Recently in Chef & Photographer Interviews category

Interview with Food Photographer Michael Lamotte & From the Source

Star Route Farms

I met Michael Lamotte back in 1998, when I was looking for a photographer to shoot my first book, Room for Dessert. Because he had done several beautiful books with other Bay Area authors, I was really happy that I was able to work with him because I was a big fan. He did such a great job that he photographed my second book as well. I was a newbie back then and didn’t have much of a sense of what goes into a photo shoot for a cookbook, but I learned a lot working with him. And I also learned why he’s so successful; not only is he a great photographer, but he’s a terrific guy.

There are a lot of food photographers out there, but Michael has a particularly keen eye for food. Which is why I’m fascinated by his current project, From the Source, with images that are both haunting and magnificent, and make me look at everyday foods from a different perspective. I was curious why he chose to take his photography in this particular direction for this very personal project, focusing on local foods from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Michael is currently preparing an exhibition in San Francisco at the a.Muse art gallery (see end of interview for opening dates and related events) and since I was recently in San Francisco, I thought I’d ask him some questions about what he does, how he gets such amazing shots, and what motivated him to take on this project.

FTS B+W

Continue Reading Interview with Food Photographer Michael Lamotte & From the Source…

Q & A with Dianne Jacob: Will Write For Food

Dianne Jacob is one of the most seasoned food writers and editors around and has become quite well-known because of the excellent advice and guidance she’s generously been giving out to other writers. A journalist since 1978, Dianne is also a writing instructor and coach that helps aspiring authors hone their craft. You can read more about her work and read her articles at her website.

Her latest book, Will Write For Food, is a comprehensive guidebook to the world of food writing. I can’t say enough good things about this book and it’s the first place I send anyone who asks me about the nitty-gritty on what it takes to write about food; from how to write your first proposal to how much you can expect to make from the finished book.

With helpful tips from well-known chefs and food writers like Harold McGee, Alice Medrich, Amanda Hesser plus powerful literary agents and top-notch cookbook editors—Will Write For Food is a must read.

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David: Hi Dianne, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for me and my readers. As someone who’s a seasoned writing coach and editor, what are the three most important tips you would give to aspiring food writers?

Dianne Jacob:

1. Win the lottery to make up for your income.

2. Take writing classes if you are cook; take cooking classes if you are a writer.

3. Be persistent.

David: Will Write For Food has become a classic, especially among food bloggers. But also amongst others interested in learning more about food writing, including restaurant reviewing, writing a memoir, and of course, cookbook writing. In fact, just about everyone I know has a copy.
What made you write it in the first place?

Dianne: I had been teaching food writing classes for years, and wanted a resource for my students. I couldn’t find one.

David: And was it difficult to find a publisher for the book?

Dianne: Are you kidding? Four New York publishers wanted it.

Continue Reading Q & A with Dianne Jacob: Will Write For Food…

Pastry Chef Sherry Yard

With all due respects, the first time I met Sherry Yard, I was squirming in my seat. I was sitting in the originally Spago, in West Hollywood, overlooking the city of Los Angeles. The room was filled with celebrities, but I remember getting special treatment.

I arrived in my best; a well-tailored Italian wool suit that I hoped made me fit in a little better with all the glamorous types seated all around me. It was a great meal, and we were having a wonderful time. But the longer I sat in the stylish chairs, the most uncomfortable I was becoming. It wasn’t that I felt out of place. It was that my rear-end was starting to itch uncontrollably.

I knew that I shouldn’t stand up and engage in an all-out scratch-fest (although nothing would have felt better), but I didn’t know what to do. The longer I sat, the more intense it got. The wool in combination with the padded chairs was driving me nuts!

But soon enough, it was time for dessert, the cavalcade started. Sherry starting bringing out all sorts of wonderful things; tastes of hand-dipped dark chocolates, puckery lemon tartlets, and twists of crackly caramel that were so stunning, all these hot-shot celebrities starting looking at me.

But miraculously, as I started to spoon up and savor all these desserts, the itching subsided and each dessert was more delicious than the next. That was the first time we met and I was charmed at what a genuinely lovely and funny person Sherry is.

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A few years later, Sherry moved over to Wolfgang Puck’s newer Spago restaurant, located a few miles away in swanky Beverly Hills which replaced the original. Since we were pastry-pals, Sherry and I run into each other every now and then over the years; her vivacious personality is infectious and I don’t know anyone who’s more enthusiastic about what she does than Sherry. And if you talked to her for a few minutes, as I recently did, you’d see what I mean…

David: Every time I talk to you there seems to be something new and fabulous going on in your life. After all, being the pastry chef at Spago in Beverly Hills makes you the pastry chef to the stars. Plus you make the dessert for the big Oscar dinner every year.

Who are some of your favorite celebrities that you’ve cooked for?

Sherry: I guess you can say them all, from David Lebovitz to Presidents.

David: Thanks for the flattery, but compared to Madonna and Andy Dick (ick!), I’m a rube. But I loved celebrity-watching and Spago is the best. I one stood next to Shaq O’Neill there and his feet were huge! But your boss is a bit of a celebrity too. You’ve been with Wolfgang Puck for a long time as his executive pastry chef.

How’s it been working with him, and what’s he like as a boss?

Sherry: At the 2000 Bon Appétit Awards, Barbara Fairchild introduced Wolfgang Puck as my boss. His response, with a chuckle, when he walked up to the mike was “Anyone that knows Sherry knows she is my boss!”


David: He’s actually quite funny, and works very hard too, which I think is because he was trained as a chef from a really early age. I also like that he gives ample credit to the chef’s in his restaurants, and they tend to stay with him for a long time.

I love the desserts you make. They’re always so contemporary, with clean, modern tastes yet grounded in traditional pastry techniques. I remember a Concord Grape Gelée that you made, enrobed in dark chocolate that was exceptionally good.

Continue Reading Pastry Chef Sherry Yard…

Interview with Gale Gand

I met Gale Gand a few years back at a culinary conference. I love meeting other bakers since we all share an unspoken bond, and we’re generally the nicest people you’re likely to meet (if I do say so myself). And I was happy to discover that Gale was no exception.

Gale’s the author of four highly-regarded books on baking, Just A Bite, Butter Sugar Flour Eggs, Short & Sweet: Quick Desserts with Eight Ingredients or Less, and her latest, Chocolate & Vanilla, aside from all the other hats she wears.

Gale was also the host of one of the few baking programs on television, Sweet Dreams, and is the Executive Pastry Chef and co-owner of TRU restaurant in Chicago. Gale also (whew!)) won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year in 2001 and she owns a coffee shop…and a soda company!

We’ve kept in touch over the years, and I was really happy when my copy of Chocolate & Vanilla arrived so I could tackle some of Gale’s recipes. (And for regular readers who’ve followed my problems with getting deliveries, you can imagine I was really, really happy just that it arrived at all!)

But it also gave me an excuse to take a moment to chat with Gale about her career in baking, and everything else that she’s involved with…

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David: How did you get your own program, Sweet Dreams on Food Network?

Gale: They called ME!

I used to call them when I was going to be in New York to be on Sarah Moulton’s show and they’d give me a show date. Then one time I called to get a date and they said they didn’t have any for me. I was shocked (and pouting)! Then there was a pause on the phone and then they said, “Because we’d like to offer you your own show!”

So I got super lucky. No try outs.

D: It sounds like your appearances on Sara’s show were your try outs. So you probably weren’t a jangle of nerves.

Speaking of nerves, what’s the hardest thing about doing a television program?

G: Leaving my husband and kids for 2 weeks to stay in New York while I film…and leaving my restaurant staff too.

D: Is there anyone on Food Network that you really liked cooking with, and anyone you didn’t?

Continue Reading Interview with Gale Gand…

Interview: Baker Nick Malgieri

Since I’m on an Italian fling here, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to interview Nick Malgieri, whose fabulous recipe for Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies I recently featured on the site. Nick is one of the most knowledgeable bakers in the world, frequently hobnobbing with such luminaries as Pierre Hermé and Dorie Greenspan, swapping recipes and baking techniques. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from Nick’s books myself, which range from the ultimate treatise on cookies, to one of the most beautiful books on chocolate in my vast collection.

Continue Reading Interview: Baker Nick Malgieri…

Interview: Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg

I always thought it would be fun to have friends who were celebrities.

I mean, wouldn’t it be fun to just pick up the phone, and have conversations like…

“Hey Uma, wanna head out and get a bite to eat?”

“Gee Mariah, I am just too dead-tired to stay home and watch Glitter again.”

“Babysit again, Katie? But you know how Tom feels about leaving Suri. Can’t you just bring her to the Scientology meeting?”

“Oh…um, hey Star. What’s that? Fired? I’d…um…love to get together….but I’m just swamped…how about, um, I call you next week or so and we can, uh…get togeth…oops, that’s my cell phone, gotta run…”

But wouldn’t that be great to hang out with your (employed) celebrity pals, eating in swank restaurants or hanging out in cocktail bars where someone shows you to your table? So I jumped at the chance to mingle with the well-connected Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, who actually do sit around in restaurants with rich and famous people, and probably only go to bars that have people who seat you, instead of the kind of places I go where you’re lucky if someone looks up from their Le Monde to grunt and point.

Because they get the inside scoop, Karen and Andrew have written a number of books interviewing chefs, restauranteurs, and sommeliers, and the book that left the biggest impression on me was Becoming A Chef, which I practically memorized when I was just embarking on my star-studded culinary career. I was a bit hesitant to meet them, though, since they hob-nob with all these fancy New York-type chefs, and here I was in Paris, writing poems about dishwashing tablets, getting my jollies buying Levi’s and ironing my neck.

(And I’ll bet Mario Batali’s never ironed his neck or Rocco DiSpirito’s never been groped in a tight pair of Levi’s…um, on second thought….)

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So when they came to visit Paris last winter (which is why we’re all bundled up in the photo) we made plans to rendez vous for un chocolat chaud at Christian Constant, I raced to get ready, (and I’ve since learned that it’s a good idea to take off your shirt before you iron it no matter how late you are). I did manage to get there, and just in the nick of time: Karen and Andrew had almost polished off what looked like a pretty formidable array of chocolate cakes and tartes.

But in any case, both Karen and Andrew were truly a delight and I loved meeting them. My only regret was not getting to spend enough time with them, although I did take a few minutes to take them to some of my favorite chocolate shops. Then when I learned they had just finished their new book, What To Drink With What You Eat, I jumped at the chance to chat with them again…

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David: I’ve seen both of you attack a chocolate dessert here in Paris as if it was your last meal ever. If memory serves me correctly, you were hedonistically drinking hot chocolate at the same time. But to me, chocolate seems like challenge to pair wine with? Is there something you’d recommend?

