Interview with Christopher Elbow
This post is in partnership with the Haagen-Dazs and “Moment for Me”.
Years ago when I first moved to Kansas City, I ventured down to the Crossroads with some friends to experience the city’s monthly art crawl, First Fridays. We hopped from gallery to gallery, but then as we were walking down the street one of my friends stopped in her tracks and insisted that we must stop by Christopher Elbow’s.
As soon as I stepped in the door of his place, I realized his was an entirely different kind of art. A breathtaking, creative, and stop-you-in-your-tracks-when-you-walk-in-the-door-to-savor-the-sweet-smell kind of art.
Christopher Elbow is a chocolatier. And pretty much anyone in Kansas City would tell you that he is the chocolatier in town.
His famous chocolate store and magical chocolate factory are a landmark in the Crossroads district of Kansas City, but as he has expanded, his chocolates and treats can now be found all over town gracing the storefronts of coffee shops and specialty grocers. As if that weren’t enough, a few years ago he opened up an artisan ice cream store, Glace, with a location conveniently a few blocks from my old house (also dangerously a block away from where I worked out each weekend) and then later a second store a few blocks from my work. I liked to think they were opened especially for me.
This past holiday season, Christopher Elbow also made a splash (literally) when he partnered with our beloved local brewery, Boulevard, to create a limited-edition chocolate ale. Orders went through the roof, and everyone I knew in town was trying to get their hands on a bottle. One of my friends scored a bottle and shared it one night with a group of 15 or so of us, so we each enjoyed a few sips. It was what Anchorman might call “kind of a big deal”. :)
More than anything though, Elbow Chocolates and Glace are known for Christopher’s signature creative flavors, his thoughtful attention to design and detail, and high-quality melt-in-your-mouth chocolate and ingredients. But what locals know is that the man behind the name is just as cool. Christopher Elbow was born and raised in KC, and after having hopped around the world gaining experience as a chef, he chose to return and invest in the city and our culinary scene and set up shop here. And if you have the chance to bump into him while buying a rosemary caramel chocolate or sampling some goat cheese and wildflower honey ice cream, you will meet a completely down-to-earth and kind guy, eager to geek out with you about cacao beans or ice cream (or tequila!).
Somehow I’d never had the fortune to meet him in person, and had only heard about him from friends. But a few weeks ago, I opened my monthly surprise box from Haagen-Dazs, where I am participating in their Moments for Me campaign — all about celebrating meaningful moments in life. And lo and behold, my eye instantly went to the familiar white box with the “E” logo, and I opened a letter to find out that I was going to get to meet Christopher Elbow! Better yet — they had arranged for me to visit the shop to interview him, and take a tour of the chocolate factory!!!
A Kansas City foodie’s dream come true.
So on a Wednesday morning, I grabbed my computer and traveled down 10 blocks from my place to the shop, where I was greeted at the door by Christopher (Chris) himself. He graciously sat down for an interview, and took me on a spin around what we musicians would call the “back of the house” — the chocolate factory. Completely made my day.
So here are some glimpses of my interview with Chris, along with an accompanying post with photos from my tour of Elbow Chocolates. Please note that I am not a professional journalist or interviewer! Ha, I didn’t even think about bringing a tape recorder, so I just tried to type a million miles an hour as we talked about all things chocolate. But it was a great conversation, so I hope you enjoy it.
And whether you are local to KC or live states or countries away, be sure to do yourself a favor and order some chocolates so that you can experience the magic yourself.
For more background, I would encourage you to read Christopher’s bio here.
Where did your chocolate-making journey begin?
I actually kind of stumbled into it. I first saw chocolate-making when I was living in Las Vegas. The pastry chef I worked with would make it, but never teach us. So I never had an opportunity to pursue it until I was the pastry chef at The American, where we would send out little chocolates as a dessert. I taught myself how to make it, and then customers started asking if I could make more, and we began to sell them. But it got really crazy really quickly, so that’s when I realized it was time for something different.
As a chef, do you miss the restaurant world?
(Laughs.) I don’t miss the restaurant world at all. I don’t miss the hours and intensity, although it’s not like I don’t work lots of hours here. We work hard. But outside of the holiday season, it’s not nights and weekends. So no, I don’t really miss the restaurant world. It’s allowed me to do that more cooking at home on a hobby/enjoyable level again.
So speaking of “cooking”, I have to bring up the question everyone asks — how do you come up with new flavors?
It’s a lot of trial and error. My mind is always thinking about flavor combos. Whether I’m at a restaurant, or even visiting a different country, it’s almost a curse now –my mind immediately shifts to chocolate or ice cream. It’s a constant thing. So we’ll bring the flavors in, play around with them, and see if they work.
We’re also always reading food magazines to find new ideas. And travel is more important than anything, seeing what’s important and what’s new around the world.
Part of our mission and vision is not to be complacent. It’s super hard to change our flavors twice a year. Definitely a logistical nightmare. But to me, that forces us to stay innovative. I could see if we didn’t do that, it’d be easy to do the same thing over and over.
