Interview with Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz of Les Chocolateries Askanya

Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz is the co-founder and CEO of Les Chocolateries Askanya whos craft chocolate bars feature Haitian cacao along with the bars being made Haiti.

Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz is the co-founder and CEO of Les Chocolateries Askanya

All of the chocolate makers at Askanya are women and Askanya happens to be celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year. (Congrats and wishing you many more years Les Chocolateries Askanya!).

Studying industrial engineering and achieving an MBA, Corinne long-term vision was to create both a business and jobs, but she didn’t know at the time those dreams began that the business would be in craft chocolate.

(My personal favorite Askanya bar is the 65% Bouquet Vert Lime Chocolate dark chocolate bar with a lime zest inclusion with the zest also coming from Haiti-based MyaBel Food & Beverage).

Corinne’s openness and personality shine through in this interview and I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I have.

Victoria Cooksey: How has your work/life experience, travel and education all lead you to start a craft chocolate business?

Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz: Unfortunately, I was not the chocolate lover. I didn’t get in the craft chocolate business because I was a chocoholic (Sorry, Victoria – but I do love delicious food, in general).

Growing up in Haiti, I was aware of the poverty and lack of opportunities surrounding me (whether it was the cook asking for extra help to pay for her grandson tuition or the housekeeper needing money for a medical emergency). As a teenager (back then), I promised to myself: when I grow up, I will not just do “charity”, I will create jobs.

I figured studying industrial engineering and getting an MBA would help me run a business efficiently and profitably, when I was ready to realize this bucket list item of mine.

So almost 15 years later, I had the skills and knowledge and was deciding what business to run. By then, I wanted my business to generate revenues for farmers (since 60% of Haiti’s population are susbsistence farmers), to create blue-collar jobs (since only 4% of the population has a four-year degree) and finally to be outside of the capital Port-au-Prince to provide opportunities in the countryside. Then (only then) I started researching crops, and learned about several crops, among them cacao and the nascent potential of the craft chocolate industry. The rest is History.

VC: What does chocolate mean to you?

CJSS: Prior to getting in the craft cacao industry – nothing! Or maybe just hot chocolate on Sunday. Now, it can be considered as a black gold – good for you (health-wise), good for the growers (financially); so good for the world!

VC: What makes Haitian cacao special?

CJSS: For one, we have some vintage cacao trees in Haiti (older specimen). In addition, compared to Ecuador that has big uniform cacao estate, Haitian farmers cultivate “ tropical garden”; where on less than a quarter of an acre (sometimes smaller parcels), they have a little bit of everything (mango, lime, orange, coffee, vetiver, plantain,.., and cacao). Therefore, it feels that all this “mélange” gets in the taste of the Haitian cacao beans.

VC: How was chocolate viewed in Haiti and used in daily life/holidays when you were growing up? How has that changed now that craft chocolate is available?

CJSS: Growing up, we almost only had chocolate as “hot chocolate” drink.  They would be the artisanal cacao mass (so 100% cacao (fermented sometimes, dried always) that was cracked, unshelled and grinded sometimes by hand and turned into a small ball) that would be mix with spices and hot milk and sugar. Craft chocolate is still very new in Haiti – we (Askanya) still get compared to Hershey or M&M Mars –a very new “industry” requires a lot of education of potential customers. In addition, if you think about it – craft chocolate is frankly still unaffordable to most Haitian (as the GDP is  $800/year) – so a very small part of the population can afford a $5 or $8/bar.

VC: Why is it important to work with cacao famers directly? What does that involve?

CJSS: When working with intermediaries, farmers really just get peanuts for their crops (sometimes as little as 5% of the final resale price) and often they can not live off their lands and end up giving up and moving to the city (which creates rural exodus – another problem as often enough jobs are not available in the big cities). Therefore being able to offer a living wage (not a minimum wage) to the farmers is important to make it worth their effort and their time in order for them to live decently from growing and harvesting the cacao (and passing on a profitable or at least living trade to their kids). For us, the living wage ended up paying the farmer almost 7 times the local rate for their cacao pod / beans.

