Interview with Domantas Užpalis of Chocolate Naive with Victoria Cooksey

Chocolate Naive is a specialty bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Vilnius, Lithuania.  Chocolate Naive has won several awards and Domantas was recently named 2017’s Chocolate Maker of the Year by Chocolate Uplift. After being a fan of Chocolate Naive’s bars, and communicating through direct messaging, I was pleased to met Domantas Užpalis in person at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA.  Domantas is great at giving complete, one- on-one, attention which is sometimes rare these days.  Even more recently I had the chance to interview him.

Domantas Užpalis of Chocolate Naive with Victoria Cooksey at the Northwest Chocolate Festival November 2017

Victoria Cooksey: How has your work with craft chocolate changed you?  What changes have you seen in the craft chocolate industry since you started Chocolate Naive?

Domantas Užpalis: My former background is with IT and urban city development – nothing to do with food.  So jumping into chocolate was quite a change and it did change everything.  I have no official culinary education although I was always interested in what we consume and where our food comes from.  I was and still am a proponent of the slow food movement and this is where it all started.  My first encounter with slow food concept was through the making and selling of fresh farm-made dairy products and then I slowly shifted towards more sophisticated produce – chocolate.  It has been  almost 8 years since I became fully engaged with this multilayered product.  

Back in 2011 I had a saying: in 5 years the chocolate industry will undergo a revolution.  But the statement is still very relevant as of today; frankly speaking, the change is much slower than I predicted, so I am more careful with statements.  Although I do observe dramatic chocolate industry changes as well.  More and more people are interested in understanding the socio-economic and rheological aspects of chocolate and this is a good thing.  Chocolate is associated with fine food again and this is the most important shift. 

V.C.: Where does you inspiration come from for the stories on the back of the bars such as the peanut butter bar?  Does the bar come first, or the story and then the bar?

D.U.: I want to express chocolate in unorthodox ways and sometimes I go a little too far.  Nevertheless, some people like it. I never wanted to follow cliches and trends, to copy, paste and replicate the norms.  The market is dominated by boring and repetitive products and I just don’t understand why I should do another one.  Actually, I was always into writing-but nothing too serious.  So these hidden graphomania temptations are always with me and I have a good platform to express it (on the product packaging)…So how can I not?  On the other hand my writing style matches the name of the brand and identifies who we are and how we want to express ourselves.  So that’s why the writing is a bit infantile and sarcastic.

Chocolate Naive’s Peanut Butter Organic Milk Chocolate Bar

V.C.: On your travels for single origin chocolate, what experiences surprised you?

D.U.: When I am in a cacao plantation I feel like I am home.  It provides me some sort of calming effect 🙂 For the chocolate maker it’s like being in a mothers womb.  I encourage everyone involved in chocolate to have cacao plantation visits.  It teaches you a lot.  Some of the plantations are very humble and low profile where others are polished and very technical.  It is a birthplace of the chocolate bar.  Not in the factory, but on a tree!

V.C.: With (for example) your Ambrosia bar what are some difficulties, or pleasures, working to combine honey with chocolate?

D.U: Honey is in my blood.  It is the nectar that represents our soil, wood, meadows and fresh countryside air.  I collaborate with the most interesting and niche bee keepers and I love to use the liquid gold in our products.  Honey is an easy tool to incorporate our terroir into the chocolate.  Having said that, nothing is easy when it comes to combining honey and chocolate.  Probably we are one of the first, if not the first, who attempted to blend these two and it was a journey ever since.  Our Ambrosia bar is the outcome of many years of attempts to connect these whimsical ingredients. Finally, I am happy with the result. The ambrosia chocolate is piney, woody, floral and one of a kind.  It represents where I come from too. 

Ambrosia by Chocolate Naive 

V.C.: Through your experience in Lithuania and your travels to various chocolate show locations, how is chocolate viewed differently around the world? What are the similarities?

