Chocolate Lessons

Author: Andrew Robinson ’17

There is something special about in-between-ness. The post-college gap year spent traveling. The pause between chapters of a book, or songs on an album. The morning walk before a day has begun. The road trip before the vacation. Reflection and anticipation crosshatch. In the in-between moments, we can prepare for the almost-but-not-quite-yet and reflect on the was-but-is-not-quite-anymore.

After I left my job in public accounting to work for a startup, I found myself with three weeks of in-between-ness.

I promised myself one adventure that I had been hoping to do for a while, and I followed through: I biked 10 miles from my apartment to a chocolate-making facility in an old meat packing plant on the south side of Chicago.

Jon, the solo owner and operator I had emailed the day before, wiped his hand on his apron before extending it to me. “Hey, great to meet you,” he said with wide-eyed but composed energy. He flicked his head to the left: “Let me show you around.”

Suddenly, the blare of an alarm began to pulse from upstairs.

“Oh shit, that’s the roaster.” His slender, tattooed limbs catapulted up the concrete stairs, three at a time. “Follow the sound, I’ll meet you up there!”

I jogged after him. Entering the room, a whoosh of nutty, toasted, chocolate air enveloped me. I smiled giddily; it was better than I could have imagined.

Around the country, various producers are making craft chocolate in an experimental, distinctively American style: bold flavors that highlight the origin of the beans (Costa Rica, in this case), simple ingredients (often just cocoa beans and sugar), with a snappy and pleasantly gritty texture. 

It seems common for people to have esoteric interests that attract them despite near-zero firsthand knowledge; this type of chocolate is one of mine. What better way to fill the in-between-ness than creating my own Wonka experience? I reasoned.

With its impossibly high ceilings, worn brick walls and reverberating hum of machines, the building had the feel of an old industrial warehouse, which is exactly what it was. The Kitchen is a former meat-packing plant that was stripped bare and turned into a co-working space for sustainable food businesses of all sorts: a brewery, an ice producer for high-end restaurants, an organic garden, a kombucha brand and Jon’s chocolate company. (“It’s like a WeWork, but for us non-corporate people.”)

Jon stood at the far end of the room, flicking buttons on a large machine that spun to a stop. Zhooooooosh. Scooping up a few beans in his hands and cracking one open to test, his eyes laughed wryly from behind his electric blue glasses: “Ooh that’s good.” 

“You gotta try this.” He handed me a roasted bean and instructed me to crack it before shaking out the cacao nibs. I crunched into the nibs. Whoa. The flavors were incredible; even without sugar, they reminded me of freshly-baked, nut-filled brownies. There was also a tart, cherrylike flavor. I could have eaten several handfuls.

Then he handed me another bean, this one straight from the burlap bag of unroasted beans. “Now compare.” This one was different; it was not terrible, but it was mostly flavorless and bitter. It was hard to believe the first bean could have been so unexciting just a few minutes before I arrived.

The simplest (though overly simplistic) explanation for why I joined a startup was that startups had become a mental preoccupation for all my “extracurricular” time and learning — the technology, founding stories, the venture capital investing, the strategic thinking, the electrifyingly short distance between idea and outcome in the world. Hundreds of hours of podcasts. The canonical books. But I had only observed from a safe distance. I wanted in. I was a raw cacao bean: bursting with potential, lacking in flavor.

He emptied the beans from the roaster into a giant tub. “Grab a bucket.” We shuffled small batches of beans into his makeshift winnower, a self-constructed collection of PVC pipes and HVAC materials that cracks the beans and separates the husks.

The most difficult, vulnerable part of the process was telling my previous coworkers, who had also become close friends and early-career allies. I had to let down my composed, professional manner. In their surprise at the news, I faced the fearful possibility that my persona — of competence and excitement about work — had been partially inauthentic. But ultimately, as with chocolate, the final product cannot exist without removing the rough, nonessential exterior.

We carried the new bucket — filled with nibs — to the grinder. Jon explained that the grinder and the melanger progressively refine the nibs into particles between 20 and 30 microns over the course of two or more days. Two days?! I had imagined that it was maybe two minutes, like a slightly more sophisticated blender or food processor.

Certain things take longer than I expect. I had gotten this job offer 14 months after my initial interview with the company. I had applied to and interviewed for several dozen companies in between, spanning all types of industries and roles.

As we waited for the previous two-day-old batch to prepare for tempering, Jon told me the story of creating his chocolate company. His own journey of creating a different kind of startup. His story and enthusiasm were even better than the podcasts.

Then the tempering. There was an expensive-looking tempering machine, but for this small batch he used a KitchenAid mixer with a special temperature-controlling bowl and a standard silicone spoon to stir. It takes between 5 and 10 minutes, he explained, to get all the crystals aligned with the temperature of all the chocolate liquor between 86 and 89 degrees, where the Form V crystals can form. Then you pour into molds. Imagining my own kitchen skills, it seemed to require such precision.

“The best part, though, is that if you mess it up, it’s just as good if you remelt and do it again.”

Another obvious fear was uncertainty about the path I was choosing. I had some sense of the immediate job responsibilities, but the moves further down the chess board were not as clear. Yet: If you mess it up, do it again.

After this first demo, Jon asked if I wanted to try a finished product. I unwrapped the bar and snapped off one square. I tasted it in the way he suggested: attempting to describe the aroma, the snap of the bar, the texture when melted, the dominant flavor characteristics. Wow.

Before snapping off another square, and another, and another, I took a moment to savor the in-between-ness.

Andrew Robinson’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2021 Young Alumni Essay Contest. He lives in San Francisco and works as a financial consultant for a startup that offers fractional CFO services.