can see why. He talks eloquently for England on his chosen subject, and that passion is extremely infectious. I was seriously considering life as a modern day Willy Wonka by the time we left the food unit, full to bursting, and headed upstairs to the office. When not out selling his products or honouring public speaking engagements, he says this is where you'll find him, replying to emails and coming up with new ideas. Every wall of this bright mezzanine level is covered in handwritten reminders, and Jan, Louis's ex-home tutor, greets me as I walk in. She seems to act as his unofficial support worker and organiser:

"She reminds me to do things and doesn't miss a trick," Louis told me. "I bring her to my contract meetings and all my emails pass through her before they get sent."

As the staff prepared to leave Chokolit headquarters, it was like when you leave a pub - everything went into fast forward mode and suddenly there was much more to say, a million things to do, and very little time to do it in. The whole enterprise appears good-humouredly disorganised - possibly because Louis's mum has dyslexia and his dad is dyspraxic too - but it obviously all works well.

Click here for a photo slideshow of Emma's day with Louis
Louis with his pet eagle owl
At the family home, seeing him with his pet animals made it much easier to remember that Louis is a teenager. Interesting people are bound to have interesting pets and, indeed, living comfortably alongside two retriever dogs in the conservatory, we met Jewell - Louis's eagle owl. He had to spend 18 months working with birds of prey at a local falconry to get the relevant permission to be an owl owner - something that, alongside his chocolate business, he was happy to set his mind to.

Louis has managed to combine a passion for good chocolate and a love of animals with a campaign that he calls Biting Back. The aim is to raise money through information printed on the wrappers of three ethical chocolate bars, which will help save animals who have become endangered due to the increasing practice of clearing rain forests to make way for palm oil plantations.

“Most manufacturers add life-lengthening agents like palm oil to their chocolate. This means that it is cheaper and lasts longer, but is inferior. It also means that the chocolate industry is directly contributing to the biggest environmentally damaging problem on the planet. The rain forests were being cleared at a rate of six football pitches a minute when I started the campaign at the beginning of the year. Now it’s ten. We have only five years to save the Orang-utan from extinction."

thanks to the introduction of the ethical chocolate range, there has been more interest in Chokolit in the past six months than in four years of producing their original top-end chocolates. The press have always jumped at the chance to tell Louis's exceptional story, but he is a little bit disappointed in British retailers, who are less excited by the quality goods he takes to market.

"The British food industry is ten years behind countries like France and Sweden. I will be focusing on exporting my chocolates from now on."

When Jewell the owl got bored of being petted and photographed, we visited Louis's den for a quick tour around some of the teenager's other interests. On top of the chocolate-making and conservation work, he is a beer bottle collector, a Champagne connoisseur and a budding photographer. I left feeling a tiny bit unworthy, in a nice way.

Louis's short-term plan was to get the tea started before his mum and dad got home. In the future, he hopes to travel the world with conservation organisations for his Biting Back campaign, and continue to make top of the line chocolates. My guess is that he will add more strings to his bow as time goes on, and be worthy of another visit before reaching 21.

• All photographs by Peter Kindersley.

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