Inarguably one of the elite, game-changing chefs in the United States over the last 20 years or so, Keller helped make “farm to table” a thing, and reservations at his Napa Valley landmark restaurant (and Per Se in NYC) are hard to come by.
Now, the strength of TKRG is turning to supplying more chocolate couverture to chefs and restaurants.
Chocolate Maker: For Chefs By Chefs
The expanded chef’s chocolate program Parson is working on for 2023 will be focused on consistent flavor (dialing in the flavor profiles) and the fluidity of the chocolate to give pastry chefs dependable ingredients to work with.
“Finding just the right fluidity is key,” Parson says. “If it’s difficult to work with and the shells are too thick, pastry chefs are going to have to re-make things and that’s not okay. It has to be flawless and consistent.
“In my retail chocolate business, I didn’t care about the chocolate being consistent, and didn’t really want it to be,” he continues. “Cacao beans are constantly changing and, in my mind, that’s a bonus. Each harvest is different, and the beans even evolve during different stages of the same harvest, so consistency of flavor was something I never pursued in chocolate.”
K+M aligns their restaurant chocolate program with the chocolates they already use, including their dark chocolate couverture with perfect fluidity made for molding (used in their bonbons). Planned offerings also include a dark 77-percent Peruvian Chocolate, plus a dark chocolate sourced from Ecuador and Nicaragua. Parson notes that K+M’s couvertures are combinations of cacao beans that create a more balanced, less assertive flavor that isn’t so dominant that it’s competing with other flavor components of the finished product.
K+M has already been supplying Keller’s restaurants with the product that has aided Parson greatly in product development.
“I have access to all the chef de cuisine at each property, so I can send chocolate to a chef at The French Laundry and get feedback within a couple days, then incorporate that into another iteration,” Parson says. “Within this organization, asking for and utilizing feedback is expected. It means a lot to be able to utilize all that culinary expertise. It’s refreshing.”
Team Chocolate: Keller, Manni & Parson
Everything Parson develops and releases goes to Thomas Keller to taste, without exception. What’s it like collaborating with a Michelin-starred chef and legendary Italian olive oil producer Armando Manni?
“Most people would probably not expect that from a high-profile chef with numerous restaurants,” Parson says. “He tastes it and we talk about it. He’s really good about accepting things that aren’t to his palate. For example, there are a couple of the bonbons I’ve made this year had tea in them, Earl Grey and matcha, and he’ll say I don’t like tea in chocolate, but every pastry chef I’ve had does and I understand it’s a thing.
“He recognizes quality, and his understanding of food is so vast, he knows when something is done well and not done well whether he personally chooses to eat it when he’s at home,” Parson continues. “On the other hand, I developed a drinking chocolate with four different varieties, and he was very involved in that initially. He had this specific experience in mind from a café in Paris where he had this drinking chocolate, [Keller] wanted the same consistency, thick, and rich, basically like a warm liquid chocolate bar. We recreated that memory and it’s delicious.”
Two chefs, talking, tasting, and making chocolate with both savory and sweet on their minds (and palates), Keller and Parson are on a mission to make the world’s highest quality chocolate for their bars, bonbons and the chef’s chocolate program. Both hailing from the savory side of the kitchen, working with restaurants just makes sense.
“The way I approach being a chocolate maker now, within the context of this organization of the best culinary talents around, is that innovation and creativity are important, but you don’t do things just for the sake of being experimental,” Parson says. “You do it because you’re developing something or learning from it, but don’t dump it to the consumer and expect them to go on the ride with you.”
Parson began his transition from savory to chocolate 15 years ago, co-founding Escazu Artisan Chocolate in Raleigh, N.C., along with partner Danielle Centeno. A neighborhood chocolate shop specializing in bean-to-bar sourced from around the world, the shop was featured in national foodie publications like Wine Spectator and has enjoyed success over the years.
“I was grinding the chocolate and roasting the beans, but also spent a lot of time in the shop,” Parson says. “There was just something satisfying about seeing people come by and become regulars and friends. You know what they like, you’re happy to see them, and to make them happy with coffee and chocolate.”
Parson sold his part of the business to his partner in 2018 and “spent a few months getting my head together, camping in the desert Southwest,” then “the opportunity [with Keller] was there,” Parson says. “There aren’t a lot of jobs for bean-to-bar chocolate makers, but also not a lot of chocolate makers if someone needs that position filled.”
