Interview with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

It’s time to sit back and be whisked away to Vanuatu, an archipelago of around 80 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, with Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat located in Port-Vila the capital of Vanuatu, located on the island of Efate.

I’ve had the chance to try seven bars by Gaston Chocolat thus far, and have enjoyed them all! Their Coconut, Caramelized Nangae Nut and Rum Drummed Raisins bars are tied for my top favs!

If you haven’t tried Vanuatu cacao yet, guess what? Gaston Chocolat is planning to be at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA this year in November! As you dream about trying their chocolate (or if you have and you need some more) enjoy this interview with Olivier!

Olivier Fernandez of Gaston Chocolat

Victoria Cooksey: What inspired you to start Gaston Chocolat?

Olivier Fernandez: In short, my grandfather, a lifelong love for cacao and coffee, the Vanuatu archipelago and its people, the chocolate makers I have met, worked and became friends with along this journey.

My Grandpa was Gaston and, though he passed before I was born, I admire the vision he had and try to model the determination it took to achieve success in entrepreneurship. Having his name on the front door of our shop is a constant reminder to never take shortcuts and to always aim for quality. I grew up in the French Riviera, where my mum and dad were managing the family resorts and I was part of the ballet from the day I started to talk. I worked with them and was in the kitchen birthed in fresh coffee grind. We had a typical dry Mediterranean garden with lots of fruit trees and having ready access to these ingredients spurred a love for digging around in old recipes, cooking jams and experimenting with mixing flavours.

I set foot in Vanuatu for the first time in 2005 and felt instantly in love with the country and its people. Vanuatu has a unique balance of everything I love, the challenges and complexity of a developing country which is humbling, and people with a genuine generosity and will to experience. This is where my wife was born and raised and where we fell in love.

I was fresh out of kindergarten when a school trip took us to visit Jean-Louis Vaissaud’s Chocolate workshop. That was my first chocolate making experience and twenty years later we became good friends and he shared his incredible knowledge of 40+ years in the fabrication of bonbons.

A turning point was to cross paths with people who have inspired me in this journey. Stephane Bonnat of Chocolat Bonnat gave me three hours of his time and the best advice I could receive in the importance of producing the best quality beans before even starting to make a chocolate. Josh Bahen of Bahen and Co who has a unique love for craft and machinery and creates some of my favourite bars. David Cram for his work to lift up the quality and OFimage of cacao in the region and for starting out as a business partner with me in Gaston and becoming such a good friend and member of the family. Earlier this year I went to Japan with my friend Charles Lemai from Atypic chocolate in Melbourne. I love his work, him and I shared a lot since days one. I got to meet Vincent Mourou from Marou chocolate during the trip and over the few hours we chatted I told him how I looked up at what they did with Sam Maruta in raising the profile of Vietnam’s cacao gems and coming up with a unique product and strong identity.

VC: How many cacao farmers do you work with and how many locations/islands does the cacao come from that you use in your bars?

OF: We currently work on three different islands in the Northern part of the archipelago, in about ten different locations. The farmers that we work with have been trained by us to produce the quality that we were looking to achieve and to-date we have trained over 80 farmers and the number is growing every harvest season. Cacao grows mostly in the northern part of the archipelago on the islands of Malekula, Espiritu Santo and Epi. There are a few trees on the island where our factory and shop is but it is not grown at commercial scale. From our little town of Port Vila it takes around an hour’s flight to reach the islands where we work and then half a day of trucking and boating depending how far you want to go to experience different cacao. Some of these villages are only accessible by boat or long hours of hiking through the rainforest on logging tracks. It is always an adventure and lately I’ve been taking my motorcross bike to the islands on an overnight ferry which gives me the freedom to reach out more efficiently and independently to some of the more remote areas. I’ve been reaching out to the cacao growing areas for over 5 years now but there is still so much to discover, it’s like an endless field of possible and I love this feeling. Season after season you build the relation further with the farmers and their families; definitely a human adventure.

VC: Since Vanuatu is made up of so many islands how does that affect the ability to transport the cacao to Gaston Chocolat?