VC: Any tips on how to begin the process of direct trade/sourcing cacao beans for people interested in making bean-to-bar chocolate?

CJSS: First, try to find a reputable firm (ask around to chocolate experts, like you Victoria). In the USA, Uncommon and Meridian are the most known / established.  In Haiti, you can rely on us (through our sister firm – G&S Cacao), or contact PISA (via  Uncommon Cacao) and FECCANO (selling mostly on the European market). Then once you decide who to work with, it’s time to ask for a sample. From there, it’s working together and making the cost and logistics work for the two partners. This process has worked for our clients and they keep coming back for more.

VC: How has your business benefited your community? How does your company empower women in your community?

CJSS: We source our cacao from 500 cacao farmers in rural communities in Northern Haiti (Grande Rivière du Nord and Limonade); our sugar cane from 200 sugarcane farmers in Center Haiti (Thomonde) and our lime and oranges from Myabel, a farm located in West Haiti (Croix Des Bouquets). Thanks to our recurrent purchases, we provide direct revenues within these farming communities; money that can be used for food, health, education and more.

All our chocolate makers are women – young adults and / or mothers. Working in our chocolate factory was often their first formal work opportunity, for a company that respect them, treat them well, pay them on time. Many of them have been able since then to rent their own apartment, provide adequately for their children / dependents and become the breadwinner for their families.

For our sustainable practices in the chocolate industry, we won the NW Chocolate Sustainability prize in November 2017.

VC: What is the inspiration behind naming your chocolate Askanya?

CJSS: My husband!  When I was about to launch my business, we have been married for 5-6 years and we have agreed that whatever business I would do in Haiti, I should not be in Haiti (so outside of our NY home) more than 6 months per year and the business should be named like his German hometown – Aschersleben in German, Ascania in Latin or Askanya in Haitian Creole. Voilà.

VC: How has your experience/studies/degree in Engineering translated into assisting you with running a chocolate business? 

CJSS: Being an industrial engineer help me setup the company production processes efficiently – I unfortunately don’t get to practice it that much (as I am not always in Ouanaminthe and we have a fantastic Head of Production who take care of the day to day operations), but when we were working on launching the company almost 6 years ago, I definitely used these skills to establish the workflow, the production output, the employees work scheduling, the material sourcing / reordering processes, etc. All in all – what are all the least amount of inputs needed to produce X chocolates at the lowest cost, while taking into account the infrastructure, legal, human resource, product sourcing challenges surrounding us. This is a real industrial engineering problem.

VC: Since Askanya is celebrating it’s 5th anniversary this year, how has your view on chocolate/craft chocolate making changed over the past five years? What has become more difficult in the chocolate business? What has gotten easier?

CJSS: Through these 5 years, the challenges have changed, we overcame many, but new ones have popped-up. Early on, the main challenge was making sure my grandparents old summer house transformed into a chocolate factory had the appropriate updated infrastructures (electricity / plumbing)that would sustain production. The next challenge was producing at origin in the tropics (we had a tough time with tempering, but we overcame and mastered it). Then came shipping the finished products from our small town in North-Eastern Haiti to Port-au-Prince, our first main market, before we pivoted to the USA). Now, it’s mostly having enough sales to make it worth the effort (so if you are reading this – please buy and/or recommend /introduce use to some stores that can be a great fit for our chocolates.

We are cash flow positive too, but the total original investment is still not paid back.

VC: Where would you like Askanya and the craft chocolate movement to be in another five years?

CJSS: Profitable & Better understood – I cringe, when companies who pretend to “support” minorities /small business” just want to pay $2/bar (just shipping out of Haiti cost $0.75/bar). Dude, you are not helping small businesses when you put the “bar’ so low.

I feel the Western world still need to be educated about what it takes to get your chocolate bar in your hand safely and child-labor free: farmers need to be paid enough to make it worth his/her time (if not, child labor practices will continue – let’s not be hypocritical about that); all-natural products are more expensive because they are more expensive to produce and they don’t have preservatives (preservatives are here to “preserve”, but are not entirely good for your health) – which explains their higher cost. Finally, many of the countries at origin (where cacao is found) still don’t have modern infrastructures – therefore, there’s an extra cost to producing there that people should be aware of and willing to bear.

