Born in Connecticut and educated in Oxford, Katie Christoffers is one of those inspiring, quietly spoken women who could probably turn their hand to anything – and make it a resounding success.
This year alone, her on-line chocolate boutique Matcha Chocolat received 11 awards at the Great Taste Awards, the highest number of awards within the chocolate categories. She has studied Psychology, Neuroscience and Buddhist Studies, but as a chocolatier, she is entirely self-taught.
Following six years working as a biology researcher, Katie turned her attention to chocolate making guided by the inspiration to explore the world’s culinary traditions through the medium of chocolate. In 2010, she launched Matcha Chocolat. The company quickly gathered a cult following for its exquisitely crafted, handmade chocolates paired with fine and rare teas from Japan, China and India.
Over the past two years, Katie has expanded her range to include artisan chocolates blended with spices, herbs, fruits and flowers. She continues to run the business single-handedly from her base in Oxfordshire.
Q. What do you love most about working with chocolate?
A. There are so many things I love about working with chocolate. Its versatility coupled with the ease with which creative experiments can be undertaken and new recipes developed, make chocolate an amazing medium to work with.
Q. What particularly fascinates you about pairing fine tea and chocolate?
A. I was initially drawn to chocolate and tea because I really enjoy food and drink that has a lot of depth and character to its flavour. As chocolate is such an accommodating medium, I thought tea might be the ideal match for chocolate. They both share an amazing diversity of nuanced flavours and I love the way they work together to reveal and enhance one another’s subtleties of flavour.
Q. Was there a catalyst for your decision to change career from biology researcher to chocolate maker?
A. I would have to say my interest in tea and chocolate. It ended up turning into a real passion and I spent a lot of time learning about their history, cultivation and culinary uses.
Eventually this grew into an interest in learning about food traditions from around the world, but it always came back to chocolate. I think of Matcha Chocolat as the culmination of my interest in food, culture, and gourmet chocolate, driven by my flare for experimentation that I developed as a researcher.
Q. How did you set about learning the craft of chocolate making?
A. Having worked in a research lab for over six years I had become quite used to teaching myself new research techniques and methods, so it only seemed natural for me to apply this to my work with chocolate. I’m an entirely self-taught chocolatier and for me it was really just a matter of trial and error, fine tuned with keen observation and a lot of practice that led to me teaching myself the craft of chocolate making.
Q. Do you consider chocolate-making more of an art or a science?
A. I think there’s a lot of overlap. Both artists and scientists rely, to differing degrees, on creative thought, observation, and experimentation; and these are certainly skills I use when I make chocolates or when I develop new recipes. However, for me being a chocolatier has given me the opportunity to explore the aesthetic and creative side of sensory experience that I hadn’t really experienced whilst working in science.
Q. In the past you have drawn on Japanese flavours such as yuzu and matcha. What inspires you about the flavour and aesthetics of the Far East?
A. In Japanese cuisine you often find more savoury flavours, such as green tea, black sesame and chestnut being added to patisserie and traditional confections. I like the way these ingredients bring balance to foods that can often be quite sweet and this is certainly one of the reasons I’m so taken by the fusion between matcha and chocolate.
When I was a child, chocolate was very much a sugary confection often combined with imitation flavourings. So now I love using ingredients that make you approach chocolate in a different way. By working with the finest single origin chocolate and ingredients from different and often exotic culinary traditions, I hope people will gain a new appreciation for chocolate as the truly exquisite food that it is.
Q. Since launching you’ve gained a reputation for creating perfectly balanced flavour combinations such as Masala Chai Caramel and Cardamom Rose Chocolate Shards. How do you get your inspiration?
A. I’m really passionate about learning from different food traditions and I love trying out new ingredients, experimenting and then translating this into an artisan chocolate experience. Sometimes I’ll work with a single flavour such as Vietnamese cinnamon, which I’ll match to just the right type of chocolate. Other times I am inspired by a combination of flavours you might find in a dish or drink such as in the case of masala chai tea.
Q. You use couverture from some of the world’s most renowned producers. What guides your selection?
A. At the moment I’m working with Michel Cluizel couverture for all the chocolate ganaches I make and I use Felchlin Switzerland for enrobing ganaches, as well as for solid chocolate products such as chocolate slabs or shards.
The choice is simple because I think Michel Cluizel does makes some the very finest couverture available. The range of flavours found in Cluizel’s couvertures is remarkable, so it gives me a lot of choice when pairing ingredients to the right chocolate.
Q. What challenges have you faced since starting Matcha Chocolat?
A. I would say that the greatest challenge for me, and I think this is the same for a lot of small business owners, is that you have to take on a wide variety of roles.
For me that involves everything from making chocolates on a daily basis, including packaging and posting them, to doing accounting, website administration, product development, PR, blogging, writing newsletters, and keeping up to date via Twitter and Facebook. There’s no one task that stands out as particularly challenging, it’s just finding the time for them all!
Q. Why do you think there are currently so few female chocolatiers in Britain and do you think the situation is gradually changing?
A. It’s a tough question. I haven’t worked as a chocolatier for long, so I don’t feel that I know the lay of the land regarding the chocolate industry in great depth. However, I agree that there seem to be few female chocolatiers in Britain and probably even fewer female chocolatiers that are also business owners like myself.
From my own experience as a chocolatier, short as it may be, I think it’s worth mentioning that I have experienced sexism. These few, yet unfortunate experiences have made me wonder whether there may be so few female chocolatiers in Britain because of the difficulties presented by entering a male-dominated field.
At the moment there does seem to be an increasing amount of discussion and awareness about women and sexism, particularly in the restaurant industry, which is a really positive change. I’m certainly hopeful that this will continue to lead to gradual changes so that women are more equally represented at all levels and in all professions within the food industry, female chocolatiers included.
A. I spent the summer experimenting and fine-tuning recipes for my Christmas range, so I’m really looking forward to releasing the new chocolates come this winter. The Japanese inspired chocolates I did for Valentine’s Day went down really well with my customers, so I’ve updated that collection with a few new chocolates. I’ll also have a new selection for Mother’s Day and for Easter I will have available a set of filled Easter eggs as I’ve had a lot of request from customers to do those again.
Win a Gift Box from Matcha Chocolat
To celebrate Matcha Chocolat’s success at the 2012 Great Taste Awards and International Chocolate Awards, Katie Christoffers is staging a series of 12 competitions. Each month, she will give away a 16-piece gift box showcasing one of her 12 award-winning chocolates.
Will the next prize be Tonka Bean Caramel, Ginger & Lemongrass Rosemary, Raison & Walnut, Sao Tomé Single Origin Truffle, Masala Chai Caramel, Lavender & Vanilla, Pink Grapefruit Vietnamese Cinnamon, Coffee Sambucca or Pistachio? You’ll have to visit Katie’s blog during the first week of October to find out!
In your October Magazine: