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  • Writer's pictureAmit

Theobroma: Cacao/chocolate and Culinary

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Unveiling the Hidden Potential of Cacao and chocolate: Theobroma and the Culinary World

The Ancient Mayans named our favourite plant KaKaWa, and the Spanish colonisers retained the sounds to the modern Cacao. Modern-day taxonomic plant classification gave the cacao plant the most generous Latin name thinkable: Theobroma, or Greek for “food of the gods''.

Similarly to Carolus Linnaeus who chose this grand name and the ancient Mayans who put cacao on a spiritual pedestal, I too believe that the potential in these pods goes beyond their beauty, or their common applications within traditional pastry which dominate culinary schools and the world’s greatest kitchens.

It is with this awe that I chose to name our series of cacao-focused dinners Theobroma.

Fresh cacao pod on cacao beans on burlap

The fruit of cacao is made up of a thick pectin-full shell encapsulating a sugary and yeasty pulp of sweet honey-like tropical fruit segments, every segment contains a seed (or a bean) rich in protein and healthy fats. While initially tough to digest, the wild yeast from the pulp magically ferments these beans to not only be digestible to humans, but to make nutrients bioavailable and turn this bean to one of the most nutrient-dense plant foods known to man.

Beyond the incredible range of health benefits, these three parts yield a huge range of different flavours unlike one another, as well as different versions of them at different levels of fermentation or heat application.

If that’s not enough, the healthy, delicious fat found in the seed can be set to melt exactly at human body temperature, defining humanity’s favourite textural experience.

Looking at cacao in this way, you can clearly see why it was believed to be a divine gift, and hopefully also why I believe it is misrepresented in current culinary application.

Why are human chefs, known for their savage creativity, not enjoying the full potential of a plant that we’ve had for almost as long as we’ve had wine, that molecularly carries more complexity of flavour than red wine?

I theorise two main (intertwined) reasons,

The first has to do with the commoditization that happens to most cacao prior to arriving in a restaurant kitchen. Because cacao cultivation and fermentation is very volatile due to its naturally high concentration of yeast, it is easy to grow and ferment, but hard to do it well. The level of care required to allow fermented cacao to reach a roaster carrying its full potential range of flavour is very high, and the incentives for farmers to do this well are not in place: When namelessly selling a commodity to an aggregator, they have no way to differentiate their offering or pricing based on quality but instead are forced into a game of reducing price and therefore quality as low as possible. Because of this huge gap at the start of cacao's journey, even the world’s best roaster can not yield interesting flavours from a mouldy bean. The rest of commodity cacao’s journey after roasting sounds very similar and it’s detailed in our other posts.

How did we arrive here? These incentives were set during the period of global colonisation which remained in place when governments pulled out and corporations stayed in place. This dynamic cemented along with production volume’s explosion during the industrial revolution, a similar impact at the same time to other commercialised/industrialised agricultural products with sources in economically deprived countries. As the children of the industrial revolution, this is the version of cacao that we (diners and chefs alike) grew up familiar with.

Beautiful black plate with a sauce that looks like chocolate
The base of Theobroma's vegetable main

The second is simplification of the expectations, caused by our generation’s traditional pastry ‘cuisine’ being cemented during the industrial revolution, based on ingredients available at the time.

While the ancient people of Mesoamerica had limited scientific understanding, they still created a product worth celebrating. When this plant was taken by the Spanish conquistadors for European royalty to grow at-mass in parts of the African continent, the tradition of careful cultivation and fermentation did not pass along with the plant. Imagine if vineyards made wine of grapes that were grown and handled the same way as commodity supermarket grapes, with the farmers' incentives focused on yield & speed instead of flavour and character, let alone terroir and microbial ecology.

By the time these mass-production practices became the foundation for European industrial-revolution chocolate, French cuisine had established the foundations of pastry, a formulaic approach to standardising and maximising the output/value of known ingredients, as they were known at the time, via a firm grasp on chemistry and ninja-level culinary skills. Today’s pastry schools still work with commodity chocolate despite their careful choice of most other ingredients simply because the return of good chocolate (outside of traditional communities) is only about 30 years old and still in pioneer stages due to its ill fit into a world of food trade dominated by commoditised industrial practices.

As a result, a modern-day pastry chef is trained to treat chocolate as a bitter structural ingredient that keeps a desert upright and must be balanced out with sweetness, freshness and a creamy mouthfeel. Some buy their chocolate built-in with these contrastors.

