Q+A: Marine Leman, Valrhona Chocolate
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like chocolate, and similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find a pastry chef who doesn’t love Valrhona chocolate. Valrhona, a French company founded just about a hundred years ago, is a purveyor of some of the best chocolate in the world. Many chefs use their products exclusively to create consistent desserts and treats. In 2014, Valrhona opened up their North American headquarters right here in DUMBO, as well as the first American location of their pastry and chocolate school, L’École Valrhona. We sat down with Marine Leman, Communications Manager, to chat about the beginnings of the company and what sets them apart from the others.
What is the origin story of the Valrhona Chocolate Company?
Valrhona was founded in 1922 by a former pastry chef. Since the beginning, we've been producing chocolate made for chefs in bulk. We really work hard to make sure that we provide unique, complex, consistent chocolate to chefs.
There are several things that make us successful: not only the quality of our chocolate, but the fact that we master every single step of the production. We own plantations, we have people who travel all over the world to source the best beans, so we are experts in making chocolate; we've been doing it for a while! We also have a strong Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy: we work closely with our planters, we have long-term partnerships with them, and we make sure we pay them way more than regular farmers. We work with them to make sure that they understand what they're doing and that they do it right. We also invest in helping them have better lives; for instance, we recently raised 20k to help a specific community in Peru to get clean water and we built a school in Ghana. We carry different projects all over the world to treat these workers as partners. The production of the chocolate, our CSR policy, and the supports that we provide to our chefs and our customers is what sets us apart; we provide great chocolate.
In addition, since the beginning we have worked hard to make sure that chefs have the help from Valrhona to make better desserts, so they can make more and sell more to increase their business. That is achieved through our Pastry schools. We have four L'Ecole Valrhona worldwide: two in France, one in Japan, and one here in Brooklyn, where our own pastry chefs give classes to other professionals. So say for instance you are a chef in California who wants to learn more about bonbons; you can spend 2 or 3 days here learning techniques, meeting other chefs, and getting inspired and learning new pairings. We also do demos and workshops, we provide recipes for customers online and create inspiration booklets based on specific techniques. We give a lot of tools to customers product-wise and also specific tools to the chefs.
What is the meaning of the company’s name?
It's a contraction of Vallée du Rhône, where the company was created and is still based.
Why did Valrhona decide to open their US headquarters here in DUMBO?
We initially started our US side of the business 20 years ago in California, but we soon realized that the time difference with France was too much, so we moved to New York. The company was based for a few years in Manhattan before we wanted to move to a bigger space. We moved 10 years ago when there were good deals on property in DUMBO, and the feeling of the neighborhood was artistic and young with good vibes. We also liked the proximity to Manhattan.
What kinds of cooking classes do you offer here?
We have classes for professional chefs which I already mentioned, but we also have classes for at-home chefs. This includes home bakers who want to up their game. Sometimes the classes are just about chocolate, sometimes with themes, like we had a couple's Valentine's Day class.
How is your chocolate different from others?
As I mentioned earlier, we are not particularly experts in marketing or publicity, we are not interested in creating the hot, new single origin chocolate, we just want to produce balanced, complex and unique chocolate. It's all about the taste. At the French headquarters, most of the employees are trained on how to taste chocolate so that they can test the products that the research and development team have been working on to make sure that it's consistent, but they also taste chocolates that we launched a while ago to make sure that it still taste the same. That is really hard and people don't realize it. The good thing with our chocolate is that, if you are a pastry chef and use a certain type of our chocolate for a recipe, you want to be able to make that same recipe 20 years later and have it taste the same.
What is your favorite place in DUMBO?
By the waterfront, for sure! I love Cecconi's, and Almondine as well. Almondine are friends of ours. They make fantastic desserts and I love their strawberry tartes.