Karen and Andrew: It’s all your fault, David — if you hadn’t taken us on the single best chocolate lover’s tour of Paris imaginable, we NEVER would have embarrassed ourselves so badly. And since our time in your fair city was all too short, it wasn’t so much about pairing on that visit as it was about “sampling.” (Isn’t that a more refined word for it than “wolfing”?)

Many chocolate lovers (like us) would agree that great chocolate can be a peak experience in and of itself. But imagine being able to enhance the pleasure of a great chocolate dessert through pairing it with a beverage that will elevate the pairing into another stratosphere! That is the potential of food and wine pairing — and for chocolate (esp. dark chocolate) desserts, it can happen with Banyuls (a French sweet red wine), tawny port, or PX sherry.

But great pairings are not limited to wine alone!
A chocolate stout or a fruit-flavored lambic beer (with essence of cherry or raspberry, for example) can be shockingly great with a chocolate dessert. And just last week we had one of the best cocktail-and-food pairings of our lives: a Chocolate Decadence Martini (made with Chopin vodka, Godiva chocolate and white chocolate liqueurs, etc.) paired with a banana-chocolate cake. Heaven!

There are also lots of non-alcoholic beverages that can provide great matches for chocolate desserts, with the first and foremost being coffee. The flavors of coffee and chocolate were made for one another. As for teas, the berry notes in African (and especially Kenyan) teas play off chocolate beautifully — and believe it or not, Japanese green tea contrasts really well with chocolate, too. And a Champagne flute filled with a berry-flavored sparkling fruit juice or even a mint-flavored sparkling beverage like snow can be a fun pairing with a chocolate dessert.A As you can see, the possibilities are virtually endless! But our first encounter with chocolate and Banyuls, served to us by sommelier Jean-Luc Le Du at four-star restaurant Daniel in New York City, was one we’ll never, ever forget.

David: Sorry but when I eat chocolate, it’s closer to “wolfing” than “sampling”. It used to freak French people out, but I’ve seen a few of them lately doing the same. I guess I’m a bad influence.
But, speaking of wine, what’s the least amount of money you’ve spent on a bottle of wine?
Karen: Two bucks. Can you guess what it was??

Andrew: When I worked in an Alaskan fishery, the local store would give customers who bought beer a free bottle of Thunderbird, just to get rid of it. Even given our standard 100-hour workweek and its price, it still wasn’t much of a bargain.

David: Alaskan fishery and Thunderbird? Now there’s a story in there, and next time we get together, I want to hear more about that.
So what’s the most amount of money you’ve ever spent on a bottle of wine?

K & A: More than a decade ago, we saved our pennies and once splurged for a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem to serve on New Year’s Eve to an architect friend and his wife who had always hoped to try it. We used to it recreate chef Jeremiah Tower’s “Epitome of Decadence” dinner — d’Yquem paired with aged roast beef — he wrote about in his book Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics, along with precise instructions to chew the beef, take a draft of wine, chew twice, and swallow. He swore that the experience was so intense that the only sound you’d hear was people falling out of their chairs! That sounded like fun to us.

David: There are a few jokes I could make in there, but (uncharacteristically), I’m not.
So why does everyone like California Chardonnay? It’s truly awful stuff; thick and oaky. After I drink a glass, I feel like I need a toothpick. It’s like drinking an oak tree. Why do people keeping buying it?

K & A: As usual, you raise a great point about wine: There are wines that you couldn’t pay us to drink by themselves that can be peak experiences when paired with the right dish.

As for oaked Chardonnays, we’re with you when it comes to drinking one. But a year ago, sommelier Joe Catterson of Alinea (which was just named the #1 restaurant in America in the new issue of Gourmet) served us an extraordinary pairing. By itself, the Slovenian Veliko Bianco was an oak bomb, and was said to have been aged three years in new oak, a year in old oak, and three months in the bottle. We each took a sip — and shuddered. So it was a revelation to taste it again after the Dover Sole with “mostly traditional flavors” (albeit in powdered form) that it accompanied, and to see the combination surprisingly rise to a +2 (our highest rating, on our -2 to +2 point scale).

David: To be honest, after dinner, by the time I’ve hit dessert, I’ve had way to much to drink already and can’t drink any more wine without things getting embarrassingly messy and people talking about me for days afterwards. But I once had Claudia Fleming serve me Belgian fruit-flavored beer with dessert, called Kreik, which was amazing (as were Claudia’s desserts)-surprising and refreshing. What do you think of that pairing?

K & A: We love Belgian fruit-flavored beers, and urge anyone who’s never tried one to do so. The essence of fruit in these beers — whether the flavor of cherry in Kreik, or of raspberry in Framboise — is staggeringly delicious. And they’re great matches not only for chocolate desserts, but also for custard-like desserts, cheesecakes, berry tarts, and even fresh, creamy cheeses such as mascarpone. We both really like the carbonation that beer provides, which helps to cut the richness of a dense dessert or cheese.

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David: It’s funny. In America, people drink coffee with their dessert, but in Europe, that’s a big faux pas. Europeans use coffee like a final, little punctuation mark to a meal. And they never add milk to coffee after a meal. Can you explain your philosophy on coffee after dinner to my guests and readers…so I don’t have to explain it anymore?

K & A: We don’t know that we can explain it.
As we said, chocolate and coffee can be ethereal together, so it just sounds like good common sense to us.