Wall with tiny shelves covered in chocolate bonbons
Theobroma's hand-painted bonbon wall

This touches on another problem: most pastry chefs’ training neglects chocolate to the level where while it’s technically covered in culinary school, rarely is the precision emphasised and the science covered to a level which enables the chef to troubleshoot or adjust recipes without multiple rounds of testing, tempering in difficult conditions (such as presence if moisture or fats which don’t crystallise), or tempering without the presence of emulsifiers added by the manufacturer which remove even more from its flavour (lecithin is often what gives chocolate [esp. chocolate coins] a “waxy” character and additional bitterness) but ensure good outcome to imprecise tempering (following the steps loosely). These emulsifiers are mainly added to tackle melting in global shipping but have become a crutch as they are always present in chocolate used in culinary schools and almost every restaurant in the world - and as result are part of what most people believe is the natural flavour of chocolate.

Am I bitter about this? Not at all. If I was a classically trained chef I most likely would share the same opinion. But I am keen to do what this wonderful platform of Conspiracy Chocolate enables towards helping pastry chefs reclaim cacao’s full potential.

Green butter moulded like a cacao pod on a turquoise plate
Cultured pistachio-cacao butter

Not to say we have all the answers, but we did take a crack directly at one of the hardest applications: cacao in a summer menu, in savoury dishes.

Our team has spent the summer of 2023 serving an 8-course menu featuring cacao in many forms across six savoury dishes, two desserts, and two palate cleansers. In our forever-efforts of limiting food waste, we also utilised at least one waste product in every dish. The remaining waste was used in the beverage pairing.

The purpose of this article is not to finger-wag at the culinary world for misrepresenting cacao, but to educate young chefs on how we got here, and hopefully inspire one or two with what more can be done with it. To any chef reading this, I am more than happy to share any of our recipes from this menu.

The menu

Our culinary applications of cacao and chocolate

Our answer to the classic bread-and-butter offered on many western dining tables included a freshly baked ciabatta, with a “cultured butter” which uses the wild yeast extracted from a Taiwanese cacao fruit (and propagated to a usable density by our good friends at Yardley Brothers) to ferment homemade pistachio milk that we tempered into single-origin Dak Lak cacao butter, the same way as you would make ganache. The melting point and moisture level equal to that of high-quality dairy butter gave us the same texture, with the fermentation providing the funky-fresh umami notes of cultured butter. In fact, dairy butter sets via crystallisation meaning it behaves very similarly at room temperature. Same as the recipes, to any chef reading this, I am open to sharing this yeast family upon request.

Green butter moulded like a cacao pod , with cacao pod and flaky salt on a turquoise plate
A spreadable cultured butter of cacao yeast-fermented pistachio milk and cacao butter, with cumin ciabatta

Prior to this dish, inspired by the dairy butter-aged beef, we aged fillets of hamachi in cacao butter before serving raw slices along with Japanese-style pickled celtus and daikon. This was Zarah Tang’s idea, our R&D chef.

Hamachi and elegant pickles on black plate
Cacao butter aged hamachi

Cacao ferments in large wooden boxes under which fermentation juices get collected. These are cacao pulp juices with incredibly high wild-yeast activity. Left to ferment for another two weeks they first become alcoholic with a taste of honey-tropical-fruit, and eventually a honey-fruity vinegar with a floral-cacao finish. These fermentation juices are commonly discarded as waste. We combined the resulting vinegar with a pectin-rich earthy-smoky broth (reminiscent of maple without the sweetness) we made of empty shells of pods that we allowed to darken with time (same as banana peels). The vinegar and the broth, together with a grassy olive oil and the broth’s pectin made a summery-floral vinaigrette that felt emulsified on the palate from the pectin, with a grounding earthy back-note that supported a strong contrast of sweet-bitter between endives, frisée, vs. peaches, jicama & beetroot.

Salad with frisée, jicama, beetroot, peach, beetroot
Salad with cacao fermentation juice vinegar and cacao pod broth dressing. Garnished with local micro bronze fennel

Chefs plating dishes

Our goal with this series was to show the diners what cacao can do. We wanted to shock the expectation out of people by the second course and build them up from scratch, tasting the layers of cacao one-by-one until the complete symphony comes together towards the end.

We purposely began with light applications that look like “normal” food, a super-satisfying fatty first plate (the hamachi) followed by a fresh salad to clear the palate.

Personally I often struggle with how my stomach feels after going to nice restaurants. A challenge we took on ourselves is to make a meal that feels as good as it tastes, structuring it with fibre at the onset, and keeping the butter and grain low, using less than 30g of butter for an entire service of 10 dishes to 12 pax.

To challenge ourselves further, we decided to do this in a summer menu, while winter is when you will usually expect cacao in your plates. Our favourite origin, Dak Lak, Vietnam, is iconically fruity-earthy so we’ve let this flavour combination be the menu’s overarching theme.

Chocolate’s flavour feels three-dimensional with a foreground-background dynamic simulated by the difference in timing and distribution of the breakdown of water soluble vs fat soluble flavours. Chocolate’s intense water soluble flavours come faster and more sharply, lasting shorter while the flavours in cacao butter give us the slow, steady, long-lasting creamy-fruity notes that feel like a background.