D.U.: I have to say it differs from country to country and some countries are not yet ready for premium high-end chocolates.  We have changed the chocolate situation in my home country for sure, but we still cannot compare to the erudition of the eater coming from the States or France.  Japan is picking up very rapidly so does some Scandinavian countries, like Sweden or Denmark.  Some countries, unfortunately, still perceive chocolate as candy and neither consumers nor retailers understand it well.  There is a lot of work to be done by producers, educators, influencers and distributors for chocolate to show its true potential.  As mentioned before, it is still in it’s infancy level but who will be the first, will be the first. 

V.C.: What is the most frustrating/challenging thing about working with chocolate?

D.U.: Everything.  I have been quitting so many times.  People cannot imagine the amount of effort that is invested into the fine chocolate bar.  From sourcing to manufacturing to selling – it is not the easiest product to work with and if it was just for the money, I would rather have stayed with my previous job.  Furthermore, the industry is still very young and not established.  We have to break a lot of ice and try to find new ways of explaining the product to the eater.  Fine chocolate is in it’s infancy when compared to coffee or tea.  The wine industry is very far ahead as well.  To be honest I don’t think chocolate is moving the right direction.  It is moving too deep into the craft-style product category, but it should be moving into the luxury category instead because this is where it belongs.  If we end up promoting chocolate as a craft chocolate product it can never become a product of high value.  I want chocolate to be positioned next to Champagne, caviar or niche perfume.  I want to see chocolate sommeliers, neat production facilities and state-of-the-art products but not craft paper packaging, chocolate makers dressed like carpenters making chocolate with DIY machinery in a basement garage. Chocolate makers should make their products premium. 

V.C.: How would you define craft chocolate?

D.U.: I just don’t get along with term ‘craft’ anymore.  Let’s start using the term of specialty chocolate instead 🙂 The specialty chocolate is a product of scarcity and it is used for special occasions only. This type of product is transparent but a bit mysterious at the same time.  The maker of specialty chocolate is obliged to use the finest raw materials and greatest technological processes while executing a bar.  He is also obliged to excite and surprise the eater and never fall into a trap of cliches and unauthentic results. 

V.C.:  What do you consider to be the difference between ‘off flavors’ in chocolate versus personal preference in taste?

D.U: I never argue about the taste.  I don’t believe in strong and opinionated flavour judging.  I see a lot of it in the chocolate industry too and I wonder, who are these people and what on earth do they know?  Arguing about the flavour is the same as to argue about a colour – so which is better, blue or green?  Everyone has a unique perspective over flavour and aroma and it is a 100% subjective parameter.  On other hand, there are some parameters of quality than can be evaluated objectively and this is something that can be measured, like texture, mouth-feel, temper, colour, recipe calibration, etc.  Some chocolate ‘experts’ fuck it up with interpreting quality, as this knowledge comes with practice, preferably by making and tasting chocolate for many years and professionally. 

V.C.: What are the top three critical attributes beans must meet to be considered for use in NANO_LOT?

D.U.: Scarcity, flavour and background.  I wanted to create the product that constantly evolves and tells a story or two.  The NANO_LOT collection excites me so I hope this excitement will transmit to out eaters as well.  It is the most sophisticated and labour intensive project I was ever involved in and I have very high hopes for it.  NANO_LOT is a commitment to evolve, change and surprise. 

NANO_LOT Nicalizo Special by Chocolate Naive 

V.C.: Any new upcoming projects you would like to mention?

D.U.: I have too many ideas in my head.  I really want to explore the other side of chocolate, going away from orthodox products like chocolate bars towards something a bit more atypical and new .  I would like to believe that our journey via chocolate has just begun and innovation and experimentation will keep us moving forward.  I would like to see ourselves as a cacao/chocolate lab that deconstructs chocolate to the molecular level and then reconstructs it back into something totally new.  I cannot reveal too much now about our new developments but I hope to update you in the very near future.  

Thank you Domantas for this interview!

Chocolate Naive:

Victoria Cooksey:

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