OF: It is indeed one of the most challenging aspects of growing cacao and ultimately making chocolate in Vanuatu. Imagine a chain of eighty plus islands from North to South with little or limited road access. This leaves few options for transport and as such most of it is done by boat which turns out being pretty challenging depending on the weather and sea conditions. There are some small inter-island freight boats that will follow a loose schedule so farmers not only have to be in tune with the needs of processing of their beans but also when the ship may possibly make its way past their part of the island. When this happens the ship is usually anchored off the shore and a small dinghy goes back and forth to load all the crops (not just cacao) that are lined up on a stretch of sand beach waiting to be carried away to the markets in Port Vila. When the weather is fine this works reasonably well but if the sea is rough or there are cyclones in the area then this can mean problems for both the farmers and us as chocolate makers.

Apart from the physical transportation issues working with farmers located on different islands can also represent a challenge in finding ways to actually pay the farmers where there are no banking services in the rural areas. Sometimes the culture may also be a barrier when modernity is not trusted and you have to actually reach out in person to the village and pay the farmers in cash from hand to hand because they don’t trust any other way of doing it. This is why I believe education of the chocolate lovers is key. There is a world of difference between the adventurous pictures we post on Instagram and Facebook about hunting beans and the reality of handling the whole logistic and quality chain on a weekly basis. I have vivid memories of working on harvests with the farmers in the rainy season working in mud for ten hours a day, but somehow we tend to only share the sunny ones and show the glamorous part of it.

Another reality is the challenge we face in getting our finished products from Vanuatu to the rest of the world. The costs associated with travelling a bean to our shop and then finished chocolate out of Vanuatu isn’t the same as getting it out of Central America, but at the end, we compete on the same shelves and stockists have to make a living out of it. If you want to respect everyone in the supply chain it takes a lot of customer education to explain what makes the price and what they will experience.

VC: What other types of plants/crops grow near the cacao trees? Does this terroir inspire which inclusions you add to your bars?

OF: Plantations are just the domesticated part of tropical lush rainforest that surrounds us here. There is a rich biodiversity and we try to work as much as we can with local varieties of nuts, plants and fruits to come up with new recipes and flavours. You will find many cacao trees growing as an understory in coconut plantations in Vanuatu and I’d say this is probably what inspired us to develop our coconut bar. I love the twist you can bring to chocolate lovers in re-visiting recipes using endemic fruits or varieties. The pairing of chocolate with fruits and nuts is an easy one and when you replace classic peanuts with the fresh ones growing in the region or when you use the Melanesian version of wild raspberries instead of the mainstream varieties modern countries are accustomed to, a whole new world of flavours opens up and we find this very exciting. In Vanuatu (and other places in the Pacific such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) we have some incredible indigenous nuts to work with. One of our favourites is called Nangae in Vanuatu (Canarium Indicum) and features in one of our best-selling bars. Another is called Natapoa and these nuts are like pine nuts in shape but four times the size and grow layer after layer in a circular way and we use them in our chocolate panned range. We also work with other endemic and interesting varieties of fruits such as raspberries, and oranges (which interestingly are green in colour in Vanuatu). We run micro batches that we share in tasting with our crew, with visitors at the shop and our friends. It is challenging when you have a flavour that you are obsessed with and the processing is altering or changing entirely. In some attempts, you come up with beautiful recipes but the processing is so tedious that it would be too hard to reproduce at commercial scale, another reality of our work when you have to repeat recipes and bars over time. Some of our chocolate bars are seasonal and it’s nice to see our regular clients asking when it will next be on shelves.

VC: How has your thoughts on chocolate/chocolate making changed since starting Gaston Chocolat?

OF: I’m always amazed by the diversity and richness of what can be done with cacao and chocolate, the pairings and creativity of all the people involved in chocolate making. I believe one of the challenges is to develop a story that comes with your product, or in the end you only differentiate by the marketing and your packaging and this repetition might be detrimental to the customer’s experience and image of craft chocolate in general. To us, living in a country that actually grows cocoa, it was essential to go further and put our hands into the making of the beans themselves. Learn about fermentation, drying, pre and post-harvest treatment. I read a lot about terroir and genetics in posts and blogs and it is true there is a signature flavour you will find in beans that comes from the environment where they were grown and processed. But frankly, when I see the variations in flavours you get when you start working on fermentation, the slow transition between the fruitiness and nutty flavours in increasing your fermentation times, the magnitude is surprising and I’m convinced that this is where the challenge is. Year after year the same plantation can give you so many different things depending on the precipitation, the amount of sun, the temperatures and time in the year you harvest and ferment.

