|Peter Moustakerski with cacao pods in Costa Rica|
I've always loved eating chocolate since I was a kid. In the 1990’s, when percentage numbers started appearing on chocolate packaging (thanks to John Scharffenberger), I took a somewhat geeky interest in what those meant. I started tasting darker and darker (and pricier and pricier) chocolate bars, and learning to taste the difference between over-processed mass chocolate and small-batch artisanal bars that utilize quality beans.
Later, I decided to allocate more time to my chocolate passion, and started taking a variety of courses: I took master chocolatier and bean-to-bar maker courses at École Chocolat, took the chocolatiering course at the French Culinary Institute, and travelled to Costa Rica to visit cacao growers, researchers, traders, and chocolatiers. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about every aspect of the business, artistry, culture and history of chocolate. As I encountered many wonderful experiences, I wondered why no business is bringing these experiences in a compelling, user-friendly retail environment to discerning consumers in the US and around the world. And that’s how the idea of Voilà Chocolat was born.
The actual ‘epiphany’ about launching Voilà Chocolat came to me during my daughter’s 10th birthday party, which we had at a ‘make your own’ pottery/arts and crafts place. When I saw how much fun both kids and adults were having and how immersed they were in their creativity, I thought: this could be done with chocolate too. At that point, I knew what we had to create with Voilà Chocolat.
Peter, what were some for the logistical challenges you had to overcome to create Voilà Chocolat?
Too many to recount, from enlisting the right financial supporters to securing the right real estate. But one very interesting challenge was how we could help amateur chocolatiers (our customers) to get professional results when working with tempered chocolate. Professional chocolatiers temper their chocolate and then work with it quickly. But a guest at Voilà Chocolat might be working with their chocolate for 30-45 minutes, and we don't want the chocolate to go out of temper while they are creating and having fun. We are proud of our technological solutions, which we developed with the help of Dennis Teets, our Chocolate Scientist (what a great title!) Our patented, self-heated workstations help solve this logistical problem, and allow guests both to achieve professional results and to have a comfortable place to sit and work together.
Peter, how did you meet Christophe Toury?
The chocolate industry, particularly in New York City, is a small and intimate field of people. As I researched and developed the idea for Voilà Chocolat, I connected with a lot of great people who shared their expertise and advice with me, and who in turn introduced me to others who might be helpful. One of those conversations eventually led me to Master Chocolatier Christophe Toury. It was one of the most fortunate connections among the many I've made throughout this long process of developing and launching Voilà Chocolat. Christophe is incredibly talented, and he is a great partner who has put so much of his own ideas into Voilà Chocolat to make it even better than I imagined.
|Christophe Toury with toppings kits|
In Paris, France, I started early at Les Bains and at a pastry shop called Patachou, where I created and decorated many desserts for celebrities, decorated cakes and made various pastries and regional tarts. Even in my military service, I produced all the desserts and pastries for the Officers and Generals at the Ministry of Defense in Paris. And then my career was at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at L'Espadon, producing all desserts for the hotel including big show pieces; production consisted of the famous Escoffier Heritage. Les Compagnons du devoir that I was exposed to at an early point in my life is where I met my mentor Andre Renard who assisted me in coming to the US. He is a philanthropist at heart, and in that way he is like all the members of Les Campagnons -- they share their knowledge and life philosophy with all those they encounter. After that: Essex House, Four Seasons in Maui and in NYC, Executive Pastry Chef there and then also at the Manadarin Oriental NYC, and then Chocolatier and Executive Pastry Chef at Jacques Torres Chocolate. And now, Master Chocolatier at Voilà Chocolat!
Christophe, your brief bio on the Voilà Chocolat website says that you enjoy making chocolate sculptures just for fun. How did you get into that and would you share an image of one of them with us?
Throughout a career as a Pastry Chef, we are exposed to chocolate and it’s part of the curriculum. Chocolate has a very distinct way of responding to creativity. It almost makes you feel like its alive and very mystical. You can do almost anything with chocolate and I am inspired by that. To become a chef, I had to make huge show pieces in France, really complicated amazing things. From that I learned you can do almost anything with chocolate, with enough skill. In the attached photo, I made a NYC fire hydrant by hand out of chocolate (it's about 60% scale size). I saw near my home in Astoria, Queens that someone had made a fire hydrant into art by painting it, and I just thought I could make art with chocolate by making it into a fire hydrant. Sometimes you don't need a big reason or a purpose, you are just inspired by the things around you. The Voilà Chocolat team had Thanksgiving dinner together this year (in the store before opening, while the space was still under construction!) and everyone's children had fun smashing that fire hydrant like a piñata, and then everyone enjoyed eating the chocolate.