The Genesis of K + M Chocolate
K + M Chocolate was founded as a result of…olive oil. The aforementioned Manni owns an olive tree grove and presses the olives into organic extra virgin olive oil, which they were using at The French Laundry at the time. Manni had a strong interest in health, namely antioxidants and polyphenols in olive oil—which also exist in cacao.
According to Parson, Manni approached Keller with the idea of combining the two and making a line of olive oil-bearing chocolate bars. They sourced several cacao beans that Manni had worked with the University of Florence in Italy to test and work out roasting protocols that would preserve the maximum content of polyphenol.
They started out producing a few bars, which by the time Parson joined the effort a few years ago had become a line (ExtraVirgin) of a dozen bars, as well as providing bulk chocolate to Keller’s restaurants. With olive oil being quite costly to make, the price of the bars was at the top of the range for the U.S. As Parson notes, there weren’t a lot of $15-dollar chocolate bars being sold in 2019. He quickly changed the roast profile a bit because the original focus had been to preserve antioxidants, which necessitated very low-temperature roasts.
“I would say the flavor profiles that came from that were not down the middle, not mainstream, almost just a few years ahead of its time because a lot of the flavors were floral and herbal, medicinal even,” Parson says. “Now, you’re starting to see a lot more chocolate in that vein especially coming out of Japan and a lot of Asian chocolatiers are doing it really well.”
A New Direction
While the ultra-high-end bars K+M Chocolate had been selling had their devotees, Parson wanted to make the company’s offerings more approachable—without discontinuing ExtraVirgin.
“It was a luxury product and that’s not my thing,” Parson says. “I didn’t know how to develop products for that market, but I knew the craft chocolate market, so I developed an entirely separate line that’s currently five bars with a couple of origin bars thrown in there with the idea being to make it more whimsical and more agile with product development and release.”
The new lineup was released in October 2021, at lower price points ($9-$10), and is making gains alongside other new offerings like chocolate-covered macadamia and hazelnuts, plus a wider selection of gift boxes. A new bar is also on the way!
“We’re using a Peruvian bean with a chile from Lima to make a Peruvian dark chocolate,” Parson says. “It’s a fruit-forward chile with a peach flavor in the background, not aggressive, just a slow heat that builds up as you take each bite. Peruvian [cacao] beans have that same kind of characteristic, fruity, bright, mild acidity.”
Single Origin vs. Blending
Once a requirement, single origin offerings are great when they make sense, but aren’t requisite offerings these days from Parson’ viewpoint.
“There’s been a resistance in chocolate making that’s cracked now: If you didn’t call out a single origin on the bar, it’s a problem. But we were also compared to wine and in Bordeaux, blending is a vintner’s art,” Parson says. “I felt like it was another one of those educational things where the first bean-to-bar makers had to educate the public that there was a difference. Most places didn’t make chocolate from cacao beans anyway. The next step was asking them to understand that maybe everything doesn’t have to be a single origin.”
Parson asks: How many 70% Madagascar dark bars do we need in the marketplace?
For every origin there are several makers doing an excellent job of capturing the essence of those beans, he notes, which is part of why inclusions and external flavors are enjoying more popularity among chocolatiers (and the chocolate-buying public) these days. He also notes there are plenty of undiscovered origins still out there, so he’s not eschewing the possibilities.
“Now you see a lot of that where it was previously frowned upon. It was considered less serious, and I never really liked that pushback,” Parson says. “It’s fun to play with flavors and see how they work with different beans.”
Given his restaurant culinary background and K+M’s upcoming pastry chef/restaurant-driven chocolate program, Parson also sees blending as necessary to consistency. “If you’re a chef designing a restaurant menu, you need the ingredients to be relatively consistent,” Parson says. “It took a bit of development to figure out what blend we put together with the beans we use that would be both interesting, but not step on other flavors that might be going on and stay relatively balanced in flavor across time.”
A Career Well Spent
Whether getting to know shop regulars in North Carolina or working side-by-side with Keller and an array of the best chefs in the world, Parson has been able to take his passion for the culinary arts and turn it into good things for himself, his fellow chefs, and now pastry chefs and chocolatiers across the country.
He’s not looking to get his name out to the world, instead he “keeps my head down, doing work, keeping the train on the tracks, and developing chocolate.”
And it’s working.