One man's quest for cacao knowledge.
My wife and I like to say that the answer to any good question is always “chocolate.” When I proposed to her two years ago, she answered “chocolate” before she said “yes.” For us, the mere mention of chocolate conjures images of pleasure, happiness, indulgence and passionate appreciation of life – so much of what we had discussed striving for in our future.
We even made it the theme of our honeymoon last year in Europe, where we visited chocolate exhibits, chocolate museums, chocolate festivals, and a chocolate fashion show. We took a chocolate-themed train ride, stayed in a ‘chocotel’, made our own chocolate bars, befriended chefs and ate ourselves into a theobromatic coma, remedied each morning by a cup of hot cocoa for breakfast. When we counted eight chocolate shops out of 10 stores along a street in Bruges, we nearly sang and danced ourselves into an adjacent lagoon. Had there been a chocolate fountain along the perimeter, we’d surely have taken a dip.
Now after just under 20 years as a full-time writer at Sports Illustrated, I am again faced with a question. I became a budget cut last year, leaving me with a career void. So what now? I can only find the answer in the boundless glee of my childhood.
Apart from my one love of yapping about sports in print and on television, I have always had a boyhood obsession with the food of the gods. Queztacotel may have dropped off a few flowers to the Aztecs about 900 years ago, but it feels as though I have been craving its potions for almost as long. I simply made chocolate a part of my life since I could ask for Christmas presents (chocolate, please), organize a self-guided food tour around my hometown of New York City (chocolate shops) or make pizzas and soups with my favorite secret ingredient (chocolate, of course). Before hitting me with especially challenging assignments, one editor at SI made sure to pry me with ample praline and guanduja for the trips. My life is forever processed with alkali, and I still have fond memories of my mother scolding me for my telltale signs of melted ice cream on my lips and fingers. “If you spend the rest of your life with chocolate thumbprints, everyone will know it’s you when the goodies disappear,” she told me. I think my first copy of Willy Wonka is still on her bookshelf, just above the century-old Remington typewriter.
Now at my career crossroads, it is time to repeat my tasty mantra. Remember that the answer to any good question is always: “chocolate.”
I have become a fixture at some chocolate shops. I love the product and I also love the people who make it. Some are driven, others are a little nutty, but all seem to put smiles on other faces because they have them on their own. Yes, chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar industry. But to me, it is about the luxury item that is far more accessible to my plebian lifestyle than mansions and Maseratis will ever be, and really it is mostly about the smiles.
So after covering 16 Olympics, including winter and summer, getting bylines from 35 countries and covering nearly every sport known to hands and feet, I can’t say I have had to work for a living. I have been blessed by one passion that only pretended to be a job. Now I hope to do that again. The certainty of nine-to-five office work is preferable for some, but not me. At 50, I am reverting to the childhood I never left, hoping to recover some skip in my step. Over the next year, I’ll be travelling the country, taking classes in chocolate making, chocolate molding and chocolate dreaming. There is a business of some kind in the distance – maybe a retail product, maybe a brick-and-mortar shop or maybe both. According to www.finedininglovers.com, there are 8,000 new chocolate products being launched in the world each year. Maybe there is room for mine.
I’ll start my journey next month at the Chocolate Academy run by Barry Callebaut in Montreal, a favorite city for an allure that is both cultural and culinary. I’ll zigzag my way from lab to kitchen to classroom, craving knowledge, inspiration and edible fringe benefits. I am looking forward to getting my hands dirty and to being the kid with the chocolate thumbprints all over again.