For a comparison, imagine the way the “tempered” (or seasoned) oil in an Indian stew provides a background experience on the palate while the ginger-garlic paste provides an intense, short lived foreground, or the way olive oil sets the tone on a raw Italian vegetable dish, who’s intensely flavourful tomatoes, fennel, radishes and peppery arugula orient the palate.

Chef plating scallops

In order to demonstrate this, we began the meal with only the gentle flavours of fresh cacao fruit and cacao butter. After the hamachi, the salad and the bread-and-butter, we served scallops browned in cacao butter (which both carries gentle fruity aroma and has a relatively high smoke point, making it excellent for browning seafood) together with a savoury almond white chocolate-sake ganache, a supreme slice of grapefruit, and a leaf of borage.

White chocolate is not only controversial, in most cases it is basically milk candy softened with some cacao butter (in terms of ratios) so chefs often use it only as something to color and add visual appeal to a dish. “Its too sweet” I often hear, and I agree, it often is. Because scallops pair so nicely with a floral cacao butter, with oats, and with sake, we created a “savoury white chocolate” which is just 1:1 oat stone-ground together with cacao butter until creamy, then tempered this “chocolate” with sake of which the alcohol was gently cooked out earlier. The sake-oat-white ganache served as a perfect creamy sauce for scallops, and the grapefruit’s zing kept us balanced. Micro borage is just my favourite garnish for delicate seafood.

Scallops and grapefruit
Scallops with savoury ganache of white chocolate and sake

This white chocolate dish marked the end of the first part of the meal, by which point diners were experienced enough to understand cacao fruit and cacao butter’s power and range in savoury food.

At this point we cleansed our palates with the first sorbet of the evening: a sorbet of fermentation juices which were pasteurised immediately, maintaining their honey-fruity notes before acidity had the chance to build up in further fermentation.

I came out to the dining room and gave a small speech about the three-dimensionality of chocolate and how we will now transition to dishes featuring the full range of cacao’s seed’s components.

White sorbet in martini glass
pasteurised cacao fermentation juice sorbet

Chocolate sauce plated on black plate

As a chef I am a big fan of vegetable mains. The insane variety of vegetables on planet earth allows near-infinite creativity in flavour, texture and appearance.

The first dish which featured cacao solids, or “the dark side of chocolate” as a complete chocolate dish used cacao in three different ways (and was one of the most efficient plates I’ve ever seen in terms of using waste ingredients): a gorgeous roulade of zucchini and daikon radish with cacao veloute and a chocolate glaze, sitting on a bed of cacao-shallot purée. The dish clearly tasted like the dark side of chocolate with the intensified umami of slowly browned shallots, the intensity of cacao solids in three layers which experienced different heat treatment to each other, and the creamy-fresh experience of the lightly cooked summer vegetables layered with veloute. This one was thought up by none other than Andre, Conspiracy’s production head.

Vegetable main dish, zucchini roulade on chocolate
Zucchini and daikon roulade with cacao velouté and a chocolate glaze, on cacao-shallot purée

Chefs plating a dish

Next came our star dish, a 24 hour slow-cooked Iberico pork collar on a creamy-yet-firm bed of wild rice with umami-buttery stock that’s been built up over 48 hours. The pork crusted/coated with home-made apple chips and a big pile of crushed 80% coarse ground dark chocolate.

Coarse-ground chocolate is the closest representation to the way that ancient Mayans processed cacao by hand on a matate for its texture and flavour development profile. This dish was the brain-child of our friend and partner in Theobroma, Dennis Pang.

While I am a big fan of savoury dishes with straight-up chocolate, I wanted to wait until this far down the meal to introduce the concept because it was very important for the menu’s educational goals to slowly introduce the flavours inside chocolate one-by-one, so that by the time this dish came along, diners were more atuned the huge complexity that well-made chocolate adds to a dish.

Pork neck on wild rice on white plate
24 hour iberico neck and 80% coarse-ground chocolate on wild rice

Two chefs with a vegetable plate

Most chocolate out there is over-roasted, burnt. This is due to the cultivation and fermentation problems mentioned above, together with industrial food’s goal of consistency. As a result it is bitter like any other burnt food is bitter, and requires sweetness and sweet fat like dairy, and sweet-simulators like vanilla to be palatable, and in these conditions it adds very little to a savoury dish. Well fermented, lightly roasted cacao brings aromatic notes, which in Dak-Lak’s case are earthy-fruity and these complement and refresh the slow-cooked meat and grain in a way that brings these rich flavours right into a summer menu. I’m a huge fan of contrasts, especially those which allow us to brighten up complex, rich and layered flavours.