How much testing do you do with a new flavor?
Sometimes we can hit it with one shot. More often it takes several weeks of trials. We don’t do anything that I feel is really crazy. And we don’t do anything for the sake of being trendy or for shock value. If it sounds like it’s going to be off the wall, or if it’s not something I want to eat and taste (and then eat and taste again and again), we don’t do it.
Like the bacon trend, for example. We’ve goofed around with it. And while it’s fun once, it doesn’t seem like a very good business model.
On the business note, would you say your development process is more artistic or market driven? Or does the market now support whatever artistic ventures you want to try?
We listen to our customers, and they generally support what we want to do. We have 10-12 current flavors, and switch the others out twice a year. True, if we take certain flavors away, sometimes they get angry. But this setup gives us free reign to try new flavors, and opens a good dialogue with the customer. If we happened to take away a favorite flavor, we can encourage them to try a new one. Most of the time, the customers will find a new favorite.
The one area where we really have had to work with customers is on understanding the value of fresh chocolate. Our chocolate has a 2-3 week shelf life, and it was a jump for customers to understand that it’s not the box that has been in the drugstore for 6-12 months. So we work to help shift the mindset of the customer to not buy a huge box, but instead buy a smaller box more frequently. People are getting it, though, and appreciate it.
Will you let us in on your flops?
Honestly, it’s some of the more simple things that have flopped.
Chocolate is such a bold flavor to pair with, so it can really railroad new flavors ideas. For example, every holiday season I try to do a cranberry, and it’s too light of a flavor to come through. We have tried it in a ganache, a caramel, even a layer of fruit in order to get more of the flavor. To me, the chocolate just kind of kicks it.
We try to balance the flavors — I think that’s one of the things we’re really good at. So if one overrules the other, it’s not a successful product.
Ice cream is different. Anything goes with ice cream. It’s a really neutral flavor vehicle, so it’s a lot easier to come up with those flavors. Again though, we don’t try a lot of crazy things. If I can’t visualize how it’s going to taste in my mind, it’s probably something we should try. I trust my palate enough to know how it will work.
Who comes up with your chocolate designs?
Most of the production staff does that, and my wife [a designer at Hallmark Cards] also contributes.
The flavor comes first. We want the design to evoke the flavor, so it should be representative of what’s inside the chocolate 90% of the time. If we are working on a lemon flavor, usually we would steer the color palate towards yellow.
I help with some of the designs, but we really try to get the staff involved. It’s fun for them to come up with the new flavors and recipes. Since our summer months are slower, that’s usually when we do most of our R&D.
The majority of the questions that my friends had centered around the topic of fair-trade chocolate. What are your thoughts on that, and how does it affect what you do?
It’s obviously a very important part of the chocolate culture. And I think moving forward, it will become even more so.
We feel pretty good confident about our bean supplier, Velrano, who has been in business since the 40’s. They were one of the first distributors to work directly with farmers and plantations. They did it not just to be humanitarians, but because it also gets them better product, so it’s a win-win. We get a better product, and the farmers make a better living.
I had the opportunity to visit one of the plantations in Madagascar, and meet with our buyer. Throughout his career, this guy has seen terrible things in the chocolate trade – lots of child labor, slavery, and more. We do not buy beans from farms who treat their workers poorly. Is our chocolate certified fair-trade? No. Our buyer said that the hoops the farmers have to go through are not worth it to them.
The issue is important though, and people are becoming more aware of it. When you read an article on fair trade, it’s usually about beans bought on the commodities market. For all the big bean farmers, the price is dictated by demand, market, speculators. Really in all of that, the ones who make the money are the speculators. They have to buy x amount of beans, so they don’t have a choice. It’s driven by demand in the cookie aisle.
What trends do you see in the chocolate world right now?
Overall, definitely the trend towards dark chocolate. Americans are developing a taste for high-quality dark chocolate. Not a bag on milk chocolate, it serves its purpose. But dark chocolate is definitely on the rise. We launched a 70% cacao bar, and now we have an 80% bar, and people are really liking it.
There are also changing trends in flavor profiles, especially with using more unusual ingredients. That’s a huge trend in nouveau American chocolate. In contrast to the French, Swiss, or Belgian chocolate consumers, Americans are asking for more bold flavors. They are really pushing the boundaries.
Another trend is bean-to-bar chocolate making. Basically, it’s small people like me, buying the best beans they can find, and working directly with the farmers. In Missouri we have two of the top bean-to-bar chocolate makers around – Askinose and Patric. Their focus and attention to detail is what makes the difference – using better beans, better roasting methods, better conching, better sugar, and better vanilla. It makes a huge difference.
Is bean-to-bar something you would ever want to pursue?
It’s a little unfeasible for us to get into making our chocolate. We would like to, but it would take a separate facility and equipment.
Ok, so…Boulevard? Is this happening again?
(Laughs.) Well, they wanted to take a year off to evaluate what they can do. Because of the demand and the problems that caused, they were worried about another round. So we decided to back off a year off, let the demand die down, and then look at it again. I hope they do it again. I was happy with the product.