Christophe, given your background what attracted you to Voilà Chocolat?
Throughout my career as a Pastry chef I’ve done pretty much everything from the opening of a five star hotel to working with a celebrity chef as the Creative Director, therefore what excited me about Voilà Chocolat was The UNKNOWN! It was totally different than anything I’ve ever done which to me equals a challenge. Also, the structure and uniqueness of the concept made everything much more attractive.
Voilà Chocolat makes chocolates that folks can buy but your focus is on parties. Would you tell us more about them?
Our parties are totally unique and incredibly fun, because everyone gets to make beautiful gourmet chocolates together! When someone hosts a party at Voilà Chocolat, you're not only giving them a fun time but also a unique experience, a new set of skills, pride of craftsmanship and a fresh appreciation for how fine chocolate is actually made. Enjoyment of chocolate is almost universal, so all the attendees love it. It's especially great for corporate events, team bonding, or bridal showers, because these are events where not all the guests may know each other well yet, and sharing an enjoyable experience together (such as chocolatiering) brings people together with new experiences in common.
Does your company do more parties for children or adult groups?
We are actually designed for adults, but children obviously love making chocolate too. What we have found since we opened in December is that even though the experience is not designed for kids, children do really well with it and have a great time. So I'd say the split is pretty even for now, partly because there are so many kids living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and they have birthday parties all the time. But more and more companies and other folks outside our immediate neighborhood are discovering us, so we're starting to welcome many more people for team outings, bridal showers, corporate events.
Which do you find the most fun to throw -- parties for adults or children?
They are both fun in different ways. The kids' parties are amazing because they are literally "kids in a candy store." Children really love applying all their creativity to their chocolates (and sometimes licking the chocolatiering tools). It's also very gratifying to watch kids learn and absorb facts and knowledge about the science of chocolate. It's like all the best things from both art class and science class in one fun party where they can be with their friends.
On the other hand, watching adults being transformed almost into kids again themselves by the magic of chocolate is amazing too. We had someone celebrate his 72nd birthday with us, and he pointed out to us that he was having as much fun as another birthday celebrant in our atelier who was turning 6. Adults are able to ask deeper questions about the science behind chocolate and the deep history behind the technique, which is very gratifying for us and for them. One of the values upon which Voilà Chocolat was founded is Education, so we really relish the opportunity to share what we know about chocolate.
We've also had teenagers' parties, and all of the 15-year olds and 17 year-olds had a great time. Chocolatiering is probably one of few activities that makes teens want to stop texting and put down their iPhone! It's a great equalizer. One man in his 80's came in with his wife and children and grandson and they all made chocolates together - it was their first outing together after he had been released from the hospital from getting a heart transplant; he chose to make heart-chaped chocolate Voilàllipops to give to his cardiac surgeons. At the other end of the spectrum, we had a young little guy visit us whose caregiver said he suffered from very severe ADHD, and she said that she'd never seen him as calm and focused for an entire hour as he was while making chocolates with us. I've always felt that losing yourself in creative expression with chocolate can be therapeutic, and in these last two examples, that was literally true! People of all ages really get into learning how to make chocolate confections, even more than they imagined or expected.
Finally, working with chocolate can be seen as scary or difficult by the average person. What is your advice for anyone who is thinking of trying to make chocolate at home or to come to one of your parties?
Chocolate is endlessly fascinating and there is so much to discover about it. There is no reason to be intimidated by what you don't know yet - just start learning and exploring! Tempering and working with chocolate at home might be difficult, but there are many classes and resources to learn how to do it (soon Voilà Chocolat will offer such advanced classes as well). One of the very reasons that Voilà Chocolat exists is to provide an accessible and welcoming place to work successfully and satisfyingly with fine chocolate, without having to learn the trickier aspects of tempering or to take an expensive and time-consuming course to learn very advanced technique. Voilà Chocolat was created precisely in order to bring the joy of chocolatiering to the average consumer, and to remove the barriers and make it welcoming and accessible.
Thank you both for speaking with us today. If any reader has a question, please do leave one in a comment below or simply let us know what you thought about today's interview.