David: Um, thanks for helping me off the hook, guys…but speaking of hot beverages, it seems like tea is a big thing lately. I like tea on occasion, but don’t know anything about it except the kind of people drinking the good stuff scare me when they start going on about it, using all these fancy terms like monkey-picked and first-flush (which never sounds all that appetizing.)
Those tea people freak me out. They’re like pod-people or something, living in a parallel universe of civility and good-taste. I’d love to learn more about tea (so I can become civilized and have good taste too), but I don’t know if I’m ready to be one of “them”. Is there help for me?
Do tea drinkers scare you too?

K & A: We’ve been privileged to have some of the most extraordinary tea tutors in North America — such as America’s first tea sommelier James Labe, Canada’s first tea sommelier Michael Obnowlenny, and Japanese tea ambassador Kai Andersen — so we’ve been spoiled. (Note From David: I’ll say…) They are as cool and passionate about tea as the best of the wine sommeliers are about wine, and they’ve taught us a lot.

Here’s tea and food pairing in a nutshell, using gross generalizations: Think of green and lighter oolong teas like white wine, and black and darker oolong teas like red wine. What would you pair with white wine? White meat, chicken fish.
What would you pair with red wine? Red meat, lamb, game.

When it comes to flavored teas, which can be awesome, think about classic flavor combinations that you already love. Blueberry tea is a revelation with banana pancakes. Maple tea goes great with butternut squash or pumpkin.
From there, you can play around. Tea can be fun, we promise!

David: I’ve never heard of some of those fruity teas. I only know black currant and Earl Grey, scented with bergamot. I must be living in an aspirateur, or vacuum.
On the other end of the spectrum from tea is Champagne. I was at a fancy party where ‘vintage’ Champagne was being served. While the bottles were lovely, the Champagne was quite rich and full-flavored, not the dry, refreshing sparkler I’m used to. The hostess, a prominent and famous cookbook author, told me that I didn’t know how to appreciate good Champagne. Am I a rube?
How should I have responded?

K & A: We think any hosts who take their guests to task are probably in need of the response of a good etiquette book as a thank-you gift (!), unless this one did so with the passion of a gourmet who dearly wanted her guest to share her enthusiasm for a particular beverage. But it sounds like lessons and insights were not forthcoming, which is a shame.

It’s eye-opening to learn about all the delicious varieties of Champagne out there, which can range from brut (dry) to sec (slightly sweet) to demi-sec (sweet) to doux (sweetest). There’s also Blanc de Blancs (made with 100 percent Chardonnay grapes) and Blanc de Noirs (made with 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes). Sounds like you might have been served a Blanc de Noirs, which is richer and more full-flavored than your “standard” Champagne.

Each type of Champagne has its own peak pairings.
You’ll want to serve drier (i.e. brut) Champagne as an aperitif or with foods like oysters, smoked fish, and sushi. And you’ll want to save sweeter Champagnes for desserts and pastries. Regarding the latter, a good rule of thumb for all dessert wines (Champagne included) is to make sure the wine is as sweet or sweeter than the dessert it’s accompanying.

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David: Okay, well I’m glad I decided not to ‘out’ her, since you took her to task. Okay. I’m going to throw out a few of my favorite things to eat, and you can give me beverage pairings:
K & A: Fair enough — hit us!

Frozen Fish Sticks…
K & A: Do frozen fish sticks have any flavor, other than what they’ve absorbed from their cardboard packaging? Yes, we’re kidding again. You want to be guided by whatever you’re dipping that critter into. Are you a ketchup man? If so, you want a slightly sweet wine to play off the ketchup — like a white Zinfandel. (If you’re eating fish sticks, you can’t cop any attitude, so you might as well drink a white Zin.) Is tartar sauce more your thing? Just remember that “tart likes tart,” and pair it with something with some acid. And mayonnaise pairs surprisingly well with a gin martini. If you’re avoiding alcohol, how about sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon? Those bubbles and the lemon will cut through the fattiness of the fish sticks, so you can eat even more!
(Or do you have a stomachache from all those fish sticks?)

Rocky Road Ice Cream…
K & A: After having spent a year waitressing at an ice cream parlor while in high school, Karen is the expert here and suggests water — ice-cold, still water (no bubbles) — which is the ideal palate cleanser for ice cream. Andrew, on the other hand, prefers coffee, which goes so well with the chocolate and nuts.

Pain au chocolat…
K & A: Coffee or espresso.
Preferably sitting outside in a cafe in Paris.
A beret is optional.

Hot Corned Beef on Rye with Spicy Mustard and Half-sour pickles…
K & A: No question: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, which is a celery-flavored soda. Don’t knock it (like we did) until you’ve tried the combination. It’s extraordinary!

(Note From David: I have had it, and I am knocking it. Celery Soda tastes just as bad as it sounds, sorry guys. Though Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda is my fav.)

Tapioca Pudding…
K & A: Since Andrew has a childhood tapioca bruise, he’s passing this one on to Karen, who envisions a nice cup of maple tea — or something like tawny port or Sauternes, if she were in the mood for something a bit stronger.

Oysters and Buttered Rye Bread…
K & A: While oyster fans alternatively recommend Champagne, sake, Sancerre, or vodka with oysters, the buttered rye bread gives vodka the edge here.

Bar-B-Q Ribs; pork or beef, I’m not getting into arguments with any of those bbq people…
K & A: Zinfandel. Or a chilled rosé, if it’s really hot out. Or a nice smoked beer (a little intense on its own, but the combo is great).

