I recently had the good fortune to try several chocolates imported by Chocolate Stars USA. To name a few: Frederic Blondeel Pure Vietnam 80% Dark Chocolate from Belgium, an Amaranth Chocolate from Vanuato Kakaw of Mexico, a Dark Assortment with single origin fillings from France, and Havanna Alfajores from Argentina.
After trying these, I wondered, who gets to find these delicious imports and bring them to the U.S.? Well, I tracked down one such person, Carolina Gavet, and was able to ask her a few questions about chocolate and just how someone finds such a career:
Lee Walters: Can you tell us a little bit about your position and what you do for Chocolate Stars USA, your background, how you got into the industry and what exactly does Chocolate Stars USA do – not necessarily in that order?
Carolina Gavet: I am the Marketing Manager; I handle all PR, communication, sales training, marketing calendars and promotions in line with the company goals. I am also in charge of new product development and product launch.
Before Chocolate Stars USA I worked for seven years with Valrhona USA as their Marketing Manager for USA. During those seven years, not only did I learn about pastry techniques and chocolate innovation, I discovered the fascinating art of chocolate making and how the origins of the cacao beans will define the flavor profile of each chocolate. I was lucky to assist the Pastry World Cup in Lyon, France, several times. In 2005, the first time I assisted the event, my view of chocolate changed forever. The pastry chefs create sophisticated plated desserts, from entremets with more than 10 flavors in just one piece (in perfect balance) to giant chocolate showpieces (sculptures). I learned that a good chocolate bar, bonbon or chocolate dessert is more than just flavor, it is about flavor, aromas, textures, ingredients and the art and dedication each chocolatier and pastry chef put in each presentation. Pastry chefs and chocolate makers are artists. I also travel to cacao plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico.
Three years ago, I decided to study to get the Wine Sommelier certification to complement my knowledge about chocolate, and now I do all the chocolate descriptions, wine, spirits and cheese pairings for the company. I also do seminars for our customers who wish to learn about chocolate and pairings.
An important part of my job with Chocolate Stars USA, is to find new chocolates to include in our portfolio. Sometimes I get special product requests from our current customers. I travel in search of brands or products never sold in USA and bring them here for customers to purchase.
Chocolate Stars USA is not just an importer and distributor; we travel around the world to find that unique chocolate or confection. Then we work very closely with the producer to perfect the recipe, create the perfect packaging and develop a sales-marketing and communication strategy to do a proper product launch in USA. Chocolate Stars USA is a marketer of fine chocolate brands and innovative sweet creations crafted by select producers from around the world. We build quality relationships with our partners to offer world-class products.
LW: How do you decide what constitutes a chocolate/brand that your company should import into the U.S. and what specific qualities do you look for in a chocolate?
CG: I always look for products or brands never sold in USA. We put special attention on their manufacture practices and the use of quality ingredients. We will visit the company and the production facilities several times to ensure the practices and ingredients are up to the standards to produce quality chocolates.
LW: What’s a typical day for you when traveling in quest of great chocolate?
CG: When traveling abroad and searching for new chocolates I usually arrive a few days before the meetings we may have or trade show to check stores in the area and see the local brands, products and packaging. I visit different levels of stores, from high-end department stores and fine chocolate shops to classic supermarkets. This will give us the local view we need to know when launching a product from that country. Visiting chocolate stores helps me to get inspiration for designs and marketing concepts. I try to visit as many stores as I can. Small local cafes and restaurants are good places to taste local flavors, to see how they serve the chocolate in a traditional way. Is it just for dessert? Do they use it in savory recipes? Is it only an accompaniment for an espresso?
LW: What should a customer look for when deciding which chocolate to buy?
CG: Look at the ingredient list. Like every other food, to create exceptional flavors the producer needs to use quality ingredients. The main ingredients in dark chocolate are cacao solids, cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla. Some producers will add lecithin to add a soft and smooth texture to the chocolate. Other producers, especially from the countries of chocolate origin like Peru, Ecuador and Madagascar, will not use lecithin to preserve the cacao flavors; those fruit and earth flavors are unique to each origin, and the chocolate will not be as smooth as those with lecithin.
Another thing to look for is bean-to-bar chocolates. The chocolate maker will search for fine cacao from different origins, know how to identify bad beans and will be involved in every step of the process. They will only use quality cacao beans.
If you like dark chocolates, but not too strong, choose chocolates from Madagascar, Ecuador and Peru (only from the Amazonian region). For those who love strong, bold, dark chocolate flavors, look for origins like Vietnam, Ghana and Tanzania.
There is a misconception people always have about chocolate. Consumers think chocolates with high cacao content are better quality or taste better. Chocolate quality is about the ingredients and techniques used and if it is a single origin chocolate it should show the “terroir” – flavor, taste and texture. Some origins, like Vietnam and Ghana, are great to create chocolates with high cacao content, while others, like Madagascar or Ecuador, are better for low cacao content chocolates. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other.
For milk chocolate lovers, I would suggest you start trying those high cacao content milk chocolates, usually called milk-dark chocolates.
LW: What types of chocolate are most in demand these days, particularly in California?
CG: Single origin chocolates are on demand, especially for dark chocolates. We also see a big demand on chocolates with inclusions; we have a white chocolate with cinnamon from Vanuato Kakaw in Mexico that is a big seller. Cacao beans and cinnamon are from Mexico.
LW: What are some of your favorite chocolates and why?
CG: My favorite chocolate is Frederic Blondeel Pure Vietnam 80% Dark Chocolate. It’s made with beans from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. This chocolate is very complex and it develops dark fruits and flowery aromas balanced with a pleasant acidity at the beginning and then earthy notes will show along with the cacao taste showing up towards the end.
Another favorite is Vanuato Kakaw, which is from Mexico, made with traditional ingredients like milk chocolate with amaranth and white chocolate with chunks of cinnamon.
LW: Where can our readers find the chocolates and other items that Chocolate Stars imports?
CG: On our website, www.chocolatestarsusa.com.
LW: How does one go about getting what sounds like a dream job for chocolate lovers? I’m asking for a friend.
CG: My job is more like a lifestyle than a job. Finding chocolates, flavors and searching for exciting presentations is a 24/7 job; you can be out grabbing groceries and find an inspiration right there at the store. I suggest your “friend” follow his or her passion and the opportunity will come.