My family and I made our way up to Mont Tremblant this past spring. We hadn’t yet been very far north in this new-to-us home province, and Tremblant is sort of like Quebec’s Whistler, I figured, so it was worth a drive up. We went to take in the sights, mostly and not to ski. We could have skied, there was certainly still snow on the mountains, but we’d have to have been a little insane to elbow through the crowds with all of the other crazies on the hill on a holiday weekend; Easter Sunday, as it was.
True to our general experience with Quebec, the road signs weren’t always clear and we weren’t sure exactly where to go once we turned off the highway. We ended up in a small village, apparently the original village of Mont Tremblant – not the almost surreal looking Dr. Seuss-esque ski village we later happened upon. In old Tremblant there was a charming post office, a restaurant, playground, a few real estate offices, and the lovely scent of hot cocoa drifting from the front porch of a small, but swanky, furniture store. A blond woman in a yellow ochre apron beckoned us over with the promise of a complimentary hot chocolate. We couldn’t resist. Why would we have? Turning down free chocolate? That would be crazy.
That’s when we met Christine Blais, award winning bean to bar chocolate maker.
We weren’t shy about asking her to have a look behind the scenes of her chocolate production, something she readily welcomed. Her set up was tucked in the back corner of a pristine and simultaneously rustic furniture showroom, and the effect of walking through it only enhanced the essence of her small batch, handmade chocolate business. It was almost as though she were inviting us into her home, her creative space. Small batches, honesty, quality and simplicity are the essential cornerstones to her business, she says. Everything is done by hand – beans are selected, roasted, cracked, winnowed, refined, conched, aged, tempered, molded, and hand-wrapped on site in her Mont Tremblant work space.
“It’s the kind of chocolate you want to talk about for awhile.”
Generally my food critique vocabulary consists of barely sufficient one word comments like meh, a’ight, and yummy. I’m not really a foodie, nor am I an overly excitable person, I have to say, but this chocolate knocked me over.
I purchased the Tanzanian and the Ecuadorian bars and fell in love. SO MUCH LOVE. I cherished every delectable nibble. My friend Danny visited and I only sort of reluctantly offered him a sampling of the chocolate (because I selfishly wanted it all for myself, but it was just too good not to share with someone, especially when I suspected he would share the joy with me). We tried to continue our regular conversation, but every time chocolate was sampled our discussion was diverted to what was happening in our mouths. He summed it up by saying, “it’s the kind of chocolate you want to talk about for awhile.” I had to agree. It seemed to creep into every other sentence.
Weeks later, Christine and I found a time to sit down and discuss what it’s like to make the decision to go from juggling her freelance career in the field of architecture with being a mom, to shifting over to bean to bar chocolate making (and being a mom). In Montreal, she managed to fit me in between an early morning class for her daughter, a workout for herself, and a business delivery to a store in Westmount before leaving again in the afternoon to her chocolate making studio in Mont Tremblant.
As mentioned, Christine had a professional career working in the field of architecture, and as skilled as she was, it wasn’t her true passion. After a time of soul searching, she turned to chocolate, and why not? Chocolate is the answer to most of my soul searching too, except Christine’s curiosity for how things are made moved her to an entirely new career path. My taste buds thank her, loudly – from the rooftops.
She was kind and open with her knowledge and honest about her process, admitting that she’s really learning as she goes. This was something she started from curiosity, then a passion for the process, admitting that she’s not even really a huge chocolate fanatic as one might expect, but more passionate about the process of creating something wonderful and delicious from start to finish: from bean to bar.
“People come and ask me for the recipe, but I say, no, there’s no recipe, it’s a process. It’s patience, process and I think it’s like an artist: you want to paint something and it might work, but it might not work.”
Industrial design was her original plan, she studied for 3 years, worked awhile, then decided to go back and study architecture. In that time, she had three children and moved to a freelance lifestyle to balance life with kids. This worked well for her family until about 3 and a half years ago. Christine knew she wanted to work with her hands, but didn’t want a highfalutin office job, nor did she want to be on a job site anymore. Being a minimalist, she thought she might design furniture.
Then one day, while online, she came across an article on Apartment Therapy about a couple who had a small bean to bar chocolate business called Woodblock in their minimalist apartment. Something about it really fascinated Christine; she hadn’t heard of bean to bar before – what was it?
Big companies have much research and trial and error, but closely guard their process, so the bean to bar movement is completely separate from big industry techniques. Her research revealed that everything comes down to the farm – it’s a symbiotic relationship – unlike big industry, which evidently, controls 90% of the cocoa crop. 10% of farms refuse to sell to big companies because it perpetuates poverty. It is more beneficial for them to grow other crops and/or find smaller, sustainable companies to sell to.
A month after she found out about bean to bar, she went to buy chocolates for Mother’s Day on the Plateau. Upon inquiring, she found that no one was doing bean to bar in Montreal, and the woman at the shop thought it was impossible to do so; that chocolate makers here start with a base chocolate from a bigger company. Christine bristled against this and she insisted that she be hands-on for the whole process, from bean to bar, if she was going to do this.
“It’s the process,” she said. “It goes back to architecture. I started from the foundation and then I needed to see the end of it … In architecture you want to see the final product. I need to see the whole thing built. Being in architecture – you work hard and you get feedback and gratitude from your clients. And then transitioning into motherhood, you work hard and you make meals and you get complaints and resistance from your children.” We laughed in shared acknowledgement of this phenomenon. “This is the best thing that I think I’ve done in my life – my kids – my family. But the feedback is different. And as they get older, it changes and grows. But in chocolate, I get that (positive) feedback again.”
