March 17, 2010

Let us eat chocolate…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity at 6:14 pm by dinaheng

It all started with mini-chocolate chips.

I had breakfast with a friend one morning, and we split a chocolate chip cherry scone. The mini-chocolate chips tasted so good, I decided I’d put some in a loaf of banana bread that I was going to bake that evening for another friend.

I went to three grocery stores, looking for mini-chocolate chips, and couldn’t find any, so went online to look. There, I found Choclatique (www.choclatique.com), a high-end chocolate and confection maker in Los Angeles. When I called to ask where their store was located, I discovered that Choclatique was not a retail store, and that I had reached their corporate headquarters.

I told the man who answered the phone that I really wanted some mini-chocolate chips to bake with that evening. Taking pity on me, he offered to sell me a couple of bags from their inventory if I wanted to drive over.  So I did.

Walking into the Choclatique office, I was greeted by none other than the co-founder and president, Ed Engoron, who offered me a sample of their signature chocolate. Call me easy, but any man who gives me chocolate has got my attention.

Sitting down for a chat, I discovered that Engoron actually grew up in Asia as a child. His father, a businessman who imported consumer goods into Japan after World War II, moved the family to Japan in 1947 when Engoron was nearly one years old.

“There was no racism in my family,” Engoron says. “You react to the stimulus around you. I didn’t notice any differences. They were just the people where I was living.”

His family stayed in Japan until the 1950s, then moved to Hong Kong, which Engoron’s father felt would become a business gateway to China in the future, before relocating to Los Angeles.

“I really love and embrace Asian culture,” says Engoron, who later studied to become a Cordon Bleu chef in Paris, and now travels the world as a food consultant. “Traveling in Asia and speaking to people in their language has made it a second home for me. I think it’s made me more tolerant of differences than most Americans are. I saw the good and the bad of the different cultures.”

Engoron has been to 131 countries, and speaks several languages, a skill that he says has made him a better listener. Listening to different perspectives has encouraged him to step back and take a longer-term view of things. After owning restaurants and running a consulting company, he started Choclatique, a dream he’d long held to create his own chocolate enterprise.

In today’s economy, luxury chocolate has become a treat that many consumers are giving themselves, he says. For those who have lost jobs, indulging in a piece of chocolate is less expensive than a meal on the town. For those still employed, who have taken on additional responsibilities with fewer staff, a taste of chocolate is an affordable reward as well.

For Engoron, being able to create chocolate confections brings together his love of the culinary arts and design. He waxes eloquently about controlling the temperature of chocolate as it melts, painting designs on individual candy pieces with 24 karat gold, and the joy of smelling chocolate in the air.

His creations incorporate uniquely American flavors — Boston cream pie, chocolate chip cookies, Key West lime pie and the like — and have won 11 international awards.

Lucky for me, Choclatique also manufacturers mini-chocolate chips, so I was able to make the banana bread I had in mind.

Best of all, my treasure hunt for mini-chips led me to an even better find — a new friend with a chocolate lover’s soul.

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