VC: What impact would you like your chocolate to have on the world?

CJSS: I would love Askanya to be a model for other companies, located at origin and willing to take the risk to produce at origin, which also create more revenues for farmers (and a more sustainable world). These companies could be producing for the local market or for export. But this won’t happen if we don’t get people on-board, educated and willing to ditch their sugar-laded sweet for something natural, healthy, good for them. Similarly, even within Haiti, we need to teach people that being produced at home doesn’t necessarily translate to cheaper.

Thank you so much for this interview Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz!

*All photos in this interview post were provided by Corinne Joachim Sanon Symietz. of Les Chocolateries Askanya.

Les Chocolateries Askanya:

Victoria Cooksey:

Interview with Madhu Chocolate’s Elliott Curelop and Harshit Gupta

Elliott Curelop and Harshit Gupta founded Madhu Chocolate together and named their chocolate after mother Madhu Gupta whose name means “honey” and “sweet” in Hindi.

Harshit Gupta and Elliott Curelop of Madhu Chocolate (Pic from Madhu).

Originally a software engineer and a product developer by profession these Austin, TX based bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers found their winning combo by pairing Indian inspired flavors with Columbian cacao.

Due to the Texas heat their shipping of chocolate is paused until the end of August, so in the meantime we can enjoy learning some new info about Madhu until we can get our chocolate fix again! (If you are in Austin, TX you can still pick up or get orders delivered).

Victoria Cooksey: When and how did you become interested in making bean-to-bar chocolate?

Elliott Curelop: I started making chocolate as a hobby. I have always been interested in the process of how things were made, and was excited to learn that it was possible to make my own chocolate from scratch at home. I still remember how impressive I thought I was when I made my first batch, though I’m certain now it was total garbage!

It was after doing that for a while that I started experimenting with flavors, and our trip to India is what really inspired both Harshit and I to start a business.

VC: How did you decide to use cacao from Columbia?

Harshit Gupta & Elliott Curelop: We had a tasting panel with a bunch of our friends and a variety of chocolate with the same percentage we made from cacao of different regions (our friends are too kind to do such hard work for us for free). Everyone noted what they did/didn’t like about each chocolate, and then ranked them from one to ten. The clear winner was the Tumaco, Colombia beans and for good reason; they’re just wonderful. 

Madhu Chocolate Coconut Milk Cashew Bar (Pic by Victoria Cooksey).

VC: How do you incorporate chocolate into your daily lives? How do you enjoy it on special occasions?

Harshit Gupta: Elliott has to taste chocolate every single day while he’s in production, so he doesn’t eat it as a daily dessert like I do. I’m obsessed with chocolate, even after all this time working with it. I usually have brownies, chocolate sorbet, or some other chocolatey treat at my disposal as an after-dinner treat. 

On special occasions we like to make fancy desserts for one another. Elliott made a flourless chocolate torte once out of our 70% and I could have died, it was so amazing! 

VC: What has been some of the challenges with pairing traditional Indian flavors with chocolate?

HG: I think the biggest challenge we run into is educating our customers as to what they should be tasting. Most people know what saffron is, but very few people here know what it tastes like. They just know it as that stuff that makes paella yellow. It’s similar with cardamom, to a lesser extent, but we find ourselves spending a lot of time explaining what these spices are, what they are usually found in, and why we thought they would taste good in chocolate. This is also where handing out samples really comes in handy.  

VC: What has been your favorite combo and why?

ECOrange Clove is hands down my total favorite. I loved clove studded oranges during the holiday season, and was so excited to be able to make something that is so nostalgic yet also new. Also, I love citrus fruit so I never get sick of this one.

Madhu Chocolate’s Orange Clove Bar (Pic from Madhu).

VC: What takes an inclusion bar from good to great?

EC & HG: Quality ingredients is the number one answer. You spend all this time roasting cacao, cracking it and grinding it for three days. Why would you flavor it with anything other than the best ingredients you can find? I can’t even imagine turning to artificial flavors for that.   