The pinnacle of weird in this menu was a single praline served on a rock. This praline was inspired by a similar idea by chef Lee Adams. The bonbon’s shell was made of dark chocolate with two types of oolong tea, with two layers inside: a punchy ginger jam and a sort-of ganache of foie-gras softened with cacao butter. This rich umami bomb was right on the ridge between dessert and savoury, and concluded the savoury portion of the meal.

Foie gras and ginger jam oolong chocolate bonbon with golden tip
Chocolate bonbon of foie gras and ginger jam in oolong dark 85% chocolate

After this dish we cleansed palates again, this time with a very tannic cold-brew tea of cacao husk. The husk of cacao is a fibrous shell with a strong chocolate aroma and insanely strong tannins. I sometimes use it to control the body in a cocktail, as a tea, or even to finish sauces and soups with a crisp mouthfeel and nutty-woody aroma that contrasts fat without adding acidity.

A line up of different styles of drinking glasses
+2 more: the range of glasses used in the beverage pairings

Our two desserts were simple and classic: the first a classic dark chocolate ganache plated with pieces of plum, a brittle of white & black sesame with nigella seeds (aka black cumin), a strong peppery italian olive oil, flaky salt and closed-up oxalis flowers.

Sorry, I don't have a photo of this one.

Together with the upcoming final plate we served a second sorbet, made of the seed of cacao (nibs) which is essentially dairy-free chocolate ice cream, since the naturally occurring fat in cacao takes up the textural role of dairy. Our willing victims by now had two sorbets which could not be more different from one another, but made of the exact same fruit: one light and fruity and the other dark, intense, creamy, and unmistakably chocolatey.

Sorry, no photo of this one either.

The second dessert was a two-face bonbon of passionfruit and mango.

To close the meal, we closed the bonbon together: I came out to the dining room. Our service team placed hot marble boards on the table and together with the diners we touched the open faces to the hot marble and closed them to one final bite, sharing a moment from a chocolatier’s day.

To conclude, every diner received a small pack of cacao husk tea to make at home.

Mango and passionfruit chocolate bonbon
Mango and passionfruit chocolate bonbon

Two chefs in front of freezer

Chocolate is inherently difficult to work with because of the special conditions it requires to manipulate. There is a good reason that pastry chefs, who’s jobs cover an incredible range of chemistry practice, avoid going down one rabbit hole in favour of the rest of the amazing things they create. I have huge respect for the artists who choose to express themselves via food, and take on the immense challenge of making visually stunning art with ingredients on a daily basis that require such a grasp on so many facets of chemistry.

One of our key team members, Andre is a savoury chef with a rockstar background of studying at the Culinary Institute of America and working in some of the top michelin-starred restaurants of New York. In his words, two weeks into working with Conspiracy “it’s like I need to un-learn so much of what I know about food to work with chocolate”.

Chefs plating scallops

This challenge is not only reserved to kitchens who use commodity chocolate. While working with quality bean-to-bar chocolate, tempering (especially in the hot kitchens of Hong Kong) requires a solid foundation of knowledge and practice. There are easy solutions to this but they also require planning and preparation. Beside tempering, balancing the flavour profile of a fermented bean with both fat soluble flavours and such an intense flavour in the starch is an art.

Restaurants who choose to take their own creative direction with chocolate find themselves doing an 8-step artisanal process by hand and the commitment this requires is massive. I have crazy big respect for chef Ricardo Chaneton of Mono and his team for taking on this challenge. Not only do they need to do all this process, but manage relationships with far-away farms as a small-scale buyer expecting the best of the best of what they offer.

What do I hope for the future of cacao in culinary?

Modern cuisine is constantly reinventing itself in the minds of millions of chefs across the globe. Its foundations are deeply rooted in human sustenance, pleasure and novelty. On top of these foundations are ever-developing lessons of new ways to manipulate food and interact with the palate, shared by passionate cooks that not only adapt the food but also the fashion and at times, educate the palate itself.

As these developments unfold I hope for an open relationship between chef to chocolate maker to farmer and back, where tweaks as far back as fermentation can happen in batches of an optimised volume in the farm’s own microbiome with freshly picked fruit, specifically to a chef’s requirements. I hope for wine sommeliers to take chocolate on the way they’ve adopted spirits and sake. I hope to blur the lines between the ingredients and formulas applied on savoury and dessert, and for pastry chefs to be recognized as the mad chemistry geniuses they are, and with this recognition take on courageous projects worthy of the immense knowledge they carry around. Given the time that inevitably-upcoming kitchen automation will free up, to research and develop adventurous applications of the magical fruit of cacao in all its parts throughout a meal in any place they can elevate, with the same intimate and thorough familiarity they have with ingredients like cauliflower, chicken, apple or sugar.

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