Microwave Popcorn…
K & A: Sparkling wine, like Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, or German sekt. Don’t waste a fine Champagne on the combo, because if you like as much butter and salt as we do on our popcorn, its subtleties will be lost.

Rice Krispy Treats…
K & A: A glass of slightly sweet sparkling sake, to enjoy the study of rice.

Caesar Salad (the kind you get in California, not the kind you get in France
with canned corn or other weird stuff on it)…
K & A: Karen seconds the recommendation of the guy who sat next to her in her first class during her first week of her freshman year at Northwestern University. Arneis from Piedmont, because the wine is nutty with good acidity that plays well against the dressing and Parmesan cheese. (What does HE know, you ask? He’s award-winning sommelier Scott Tyree of Tru in Chicago.)

Caramel Corn…
K & A: You’ll have to understand that caramel corn is a sacred ritual to us.
There are few things more delicious on this planet than the Caramel Crisp at Garrett’s Popcorn on Chicago, served hot and buttery and loaded with caramel coating. It deserves to be eaten on its own.The only worthy accompaniment we’ve found is Garrett’s equally hot, buttery and loaded with cheese Cheese Corn.

Gnocchi with Pesto…
K & A: Here we defer to someone who knows more about Italian wines than almost anyone we’ve ever met (with the possible exception of Joe Bastianich and David Lynch of Babbo), Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Los Angeles. He recommends a regional pairing from Liguria — the home of pesto — such as Albenga, Cinque Terre, or Vermentino.

Comté cheese…
K & A: We include suggested pairings for more than 100 cheeses in What To Drink With What You Eat. If you look up this cheese, you’ll find: “beer, esp. port or stout; Champagne; Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir.”
They all sound pretty good to us!

Mallomars…
Karen: What’s a Mallomar?

(Note: David flips out here…)

Andrew: I’m with you — and with Billy Crystal’s character in “When Harry Met Sally,” who eats them on New Year’s Eve, praising them as the world’s greatest cookie. You can’t go wrong with an ice-cold glass of milk. Or, if I were alone on New Year’s Eve pining over the love of my own life, I might have something a little stronger with it, like the aforementioned Chocolate Decadence Martini (whose recipe is on our Blog (9/28/06) on our own web site, if you’d like it) which I sampled for the first time last week.

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David: Okay, so I couldn’t stump you, but the martini sampling sounds like fun! I’ll check out the recipe.
So one last question: You know all these famous hot-shot chefs and you hob-nob with the superstars. Aside from me, tell us about a really bad experience you had with someone famous, preferably someone on Food Network. You don’t need to give us a name (although perhaps if 50 readers commit to buying your book you’ll reveal who it is) tell us the worst, most atrocious, meanest, rudest, horrible famous chef behavior you’ve ever witnessed. Feel free to use names, objects thrown, or anything else to embellish the story and brings you slightly closer to litigation.

K & A: As not all of your many readers will have had the pleasure of meeting you in person, you have to let us testify that you are as knowledgeable and passionate and fun in person as you are on your award-winning Blog!

We’re very fond of several of the TV cooking show stars we’ve met and interviewed for our books, including chefs Mario Batali and Rocco DiSpirito. We’ve had great fun over dinner with Tony Bourdain with our mutual friends, and at cocktail parties with the lovely and hilarious Daisy Martinez.

That being said, we once read a West Coast food writer’s column about her shockingly appalling encounter with an East Coast Food Network star with whom we had also had a rather appalling encounter. We had never met the writer, but we called her immediately and left her a sympathetic voicemail saying, “It’s not you — it’s HIM.” We definitely bonded over that!

David: Hmmm, that sounds rather cryptic. I might guess it was me, but since I’m not on the Food Network, so I’m off the hook. (Any guesses, readers? Let’s hear it, put ‘em in the comments.)

Okay, I lied. One more question. When are you coming back to Paris?

K & A: Not soon enough! If you and all your readers manage to help us turn our new book What To Drink With What You Eat into a bestseller, we’d love to come back over Christmas. But whenever it may be, we’ll look forward to sharing more chocolate with you then!

David: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I can’t wait to really read through my copy of your book, which is full of interesting and creative ways to pair food and drinks in ways that people might not have thought of before.

And next time you come back to Paris, would you mind bringing me some Mallomars?

I seem to have a thing for marshmallows and chocolate lately.

Interview: Frederick Schilling of Dagoba Organic Chocolate

David: Hey Frederick, I remember meeting you years ago at a Food Show, and was really impressed with both you, and your exceptionally good chocolate. You were so friendly and open about what you were doing, and I saw in you such a passion for producing high-quality chocolate from organically-grown beans. I’m so glad we’ve kept in touch since then, and you’re happy to answer some questions about Dagoba chocolate.

While it’s everyone’s dream to open a chocolate factory, what made Frederick Schilling do it?

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Frederick: I come from a mixed background of music, religion, professional ski-bumming and a passion for food. I actually never liked chocolate as a child or a young adult. It wasn’t until I was cooking at a higher end restaurant in Boulder Colorado that I experienced what a higher quality chocolate was. At the time we were using Valrhona and El Rey and I started to nibble on the bricks back in the pastry corner. It was the bittersweet that managed to maintain my attention and interest. When I started to look into chocolate further and learning of the rich history and lore of cacao, I was hooked. I have a deep appreciation for religion and culture and when I learned of the Aztec reverence for cacao, it really opened my mind to wanting to explore this bean much deeper. That was what got me going.

