Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Interview: Clay Gordon, He Lives the Chocolate Life

When I started The Chocolate Cult I made sure no one was claiming that title for a blog or group because I didn't want to step on anyone's toes.  I found a lot of other chocolate groups and blogs and one of these is called The Chocolate Life operated by Clay Gordon.  Today I'd like to introduce you all to him and to the group he runs.

Have you always enjoyed chocolate and cocoa treats since you were a child?

I have always enjoyed them but they were not something I ever craved. My family did have special treats chocolates, though. We always got my mother a box of See's Victoria English Toffee for her birthday and a box of Bauer's Bavarian Mint Meltaways for my father's birthday.

You mention in your online profile at The Chocolate Life that you had this pivotal experience that made you want to learn more about chocolate.  What was different with that chocolate you had compared to all the other chocolate products you had consumed in the past?

The chocolate itself was not what I first saw. My first chocolate tasting with Bonnat single-origins caused me to think about chocolate in a new way. Every single one of us at the tasting had a different favorite, but for different reasons. 

Upon reflection, what I saw was an opportunity to do something that no-one else was doing. There were no professional chocolate critics back in 1994 so I decided to become one. The first. That was the original impulse. Over the course of my learning enough to be credible as a critic I learned to love chocolate. 

You turned this experience into a career as a Chocolate Critic.  Would you explain to our readers what this means?

It's probably more accurate to say that I started out my career in chocolate as a critic. I don't self-identify that way now. That's because it's impossible to make a living just as a critic. You have to have some other source of income. Like selling chocolate. Or a day job.  

You spent seven years educating yourself about chocolate before you started writing about it.  What exactly did you do to educate yourself?

I read everything I could find on the subject of chocolate. much of it on-line. I worked for the US importer and distributor of Cluizel and Domori off and on for several years starting in 1998 and that was a huge learning experience for me, selling chocolate to top restaurant chefs in NYC. I started corresponding with people around the world - early contacts include Martin Christy and Alex Rast.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to create a rating system for chocolate that didn't require a calculator. In the end, my rating system was not numerical at all. I divided the market up into styles and price ranges and talked about value. Chocolate X is in the French style and it's in the Prestige price category. It is an "Excellent" example of the style at the price. 

First I had to define the different styles, but I used industry-accepted definitions for the price categories. Then I created a seven-step scale from Bad to Superior. This made it easy to organize by price and style and to compare all the chocolates that fell into each box in the matrix.

Getting to the assessment part required tasting lots and lots and lots of chocolate ... and thinking very hard about what I was tasting. Usually on my own because there was no-one nearby to work on this with me.

Do you consider education an ongoing journey as you work with and on chocolate?

Every day I learn something new. My particular skill is in taking complex subjects, breaking them down into simple components (with several different ways of making the same point to appeal to different audiences) , and present the information in a way that they can personally connect with and getting them to care. 

I also see connections between things that others don't see, and I had a real good track record during my high-tech career of accurately predicting what was likely to happen.

If someone wanted to learn more about chocolate but didn't have the years or the finances to undertake a similar educational program what would you advise them to do in order to learn more?

There is no shortcut for personal experience. There's this adage that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at something if you really want to master it. We're seeing that now in chocolate as people are now starting to have 5 years' experience. There's been a remarkable improvement in quality among the earliest craft chocolate makers here in the US in the past year or two .

If you don't have the time or the finances you can do several things. One of which is that you can just do it anyway and you'll find a way to do it. Or it's a very nice hobby.

To truly know chocolate, you have to eat it - a lot of it. And you need to think about it in an organized way.  You have to develop confidence in your sense of taste and you need to develop a memory for tastes and smells - and then integrate all that. And that's just the start because then you have to learn how to  verbalize to others experiences that are very hard to verbalize. 

You have to visit chocolate factories. You have to visit cacao farms. If you don't, your understanding of chocolate is incomplete.

Would you tell us more about The Chocolate Life?

The idea for the name came to me listening to a Ricky Martin song on the radio. Living La Vida Loca became Living La Vida Cocoa, which became The Chocolate Life.

I started working on TheChocolateLife as I was promoting my book, Discover Chocolate. Publishing the book caused me to look at how the world of chocolate had changed from May of 2001 when I started my blog,, and October of 2007 when the book was released. The biggest change was the rise of the citizen (or hobbyist) food blogger. They were willing to give it away for free and I was trying to make a living doing it. 

It's impossible to compete with free.

I know that well as an author myself.  Please continue.

So I made an assessment, closed down and started TheChocolateLife because I reasoned the one thing I had that none of the hobbyists at the time had was my farm to mouth knowledge (everyone else was just re-presenting what they learned from reading books and other blogs, including One of the things I wanted to do was to crowdsource the answers to questions and that required nurturing a community of chocolate lovers of all flavors. It was very slow going at first but now TheChocolateLife has about 8500 members in over 160 countries on six continents. I think my biggest achievement there is not those numbers, but in the diversity of the membership - from cacao farmers to celebrity chefs to everything in-between.

The key realization that led to this was an understanding that it's not all about me. Blogs are about the author or editor. In order to make TheChocolateLife successful I need to create a place where members felt comfortable asking and sharing, and not make it all about what I think.

The way I say that now is that The Chocolate Life is a metaphor for connecting with a true inner passion and using that connection in a purposeful way to drive personal and professional growth and to inspire The Chocolate Life in others.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for chocolate both as a product and as a craft or art today?

I was a panelist at the Academy of Chocolate meeting in London in 2012 and said that the industry needs a $100 bar of chocolate. By that I mean a bar that professionals collectively agree is worthy of that price and that it's worth spending that amount of money for the experience.

It's like having $1000 bottles of wine. They don't cost all that much more to make than $50 bottles of wine so that leaves enough money in the system to pay for professionals to educate people on why it's okay to spend $1000 for a bottle of wine. If all wine was $10 jug chablis you wouldn't need sommeliers and there would be no economic payback for earning a Masters in Wine. 

There's no money in the system to pay for chocolate critics. People think that $10 is a lot to pay for a bar of chocolate ... and that really doesn't reflect the true cost of production because cocoa beans are horribly underpriced. People who are willing to pay $100 for a lackadaisically present tasting of mediocre wines are loath to pay $35 for tasting of epic chocolates.

That's what has to change in order for the true potential of the craft chocolate market to be realized.

If you had one piece of advice of the consumers of chocolate who read our site, what would it be?

The most important thing to bring to a chocolate tasting is your sense of humor: Relax, it's just chocolate. You're not solving for world peace or poverty. You can take the chocolate seriously, but don't take your self too seriously.

Thank you, Clay for your time today.  Sisters and Brothers, please leave any other questions you might have for Mr. Gordon in a comment below.

Notice: All photos in this interview come from his personal account on The Chocolate Life with his permission for us to use them.

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