What did that development process look like?
It looked like a lot of beer drinking at 10 in the morning. It was very casual – they’re such a cool company.
It was such a great process, simply starting with the question “Hey, do you think this will work? Do you want to help us with flavor ingredients?” It took about 24 different batches, testing small amounts, just to figure things out about how to pair flavor with traditional and non-traditional brewing methods, since chocolate is fat soluable. I thought that if we really wanted the true chocolate flavor, we should start with the crushed cacao bean and not with the chocolate. There are fewer choices once the bean is made into chocolate.
Ok, so when do you say “cacao” and when do you say “cocoa”?
“Cacao” (pronounced ka-kow) is when you’re talking about a bean. “Cocoa” is when you’re talking about cocoa powder.
For someone who doesn’t “talk chocolate” all that intelligently, how do you break things down?
I break chocolate down into a few profiles – red fruity, (berries, currant, blackberry, raspberry), yellow fruity (banana, tropical, passion fruit, more on the sour note), nutty, earthy (dirty), and chocolate-y. There’s a definite flavor to chocolate that, at the end of the day, well, we just call it chocolate-y.
The vanilla also makes a difference. Our supplier, Velrona, doesn’t use a lot of vanilla. Initially, vanilla was used as a way to mask bad beans, and it has stayed in chocolate ever since. But more and more, bean-to-bar producers are using a lot less vanilla, or they’re not using it at all. You can tell a big difference when chocolate is made with a lot of vanilla.
How do you describe the chocolate you use?
I’ve switched chocolates so many times throughout our history. But four years ago, we developed our own blend. The reason I kept switching was because we had so many different flavors, and it became a balance issue. Many of the chocolate fruity/nutty profiles didn’t work with the flavors we want to put in the chocolate. So I set out a goal to find a “bulls eye” flavor that would work with 95% or more of the flavors we want to put with it.
Our chocolate blend is from 5 different origins. There is a little Madagascar, and a little Ghana, but primarily the bulk of it is Venezuelan. It is a chocolate-y centered flavor profile, with high enough acid content to mix well with other ingredients.
What is the percentage of cacao?
Our blend has 63% cacao. Typically, the higher the percentage, the stronger it will be. But that can be misleading.
The cacao bean is made up of different parts of cocoa butter (which is very mild) and cocoa fiber. So you could have two 70% chocolates, but their makeup would be totally different. You could have one with a lot of cocoa butter, little cocoa fiber, or vice versa. Then the remainder is sugar.
In milk chocolate, the remainder is milk only. That pushes the cocoa content down quite a bit. Typically the mass market of milk chocolate is 30-28% cocoa content, and a lot of that is cocoa butter. So that’s why it doesn’t taste as strong.
So you do chocolate and ice cream…is there anything else coming next?
I have a few other things that I want to do, but I don’t have the time. I’m a big fan of focusing on one thing and doing it well, which is why we took the ice cream out of the chocolate shop and created separate production facilities and separate staffs.
I see too many people doing too many different things. I call it the Applebee’s syndrome (nothing against them). They have too many different things on the menu, and can’t do one thing really well. The trend now it seems in New York and San Francisco is to find things you can do really well. Develop a solid menu that’s not big. It’s the more European style, where they have a cheese maker, bread baker, etc. That’s what we try to be in Kansas City.
What are your thoughts on the KC food scene?
It’s as good as it’s ever been. I’m a big proponent of Kansas City. I talk it up everywhere I go.
I spend a lot of time in San Francisco, and every time I’m there at the shop, a customer gives me a look and asks why KC. But I like the city, and I think we’re headed in the right direction, especially with what’s happening in the Crossroads. I think we still have a long way to go though. The scene is set for a lot more to happen, but right now it’s just small.
I also love Kansas City because my family and friends are here. When I was starting the business, I wondered if this would be the right city. But financially, from the cost-effective real estate, to the cost of doing business, I really didn’t have a choice because I had no money. So it wasn’t an option to move to NY or San Francisco. Right away it was a great city to be in for a business. The public embraced us, the media embraced us, and we really appreciated it.
Do you hope to expand to other cities besides KC and San Fran?
I don’t know. I would love to have a shop in NY but for the wrong reasons. I’d love to have an excuse to just have a shop out there. But financially it doesn’t make sense, and we still have challenges with our production level and keeping up with demand. Ten years into the business, we still struggle at holiday times to get enough out the door to meet the demand. So an additional city would probably be a huge logistical challenge.
So far, this business has been really fun. I tell people that we were kind of at the right place at the right time. I probably did more to sabotage the business than help it along the way. I’m not a businessman, so the testament that we’re still around after 10 years is pretty cool. I think it speaks to what we do, and also to the city that has helped us make it happen.
Disclaimer: This “Moment For Me” experience was coordinated by Haagen-Dazs. I was not compensated, and all opinions are 100% my own. Huge thanks again to Christopher Elbow for being so great!