Another thing that’s very important is making sure that if a flavor is advertised on that packaging, that the flavor is present in the bar. We’ve tried so many chocolates where the inclusions are thrown on the back of the bar at the last minute and they don’t add any flavor. We almost always grind our inclusions into the chocolate itself even if we are decorating the back because it’s so important to us that our customers feel like they’re getting what they expected out of their chocolate.

VC: With Austin, TX being a place that can reach high temps, how have you had to adapt your chocolate making due to the weather? Any tips for shipping and/or storing chocolate when the temps rise?

HGWe’re very lucky that the AC in our manufacturing space works very well, so even when it hits the triple digits we know the chocolate isn’t at risk. We can’t ship in peak summer though, so that’s always a bit frustrating for us. Still we’d rather not ship at all than send out a product knowing the quality will be impacted by the weather. 

As far as tips, I would say look for a cool dry place to keep your chocolate. We don’t recommend the refrigerator, because chocolate tends to absorb the flavor of what is sitting around it, but if it’s the only cool place in the house I suggest wrapping it in plastic or putting it in an airtight jar to keep odors out.

VC: Any suggestions for pairing some of your inclusion bars with some specific cheese, wine, beer, etc?

EC: We like to suggest pairing our Cardamom chocolate with a nice cabernet because the cardamom tends to bring out some nice subtleties in the wine. I also think our Orange Clove goes wonderfully with a nice bourbon or Old Fashioned as both the orange and cloves play so well with the woodiness of the spirit. We also think that stout beers have a nuttiness that tends to pair wonderfully with our rose pistachio and coconut cashew. Honestly, one of the fun things about chocolate is that it can work in so many different situations, so I suggest playing around with pairings.  

Madhu Chocolate Dark Masala Chai Bar (Pic by Victoria Cooksey).

VC: Since you started making craft chocolate, how has your thoughts on chocolate/chocolate making changed?

HG: For us the biggest change was our fixation on the ethics of chocolate. Human rights and wage issues in the production of cacao are nothing new, but it seems very abstract when you aren’t in the industry. Starting a business and seeing how your choices directly impact the suppliers really made us realize that we have an opportunity and a duty to obtain ingredients in a way that isn’t exploitative and also won’t destroy the planet. 

VC: What impact would you like your chocolate bars to have on the world?

HG & EC: We would love for people to see our bars as an example of the benefits of cross-culturalism. We’re taking what’s long been a Euro-centric product and giving it an Indian twist using South American cacao. I hope people can try our bars and understand the beauty that can be had once you leave your comfort zone.   

Thank you for this interview Elliott and Harshit!

Madhu Chocolate:

Victoria Cooksey:

Caputo’s Market Private Traditional Icelandic Dinner with Omnom Chocolate

On the eve before Caputo’s 8th Annual Chocolate Festival, which featured the Icelandic Omnom Chocolate, they held their first private media dinner with Kjartan Gíslason, chef, Chocolate Maker and Co-Founder of Omnom Chocolate with a theme of a traditional Icelandic dinner. Also present from Omnom Chocolate were, Thorlakur Thor, Export Manager and Hanna Eiríksdóttir, Marketing Manager. While the meal was presented in an elegant fashion, it managed to also be casual and family style. Traditions, especially family and food traditions, are important to Caputo’s Matt Caputo and Yelena Caputo with this meal captured these sentiments.

Omnom Chocolate Samples at Caputo’s Private Dinner Event Continue reading “Caputo’s Market Private Traditional Icelandic Dinner with Omnom Chocolate”

NW Chocolate Festival Trends 2019

2019 marked the 5th year in a row that I have attended the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA. With each year different trends emerge. This article focuses especially on craft chocolate trends at NW and may or may not be reflective on trends seen elsewhere.

Trend #1: While makers still offer 100% bars I noticed a much greater presence of milk and dark/milk bars this year including an increase in milk chocolate inclusion bars.

Trend #2: For several years various salts have been featured in bars, but this year makers are turning to a range of peppercorns and/or a combo of pepper with salt.

Fu Wan Chocolate’s 62% Bar with White Pepper & Fleur de Sel Bar Continue reading “NW Chocolate Festival Trends 2019”

Lick My Spoon Chocolate and Caramel Sauces Review

Sapore della Vita (meaning taste of life) online store features all natural and organic specialty foods imported from Italy along with their own award-winning line of small-batch Lick My Spoon sauces. 

Thank you Sapore della Vita for sending me six of your Lick My Spoon sauces to try. 

Sapore della Vita Lick My Spoon Chocolate and Caramel Sauces Continue reading “Lick My Spoon Chocolate and Caramel Sauces Review”

Chocolate Naive Nano Lot Drinking Chocolate Review Cacao Review Collection 2

Cacao Review has outdone themselves this year with Collection No. 2, a very limited (only 200 made of each item, ever) chocolate set featuring Chocolate Naive, Marou, Omnom,  Ritual and even a bar by Cacao Review. While a few of the chocolate bars are available for individual purchases (50 individual and 150 box sets) the only way to try Chocolate Naive’s Nano_Lot drinking chocolate is by going for the whole collection (ahem…holiday gift perfection, just saying). 

Chocolate Naive Nano_Lot Drinking Chocolate Limited Edition Cacao Review Collection No. 2

Continue reading “Chocolate Naive Nano Lot Drinking Chocolate Review Cacao Review Collection 2”

Posh Chocolat Review

In 2005 Ana and Jason Willenbrock opened Posh Chocolat in Missoula, Montana. Per their website their chocolates are made from “single-origin chocolate from the South American region”. Ana is originally from Brazil and Jason is from St. Louis , Missouri.  They met while attending The Culinary Institute of American in New York. Both have culinary experience working in Europe and in the USA prior to opening Posh Chocolat. 

Ana recently sent me some of their chocolates, caramels and chocolate bars to sample. 

Posh Chocolat made in Missoula, Montana & pictured here on Marrowstone Island, WA Continue reading “Posh Chocolat Review”

Mini Interview with Luke Owen Smith and Chocolate Tasting Course The Chocolate Bar

Luke Owen Smith of The Chocolate Bar in New Zealand puts together amazing bean-to-bar chocolate bars from all over the world for a monthly chocolate subscription box as well as leads chocolate tastings.  As if that wasn’t enough, want to know what else makes Luke pretty special?  Sometime ago he found out that I never had the chance to try Marou’s no longer available Treasure Island bar so he sent me a piece from the last bar he had in his personal chocolate stash!  When I was trying to locate Chocolate Naive’s one-off bar made with sea buckthorn, The Chocolate Bar was the only place I could find it listed any longer and Luke added an extra one to his site just so I could order it. In fact, my full order arrived quickly and in great condition from New Zealand all the way to where I live in Port Townsend, WA USA.

Luke recently sent me his newest creation, a monthly Chocolate Tasting Course.  The course includes 4 bite-sized pieces  from 4 different tasty craft chocolates by makers from around the world. The first 6 months of the course feature a different lesson card each of those months, such as How to Taste Chocolate and the very first box includes a chocolate tasting notebook. 

Read on for my mini-interview with Luke followed by pictures of his new Chocolate Tasting Course and my video on the course too. 

Luke Owen Smith of The Chocolate Bar Continue reading “Mini Interview with Luke Owen Smith and Chocolate Tasting Course The Chocolate Bar”

Violet Sky Chocolate: Pierce The Veil Dark Chocolate Bar Review

Violet Sky Chocolate is a bean-to-bar maker located in South Bend, IN.  I’ve had some of their bars in the past, so I was especially happy to see them at last weekend’s NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA so I could buy some more!

I love Violet Sky Chocolate wrappers but one in particular really caught my eye.  Their Pierce The Veil bar has this lovely shimmery wrapper with the label actually on the back of the bar.

Violet Sky Chocolate Pierce The Veil Continue reading “Violet Sky Chocolate: Pierce The Veil Dark Chocolate Bar Review”