Was it a gradual transition from architecture to chocolate making?
“No. And it was surprising because I had calls. I started making chocolate in the fall, and at that time there was a publication of a really nice project I did in architecture with pictures and my name everywhere! So I was getting calls and I had to tell people I wasn’t doing that anymore, I was making chocolate. Maybe people thought I was nuts. I stopped completely – I discovered the term bean to bar, and I took the whole summer to learn about it.”
Ecole chocolat is an online class she took in the fall. At the same time, she bought a small machine and set up a little room next to her kitchen in her Mt. Tremblant home, got set up with a big pastry rack and ordered a collection of small machines.
“That summer I went to San Francisco, and I went to Dandelion. I sat down at the counter and I think I stayed there for two hours just watching and watching. And I knew my machines were coming. In the beginning of September we went to New York. I visited some bean to bar operations in Brooklyn and the weekend after I got back I made my first batch.”
“And the first batch was incredible. I had some friends over and we were licking the spoon together – it was an experience I will never forget.”
Was that a moment of clarification that this was what you wanted to do?
“No, at that time I didn’t know that I would be doing what I’m doing now. I didn’t want to do it as a business. At that time it was just curiosity – and that yes, you can make chocolate from beans with these small machines. I did that until Christmas.”
“At Christmas my friends encouraged me to do something with this. I was doing probably 20 bars per week with my small machines. I ordered another machine and was doing maybe 20-40 bars per week. They were sold out all of the time. I was in Florida for Easter time and took the decision to just go for it and I ordered all of the bigger machines. I rented a place in Tremblant close to my house in the bar of a restaurant, but I couldn’t get my zoning permits from the city … I had the machines coming. One was 600lbs. My friend Genevieve offered me a space in her furniture store.”
She went to NY in June for a Bean to Bar Conference. At the beginning, she said, she was the little one that nobody knew. She stared in making chocolate in 2014, and by the next year she had won three chocolate awards, and then again, this year.
“How to get the beans is the most intensive part of my work. I had some companies approaching me and it was not clear with the farms. I buy my beans very expensive. I’ve had bad beans, I’ve had good beans. Now I have people approaching me wanting to try their beans. Next year in August – I’ll have two new merchants- beans that I never thought I could get because they are so exceptional. It’s helping the farmers, and helping me too. It might take 3 or 4 months before I get a return on those beans.”
How has it been building a business from the ground up?
“So during the two years, I learned and I was able to sell my product. Normally, you build your product, make sure it’s good and then you sell. So I’m kind of lucky during those years I was able to develop my business plan. But money wise it’s been very hard. But that’s normal. It’s growing slowly. No bank loans. You sell your products, you have money then you buy more for your business. With my current machines, I can make up to 600 bars per week. This summer I will get one more important machine and then my production will be more.”
So what about her packaging? She started with brown envelopes, bought a couple of fonts and made her own logo. She fiddled around with positioning of the logo on the package after navigating the necessity of creating the best possible visibility while minimizing the amount of space the package took on the shelf. The package would show vertically, not horizontally as originally intended. She admits to a lot of sentimentality in her work. In fact, she uses masking tape, an echo of her drafting days, with her logo on it to seal her packaging.
“Architecture, arts, everything is done by hand,” she emphasized to me over her second cappuccino. She continued on to tell me that about 10 years ago, a beautiful tree had to be taken down on her property. She loved that tree – it was the reason she fell in love with the property. Now, her kitchen table is made out of it and she took a plank to a local printer who has a 100 yr old letter press and he created a custom printing plate based on the wood grain to print on the inside of the packaging. Christine also uses a chocolate mold shaped like wooden planks with wood grain.
Her own connection to the building material in her former career as architect wasn’t the only fun she had with that theme. She laughed when she told me that, at that time, the Charbonneau Commission was happening. It was all over the news about corruption in politics and construction in Montreal, and the packaging was similar to a manila envelope, not too unlike one that might contain a wad of cash and be slipped under a table like a bribe.
Let’s talk a little more about process. What’s your favourite part?
“I get the beans, I sort them by size, roasting. You have to pay attention – roasting is different for every bean. I have a range of temperatures. But really, it’s the smell, it’s the crack. You wouldn’t roast a Dominican Republic bean at the same temperature as something from Ecuador, for example. It’s the bean – every bean has a roasting profile – if I learned something about the bean to bar process, this is the part that is the most difficult to learn.”
“I roast mostly at night. Right now, I roast two nights per week – those nights I bring my dog. He sits next to the roaster and sleeps. Me and my dog, we roast.”
How do you feel about the path now, after having made the switch?
“I work in blue jeans and t-shirt. I used to have to project an image in design with expensive clothes,” she said unapologetically, a smile on her face.
What’s in the future plans for Palette de bine?
“From what I’ve seen in this, everybody wants to do it for the passion, for the experience. Not necessarily building at as a business, but as a passion.
Building it commercially, you end up making shortcuts. I don’t know if I would do better chocolate if I had bigger or better machines … would I make better chocolate? I’m not sure. What’s your objective?
If I go bigger it’s going to be related to chocolate, but that’s it. It’s not that I want to stay small, but I want to try to keep the experience. More and more I have people asking me for workshops.”
Personally, I would love a chocolate workshop, how about you?
Find more here, including where to buy: http://www.palettedebine.com