What The Holiday Wrought

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Cutting cacao pods on Diego Badaró’s farm, in Bahia. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON FLORIO

Because celebrating the Easter holiday is now so closely associated with chocolate, I presume, this article from the archives is suddenly front and center at one of our favorite websites. During our time in India I have learned from artisanal chocolatiers about Cadbury, among other big candy companies, who incentivized the removal of the high quality cacao that was growing here, in favor of more economical lower quality cacao. Bummer.

I remember first learning about chocolate from this article (click the image to the right to go to it), and it was worth the time to read it again based on my now-expanded interest in chocolate; also because it is a great story of entrepreneurship; and because Bill Buford is one of the greatest long-form writers on food:

Extreme Chocolate

The quest for the perfect bean.

BY BILL BUFORD

On July 7, 2001, Frederick Schilling and his girlfriend, Tracey Holderman, arrived in New York to attend the Fancy Food Show and launch Dagoba, an organic-chocolate company. Schilling had just turned thirty, Holderman was twenty-nine, and the show was the first entrepreneurial event of their lives. Dagoba had no employees and no orders. It had a lease for a ground-floor industrial space in Boulder, Colorado (the “factory”), and an investment of twenty thousand dollars (borrowed from Schilling’s mother and an uncle), which, after flights, a hotel, and a fee for the smallest possible booth, against a dark wall in the basement of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, was gone. It also had “launch products”—seven bars, including infusions of raspberry and mint—an amateurish jamboree, confected and poured into molds by a man who had never liked chocolate, hand-wrapped by a woman who rarely ate more than two ounces a year, and tested only by their Boulder friends and roommates, a scraggly crew of ski bums and folksingers. Dagoba was more bedroom than boardroom. In New York, that changed.

“I was overwhelmed,” Holderman told me. “The magnitude of the show, the number of other chocolate companies—I had no idea.” Their venture had begun a few months earlier, on Valentine’s Day. Holderman and Schilling were on a chairlift, skiing in the Arapahoe Basin, when Schilling said he could wait no longer (“I need to do this now!”). He raced down, shopped, got home, melted two batches of organic chocolate, infusing one with milk chai, the other with raspberries and rose hips, poured them into heart-shaped molds, and served them on a silver platter to the hundred friends who came over for a party that went on till the next morning, with guests naked in a hot tub, “praying for peace,” as a red sun brightened the Continental Divide.

The Fancy Food Show runs for three days. By the end, Holderman and Schilling’s samples had disappeared in a bewildering thirty-six-hour gobblefest, their picture taken so often that they felt like celebrities—the boyfriend-girlfriend team with wacky organics—and Schilling, a self-described alchemist, entered the happiest period of his life. He became a chocolate-maker.

I found Schilling at this year’s show slumped uncomfortably in a plastic chair. His face was in a cup of coffee, absorbing steam. He was wearing an oversized floppy cotton shirt, the top buttons undone, a hairy chest on display, jeans, clogs, a discolored shiny leather bracelet. He was wolverine thin, with an unshaven scratchy face, sagging cheeks, and soft round sacks under his eyes, and his breath smelled so powerfully of red wine from the night before that a staff member gave him two sticks of cinnamon gum. He had just returned from a trip to Bali, Java, and Sulawesi, including a stint in the tropical backcountry, and he kept running a hand through his hair, as if to make sure that a soft-tissue creature hadn’t made a home there. He wasn’t on a New York clock yet, he explained, but realized, counting slowly, that he’d been here five days. He looked up, perplexed, his eyes so red they could have been rubbed with sand.

Schilling is thirty-six, no longer a novice but still not the obvious founder of a manufacturing company with many millions of dollars in sales. His education has been scattershot. He applied to one college, St. John’s in New Mexico, didn’t get in, prepared to enter a monastery, and, at the last minute, was offered a scholarship by Ohio Wesleyan to play lacrosse. (“I love lacrosse!”) He intended to study religion, hoping to satisfy a spiritual need, but, in the summer, attended a music festival “in the sacred valley of Telluride” and never returned. He worked for a record store, the sum of his business experience. He played guitar. He wrote songs, smoked “an insane amount of herbal blends,” and was the lead singer in a band. After six years, he moved to Boulder, but, fundamentally, his life never changed.

At the show, Schilling and I walked past the French chocolates of Michel Cluizel and saw a photograph of the white-haired patriarch surrounded by his offspring: four scrawny young adults, each assigned to a different division of the business. Dagoba is an inverted version. Schilling has no children, but his mother, a soft-spoken sixty-one-year-old divorcée, looks after the front office. She was running the stand that morning. An older sister, unmarried, keeps the books. And his father, a misanthropic ex-I.B.M. corporate manager, retired at forty-nine (“So I could golf, drink beer, bowl, and play blackjack at Indian casinos,” he told me), was summoned one weekend to give lessons in how to run a business and stayed for years. “How do I travel so much?” Schilling said. “I’ve got Papa Jon nearby, Sister Becky doing the accounts, and Mother Mary working the phones.” He beamed. His smile was disarming because it was so trusting, confident that the affection it conveyed would be reciprocated, and his manner, despite the hangover and the slouch and the exhaustion, was irrepressibly cheerful. “Theobroma cacao,” he exhaled—the scientific name given to chocolate by Linnaeus—stretching out his arms as though to embrace his products in a loving hug. “Theos, god. Broma, food. The food of the gods.”…

Read the whole article here.

 

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