I also learned that understanding your market is key. When we started I was focused on exports and pretty anxious to get stockists and retailers that would offer our chocolate on sale to their clients because I had this misperception that our local market was too small. Truth be told, we have only started to export recently because the same local market I thought was small absorbed about all the chocolate we produced. Then only I realised that my contingency plan that was to export and balance the source of revenues between the local market and international was mostly motivated by the fear of not selling and in the end was not legitimate.

Client, Roy Buktan Production Manager and Olivier Fernandez 

VC: How do you like to enjoy chocolate on an average day? How does that change on holidays and special occasions?

OF: It starts at breakfast in my muesli, usually a very high cacao content, low sugar, 90% and above, cracked on fresh fruits and cereals. Then I do tasting of our production on a daily basis, dry beans, roasted beans and liquor. But above all, my favourite time is when we finish work at 5pm and head to what we know as the Nakamal. In the Ni-Vanuatu culture the Nakamal was and still is the traditional meeting place in the village and although we live in town Nakamals are still places to meet and catch up. We don’t have to call each other or make plans, we just drive to the Nakamal and know that our friends will be there. The drinking of kava (our local beverage made from the roots of a member of the pepper family) is deeply entwined within the culture of the Nakamal and it is over bowls of kava that we share the stories of the day and this helps to drive a strong sense of community living. These people are my family and a very diverse group of characters and they also happen to act as my quality control panel or group to throw new chocolate ideas at. Sharing our new experiments straight of the lab is always a great moment and if a particular chocolate idea is a hit with them we are usually pretty sure it will be a hit for our customers. They’ve been there from day one with Gaston and I love to see them comment on what we do, no matter how good or bad. Seeing me cutting pieces of a new chocolate bar experiment on a wooden stool with my pocket knife and walking it around the different groups at the Nakamal for them to try and comment on is a common scene.

My wife loves to bake and is always coming up with a different way to use our chocolate in the things she makes. We spend a lot of our weekends with her family near the beach and great food is always a focus for the weekend and a reason for the family and friends to come together and I’m happy that our chocolate often gets to feature here.

Whenever I travel or when David comes from Australia where he’s based, I get to taste beautiful bars from other makers which is always a delight and continues to push us to strive for a top quality product at Gaston.

Finally, for me as a consumer chocolate is to be enjoyed everyday and I don’t believe I would have more or less of it because of it being a particular day or holiday. As a maker on the other hand, the holidays mean for a very busy time at work!

David Cram, Stephane Jacobe (next to David in the front), Chief Tari (in the middle), Jean-Charles (back right) and farmers of Dixon Reef

VC: Congrats on your recent win of bronze medals for both your Coconut and Nangae bars in the Academy of Chocolate International Awards 2019! (I love both of those bars!). How does a win like this affect the visibility of Vanuatu cacao, and inspire how you move forward in your chocolate making, etc?

OF: Merci beaucoup! It is an important step in our journey at Gaston and it’s nice to have this recognition. At times it can feel like we are at the end of the earth and a bit more off-grid than the average craft chocolate maker and knowing that people appreciate and love what we do continues to drive us forward. We’ve spent about three years working on the beans with the farmers before we started the production of chocolate on a commercial scale and it’s been an intense two years of setting up the chocolate making side of the story. It has been a lot of time invested and we’ve always been convinced it was going in the right way and getting medals is telling us that it is not just our personal appreciation of the story. The two bars that won the medals were already our best sellers so it was nice to see the judging affirm what our customers have been telling us for a while now. It is also a nice way to reach out to stockists and retailers who’ve never heard of Gaston or Vanuatu before.

I’m very appreciative of the work of those who put together these international competitions; it must be a logistic nightmare and then to make a clean cut between an ever growing panel of beautiful chocolate must be even harder.

We committed from day one to work with Vanuatu origin beans and bring the best out of it, but in a way, this meant limiting ourselves from the endless possibilities of picking the finest genetics around the world. For us, it was part of the process of trying to put a less renowned origin bean under the spotlight. I believe it would be very interesting if there was a special category for that in awards, one that would consider the challenges and commitment of bringing new origins to the map of world fine chocolates and take risks.