David: I know how you feel about getting hooked. Those innocent little nibbles can really lead to something much larger.

Why did you decide to go organic?

Frederick: From the beginning of my young adult life, I have been very passionate about sustainability and organics. I was already philosophically aligned with the organic movement before the inception of DAGOBA. So naturally, since I was exploring the idea of creating a food product for the market, it had to be organic.

Aside from chocolate bars, you also have a line of other products, all organic, including chocolate chips, cocoa nibs, hot chocolate mix, and chocolate-covered coffee beans. Where are Dagoba chocolates produced, and why did you choose to open your production facility there?

Our factory is located in Ashland Oregon. It’s a small town in Southern Oregon, just over the California border, in the Rogue Valley. It’s absolutely gorgeous here; and that’s why we chose to have the factory here. The quality of life is pretty uncompromised. I’m able to ride my bike to work, go mountain biking right out my front door, skiing, hiking, kayaking, rafting… there are a plethora of outdoor activities to partake in around here. The town also has the nations largest Shakespeare Festival, so there is the element of theater wafting thru the streets. Interstate 5 goes right by the town so access for shipping product, while not as easy as being located in a major city, is pretty good.

We just purchased 3.5 acres of land in town and will be building a new factory this coming year with completion in the summer of 07′. It’s going to have many ‘green’ aspects to the structure; solar panels up top and permaculture landscaping as a couple of examples. This factory will be open for tours, so make sure you stop by when you’re driving thru!

David: Well, you still look pretty young to me. Must be all that chocolate.
After being in business after a few years, in reflection, what’s been the most difficult part of making chocolate?

Frederick: We just turned 5 in June and it has been one interesting ride. I started the company in my kitchen, hand made the product for the first 1.5 years and have been pretty much making it up and learning as I go along. So while it’s been extremely fun and interesting, the whole experience has a shadow of difficulty because it was founded with blind ambition.

Starting a company is just difficult. It takes a lot of time, hard work, patience, faith and a little ignorance too. The ignorance, while makes things a little difficult, also acts as the catalyst for pushing me. I don’t know something, so I’m going to dig into it. That ignorance eventually turns to skill and knowledge. Then, with that knowledge and skill I start to create more things, usually burying myself in the process, digging up more things that I’m ignorant on, then learning more, then creating more, realizing how much I don’t know, then learning, then creating more, realizing how much I don’t know and so on. It’s a great cycle and one that the creative mind needs in order to maintain itself. We need elements of difficulty to push us.

Yet, as the organic chocolate market starts to gain legs, sourcing enough high quality organic cacao may become very difficult; sooner than later. It’s all about the source, right? As more organic chocolate companies start to spring up around the world, or as current companies come out with organic chocolate, a lot of them will be going after the good beans. It’s already becoming tight. That’s why I’m leaving for Central America in 2 days; to maintain and create new relationships with growers.

In 5 years, it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

David: We leave in two days? I don’t think I can get packed in time. I’ll have to wait for the next trip.
When researching The Great Book of Chocolate, I met a lot of ‘characters’ in the chocolate world…and not all of them were particularly nice. Without naming names (my editor wouldn’t let me, but you can…) can you tell us about any clashes you’ve had?
Why is the chocolate world so competitive?

Frederick: For the most part, everyone I’ve met in the industry is really nice. For the most part, everyone has always spoken to me with openness and really helped me figure this industry out. Yet, I’ve never been a threat to them. I was always considered as this little organic chocolate company – “Oh, how sweet, he’s making organic chocolate”. The chocolate makers/companies that I always spoke to were not making organic chocolate so they were willing to share their knowledge. YET, now that things are changing, DAGOBA is growing and more companies want to move into the organic chocolate market, lips are tightening a bit and vest are being buttoned.

As for being competitive, I don’t think it’s any more competitive than any other industry. Company secrets are company secrets. A lot of the hush-hush attitude that does permeate our industry probably has its roots from the Mars and Hershey dysfunctional relationship from years ago.

The thing is though, when you’re talking about pure chocolate, there aren’t any real secrets. Everyone knows how to make it. Everyone knows what kind of equipment the others use. Everyone knows where cacao comes from. Now, companies are even saying what farm the cacao comes from! So, transparency is actually becoming the “new thing”, right?

David: There’s a lot of talk lately about the ‘corporate’ organic movement, and we’re seeing organics at chain-stores and supermarkets. On the other hand, there’s also increased interest in buying local at farmer’s markets, which are often organic. Obviously you can’t use locally-grown cacao, but where does Dagoba fit in to all of this? And will we see Dagoba at Wal-Mart?

Frederick: A very good question.
This is a huge question David and one that I think of everyday, literally. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, to be honest; it’s an experiment in the making. Although, like you state, the best choice for food is to buy from the local organic farmer, or better yet, grow it yourself.