About the way we want to move forward with our chocolate making, I have been experimenting with more milk recipes lately and the soon addition of a new cacao butter press to our set-up will allow us to bring some new and interesting products; watch this space! Some of the beans grown on Epi Island give beautiful nutty flavours and they work amazingly for milk based recipes and we will continue to explore this further. David is coming up with lots of ideas and exploring ways to use more of the local fruits in our inclusion bars and this is another avenue we will continue to explore.

VC: There’s an ongoing conversation in the craft chocolate world about labels, such as bean-to-bar, craft chocolate, specialty chocolate, etc. especially in regards to separating the difference between more direct trade/fine cacao versus products of a lesser quality and the fact that larger companies are starting to put more craft-like terminology on their packaging? How important are these types of labels? Would it be better for makers not to focus as much on them? How does focus on these labels affect creativity?

OF: The more information you share the more educated the client will be. I am an advocate of transparency in the whole supply chain, and being so close to the cacao producers drives this home to us. That said, if your product is not up to your packaging or what it says, you might fool your customer once but not twice, and the way we work or trade should be information we share but not turn out to be the main reason for purchasing a product. At Gaston we’ve defined and challenge the way we work to apply all of what we learn in terms of fairness in trade, gender equality, environmental impact and I believe this is a common will in the craft industry these days. However, if we keep using it as a marketing tool, it remains an exception and will not become the norm. This is a personal choice we make and our commitment, not one that we should make on behalf of the consumer and charge him an extra for. Our packaging doesn’t show any fair trade mark nor organic label though I can guarantee you that the soils our cacao is grown on are the most pristine you could think of. By default all our cacao is produced using organic practices and the reality in Vanuatu is that pesticides and fertilisers are expensive; it would cost the farmers too much to use non-organic practices. When it comes to industrial fabrication of chocolate, well I believe we need these large corporations to drive volumes for the farmers and sustain the market. To buy what we would consider a second grade cacao and still provide incomes to the farmers because from where we stand we are way too small to make it sustainable for the farmers. We are providing a nice alternative for a portion of the farmer’s production paying them better for the top range of their beans, when the balance is sold to the mainstream market and it has a purpose. Not everyone can afford an 8$ bar but everyone should know what chocolate tastes like in their life. I grew up eating a lot of dark low quality chocolate and it only triggered an appetite for better and more quality. I still enjoyed every bar of chocolate that was in my lunch bag at school.

Last, on labels, though I understand their aim and think they are motivated by an educational purpose, every time I tried to workout the benefits of having a label versus the cost, it never came as a viable option whether it is for beans or chocolate.

VC: Moving forward, what direction would you like to see Gaston Chocolate grow? What would you want the world to think of when they think of cacao from Vanuatu?

OF: More and more makers are trying to diversify and get new origins in their chocolate range and this is an incredible opportunity for the farmers and for Vanuatu. There has been a lot of work done to improve the quality of pre and post-harvest processing at the farms and the awareness and level of skills in the field has definitely raised a lot. I wish in the future people will know the distinct flavour of cacao grown in our rich organic volcanic soils and place Vanuatu on the map of fine flavour cacao.

For Gaston I would love it to be the flagship of Vanuatu cacao and work hard to make sure that we make the best chocolate with Vanuatu origin beans. The challenge for us is now to develop exports and find stockists around the world. I find it encouraging when a customer comes to the shop and tells us “You should export your chocolate, it would sell well overseas!!” This is our challenge today; to understand the rules for every country and make a distinct choice for countries that make more sense to focus on to start, which country will allow to preserve an honest margin for the sustainability of our activity after the overseas freight has been included.

VC: What are the best ways for people to purchase/find your bars?

OF: Well for sure the best way is to come here to Vanuatu and see us in our shop!. Alternatively, you will be able to see us in person at our booth at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle this coming November. We are also currently working on our online presence and will have our new website completed in the near future. Otherwise, you can also contact us by e-mail at [email protected], whether for your personal treat or as stockist we’ll find the best way to reach out to you or on Instagram or Facebook.

Thank you so much for this interview Olivier Fernandez!

Photo credits: Portrait and landscapes by Valerie Fernandez Photography, all other pictures by Gaston Chocolat.

Gaston Chocolat:

https://www.instagram.com/gastonchocolat/

Victoria Cooksey:

https://www.instagram.com/victoria.cooksey/

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCm-lp-lF_wB2oX_592jK9UQ

https://www.reddit.com/user/VictoriaLCooksey

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