On the corporate organic movement; is it wrong to have organics at chain stores? Big box stores? Isn’t this what we, the believers of true food, wanted? To get rid of the artificial food chain? Just because the stores that we now buy our food from are larger than most South Pacific islands, is it wrong that they are providing the people with organic food? This is what the people want. Now I personally don’t shop at the large box stores, but ultimately, I believe this is a move in the right direction. Would I rather see an industrial farm being grown conventionally or organically? The industrial farming model isn’t going away anytime soon, so in my opinion, it’s a move in the right direction; to cut back on the amount of chemicals being applied to the soil. Perhaps in 10 years, the consumer will ‘urge by purchase’ the corporate growers to move back to a “biodiverse” farming model, which is more sustaining to the land. Ultimately it’s up to the consumer to dictate what happens in the marketplace. In 10 years, if the big box consumer, after being educated on what organic means, wants food that comes from an even more sustaining farming model, the big boxes will respond as will the industrial farming operations.

Cacao grows in the tropics, so I’m forced to rely on fossil fuels to get our raw material to us; until I’m able to charter a fleet of large sail boats to transport my cacao to port and then move the beans via biodiesel fueled trucks to our new solar powered factory. As you know, DAGOBA is a company that makes every effort to be as “eco-minded” as possible. We use 100% alternative energy at the factory; use 100% recycled content paper for our wrappers and office paper, we compost our kitchen waste and many other small things. Are we perfect? Far from it. Yet, we’re making the conscious decision to be aware of what we do and how we can improve upon it.

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DAGOBA in Wal-Mart?
I actually just had this conversation on Thursday at our employee meeting. This very question was raised. My response; would it be a bad thing? If more people want organic chocolate, which is made from organic cacao, isn’t planting more trees in the tropics a good thing? Would it be a good thing to go to Central and South America and convert deforested land to fields of cacao trees? I say yes. If we, DAGOBA, can have a positive impact on the tree situation in the tropics, I have no problem going into box stores. For me, it’s not about preserving the ego of the brand perception. Some of our core consumers may be upset if we sell to Wal-Mart, but I would ask them these very questions. I think our core consumer, once they understood the potential good that could come out of selling more organic chocolate, would sympathize with such a decision.

As you know David, cacao is very different than other crops. The vast majority of cacao is grown on small family farms, where they also grow many other crops and fruit trees. Cacao, by default, is already being grown very sustainably in bio-diverse settings. If we can further this model, because of consumer demand, by replanting deforested areas then I can only say I’d be a hypocrite if we didn’t do business with box stores.

We all need to be the Lorax in this day and age.

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David: Another chocolate-maker, not a Lorax, told me that most cacao beans aren’t sprayed much since the locals can’t afford it, but I’ve also heard otherwise.
What’s the truth?

Frederick: Both are true.
As I just noted above, the vast majority of cacao is grown on small family farms and yes, most of them are too poor to afford chemicals. It’s on the larger plantations that spraying will occur and most often it’s the “premium” brands that will buy plantation grown cacao because it’s often of better quality. I believe the government of Ghana will do aerial sprayings from time to time, as cacao is such as important export to that countries economy.

Methyl Bromide is the fumigant of choice for cacao, and this is where the pesticide gets applied. The cacao doesn’t get sprayed on the farm level; it’s at the ports where the cacao gets sprayed. When a container of cacao leaves a countries port, there’s gonna be insects in that cacao, so they fumigate. When the container arrives into port, say in the US, and there is any sign of insects, they fumigate again. I’ve heard that cacao is actually one of the most heavily fumigated commodities in the world. I have a friend in the industry that used to work at a very large chocolate company and his job was to, every Thursday, fumigate the cacao warehouse with Methyl Bromide. He had to have a special handling license to carry out this task. I hear murmur in industry that methyl bromide may be getting phased out of use, which is a good thing, as it’s nasty stuff.

David: I read somewhere that professionals don’t use organic chocolate, since it doesn’t taste as good as ‘regular’ chocolate. What are your thoughts on this and who’s the biggest market for Dagoba chocolate, home cooks or professionals?

Frederick: To the professionals that say this, I would say, in a blind taste test of the San Francisco Chronicle, we beat Scharffenberger and Valrhona. We were awarded ‘best dark chocolate’ – the first time an organic chocolate ever won this award. Taste, is of course, subjective. I personally don’t like a brand of French chocolate that people do back flips over for. To me, it tastes over roasted and the particle size is actually too small, therefore making it feel slimy on my palate. Other people go gaga over it. No right or wrong. I personally don’t enjoy it.

There really is no difference between conventional and organic chocolate when it comes to quality. Taste is taste and conventional chocolates all taste differently. Organic chocolates all taste differently. I would be more than happy to sit down with the professionals that say that organic isn’t as good as conventional and conduct a blind taste test and have them tell me which is organic and which is conventional.

Our biggest market is thru retailers. Our retail bars are what drive our business. We’re a small company and we just can’t compete on price with the big boys for food service business. We do sell our chocolate to a great many elite restaurants who brand us on the menu. But outside of that tiny niche, we don’t sell much in the food service sector. Plus, for the retail bars, it allows me to create more and experiment with flavor infusions, which I really love doing.

David: And are there any pastry chefs that you know who are using your chocolate?

Frederick: Honestly, not off the top of my head. I don’t pay attention to this, even though I probably should. I like what I do and often times get very tunnel visioned in my passion, meaning I don’t pay attention to the “who’s and the what’s” as much as I probably should.

David: Lately, everyone’s obsessed with percentages, which signify how much cacao is in the chocolate. Why do you think that is and do you think percentages are important?

Frederick: I think it started erupting when the health benefits of dark chocolate started to get announced by the media. This is when the public really started to pay attention to the cocoa content, as they were all looking for 70% or higher, regardless of what it tasted like.

I think percentages are important as they act as a kind of barometer for how dark chocolate is. It will rest on the flavor of the chocolate for me, but I’m much more apt to purchase a 65% or higher, so I personally appreciate knowing how much cacao is in the bar.

Yet, we must also remember that cacao percentage is defined as how much cacao is in there, not just cacao solids. So the percentage can include cocoa butter, which will dilute the flavor. So we can have a 85% dark bar that has an extra 20% cocoa butter added, making that 85% bar very mild; and probably pretty nasty too.

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David: To be honest, Frederick, I never really liked milk chocolate until I tasted your Dagoba Milk Chocolate Chai Bar with candied ginger and spices, and a whole new world opened up to me. So I tried some of your others, including the Brasilia Bar with coconut and Brazil nuts, and Latté, scented with coffee beans and cinnamon, and now I’m hooked on milk chocolate, as well as dark! Who came up with all these exceptional flavor combinations? (And how can we become tasters?)

Frederick: I create the products, usually after a bottle of really good wine. The Chai is actually one of my favorites too. Some people say it’s too strong on the spices, but it’s the way I like my chai tea – spicy! I like a lot of cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, anise in my chai tea, so that’s how I wanted to create this bar. I experimented with a dark chocolate chai bar, but the bitters of the dark bar really suppressed the spices.

Once the new factory is up and running with the tours, I’m sure we’ll have the “tasting trial table”, where people can try some of my new creations and write comments.

Ever had a milk bar with bacon bits and sun dried figs? It’s so good.

David: Bacon and dried figs? Sounds like a nice breakfast! I can’t wait for that one, Frederick. I noticed you’ve concocted cacao ‘elixirs’. Who came up with these and what does one do with them?
And what the heck is ‘horny goat weed’?

Frederick: What we did is use vegetable glycerin as the solvent base instead of alcohol, so there is an inherent sweetness to the elixirs. Then, the primary botanical in the elixir is cacao; which we extracted from organic Ecuadorian Arriba Nacional nibs. From there, we built on the botanicals for each formula. THEY ARE SOOOOOOO GOOD!!! The plain Cacao Elixir is like getting your chocolate craving without eating chocolate. There is no cocoa butter, so you’re not eating the fat (nothing wrong with cocoa butter though!). The Antioxidant Elixir is made with copious amounts of berries, so it’s really rich in flavor.

Horny goat weed? Exactly!

David: If someone’s serving a chocolate dessert, what beverage do you think goes well with it?

Frederick: If it’s got a cork in it, I like it.

David: I’m very excited when I learned that you’ve found a source for rare and special Ocumare cacao beans and you’re going to start selling it soon. I’ve had a few Ocumare chocolates and they’re exceptional. Why did you choose to pursue Ocumare, which is rare and frankly, rather costly?

Frederick: Ocumare is expensive and rare.
We were able to secure the majority of last springs harvest and the next harvest. It’s exceptional cacao and the post harvest handling is top notch. I was really impressed with their facility. Ocumare is also certified organic, which many people don’t know. As we grow as a company and my desire to continue to create world class chocolate matures, sourcing the best cacao has to be the primary focus. Without the best cacao, we can’t create the best chocolate.

We’ll also be bringing in some other very special cacao from Venezuela. I happened to be at the right place at the right time and secured some cacao from Puerto Ayacucho. A few times a year, Indians from the Cepai tribe come down from the headwaters of the Orinoco River with wild harvested cacao. It takes them about 15 days in their canoes to bring the cacao to Puerto Ayachucho. If the river is low, they have to go over land on donkeys, which takes about 30 days – one way! They only bring about 3,000lbs per trip, so the supply is extremely limited. The flavor is very unique and I’m really excited to be able to make chocolate from this cacao and offer it to people.

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David: I love your Xocolatl bar, a wickedly-dark bittersweet chocolate with chilies and cacao nibs, which is in my personal Top Ten Chocolate Bar category (actually, my top five.) People think adding chilies to chocolate is new and exciting, but it’s been done for thousands of years. You’re following a long-standing tradition. If that isn’t your number #1 selling chocolate bar, can you tell us what is?

Frederick: Yes, it is actually our #1 selling bar. And yes, it’s paying homage to the Aztecs beverage, Xocoatl. I never expected it to be our #1 selling bar, to be honest. I just wanted to show respect to what had come before me and for allowing me to make chocolate. I think it’s great that it’s our #1 bar, as it just shows that consumers are wanting to try unique things.

David: What’s in the future for Frederick and Dagoba chocolate that readers can look out for?

Frederick: Oh boy, that’s a big question and even bigger answer. People can always go to our website and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter. We report on everything that is happening in our universe and what new products are coming out.

In short, I’m really looking forward to coming out with some really unique single origin chocolates. I just secured some amazing Criollo-Trinitario cacao from the Philippines, so that should be out by the first of the year. A bar made from cacao of Bali. A single estate chocolate from Nicaragua. A bar made from cacao from the Napo of Ecuador. Right now, I’m all about digging down as far as I can go with source and bring these unique origins to the people; instead of blending it. I so love the ability to taste the terroir of cacao from each region, as it is so truly distinct.

It’s a great journey and I’m having fun doing it. And thanks to our customers for giving me the opportunity to do what I do.

Thanks David!

David: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Frederick.
Have a great trip, and I’m looking forward to visiting your factory when it opens next year, and tasting your new chocolates…especially that Ocumare.