When Chantal Coady was a child, she dreamed about chocolate.
“I would go to sleep thinking about ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and dream of wandering through those valleys of chocolate. One of my tragedies was waking up; having dreamt I had stashed a great deal of chocolate under my pillow, when I woke up, there was nothing there.”
But these days, her dreams are uninterrupted. The 51-year-old Londoner single-handedly began what could now be termed the “New British School” of chocolate when she opened her Rococo Chocolates shop in 1983 on the Kings Road in London’s Chelsea neighbourhood. Three years later, as a reaction to what she considered the boring and predictable mass-market chocolate ranges, she started the Campaign for Real Chocolate. Later, she co-founded the Chocolate Society and, more recently, helped create the UK-based Academy of Chocolate.
Today, with three shops and 25 employees, Ms. Coady is arguably the biggest producer of hand-crafted chocolate in Britain. The author of numerous books on the subject, such as “The Chocolate Companion,” she also has experimented with and promoted the use of unusual flavours, a technique now being recreated by even the largest manufacturers. Some of those flavours—including rose, jasmine, violet, mint and geranium – have come from the Moroccan garden she planted behind her shop in Knightsbridge. The little garden’s geometrical-design tiles have also inspired new packaging for her chocolates.
The passion Ms. Coady first tasted as a child has never subsided. As a teenager at art school in the late ’70s, she ended up working part-time in the Harrods chocolate department, where she became enthused about proper German marzipan and even creamy Belgian confections.
“Belgian chocolates were the bees knees because they were so exotic and no one else had anything like them but looking back, they were really like great big cream buns, stuffed with butter, cream and sugar and not a lot of chocolate. They worked in that caveman sort of way for those who craved sugar and fat.”
Her very first customer was Michael Caine, who wanted the biggest box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray available for his mother’s birthday.
“He was a perfectly behaved customer and, in fact, is still a client of mine at Rococo,”
she adds. Cadbury’s Milk Tray box of assorted chocolates, which launched in 1915, has become almost as iconic a gift at parties and celebrations as a bunch of flowers. Today, Cadbury still sells more than eight millions annually. More sophisticated recipients have been known to politely thank the guest and then discreetly forward them on. Some social scientists have speculated there are scores of completely inedible chocolate relics covered in a white bloom in unopened boxes being moved around in an endless game of “pass the parcel”.
Her experiences at Harrods had an impact on her future career—but, ironically, through what she saw as its limitations.
“My experience there lacked any emotional engagement,” she says. “Although the products were certainly good, there was a joy missing in the actual decor and presentation of the them.”
In the early ’80s, when punk still ruled London’s younger generation, Ms. Coady was ignobly sacked for coming to work with an emerald-coloured stripe in her hair.
“I thought it was a bit unjust, as green was the signature colour of Harrods,” she recalls “and my hair was done by Vidal Sassoon. But at least it spurred me on to do something myself.”
The other catalyst was boredom: “After I graduated [from Camberwell School of Art & Crafts], I went into an office environment, but found it so numbing and traumatic that I decided to go back to my original love of chocolate. Rather than sell it in a dreary place, [I thought] why not create a beautiful, sumptuous, theatrical environment? I wanted people to walk into the shop and be bowled over by it,” Ms. Coady says. “I was very much into the visual playfulness of the trompe l’oeil.
We painted our first shop in the Kings Road with cherubs and clouds and a sugar chandelier—it was a world of complete fantasy. It was a complete hit, as no one else was running independent retail outlets exclusively selling chocolates, as they were mainly sold in department stores.”
Rococo in Motcomb St, Belgravia
In those early years, the main products in Rococo were chocolates manufactured elsewhere, by small Belgian and French companies, plus a handful of artisanal English producers.
A year after beginning, Ms. Coady came across Valrhona, the French specialist chocolate manufacturer, which had a major influence over her career.
“I could immediately see that they were very special, as they treated chocolate almost like wine—individual estates in Latin America, Indonesia and Madagascar, each with their own characteristics. That was a moment of truth for me and something I found very exciting.”
So, in 1990, she began producing her own chocolates, starting with house truffles created from Valrhona products.
Around this same time, Ms. Coady was getting more involved in the industry, setting up the Chocolate Society, and being influenced by a number of other people’s work. She started to push for a change among Britain’s big, industrial chocolate manufacturers.
“I campaigned by saying you shouldn’t be allowed to put in hydrogenated vegetable fats, which were being used universally at that time. Plus, they were full of sugar and artificial vanilla, which was covering a multitude of sins when it came to bad tastes.” It also irritated her that chocolate at the time had a bad reputation as being an unhealthy product, when the real culprits were the sugar and fat added to the chocolate. “Chocolate is actually quite good for you, as it is one of those rare beneficial fats, like olive oil.”
But after more than a quarter of a century in the business, Ms. Coady is proudest of her latest venture, a partnership with producers in Grenada to create organic, fair-trade chocolate. No other British company is doing this, although one does have a joint venture in St Lucia to grow the cocoa beans but they are not turned into chocolate in situ.
And while she is no longer as obsessed with consuming chocolate (which Ms. Coady puts that down to being surrounded by so many varieties that she no longer needs to eat as much), the movement that obsession started in the U.K. is now taking hold. London has become an important centre for specialist chocolate production.
“I think there is no doubt that the new British chocolatiers, such as William Curley, Paul Young and Damian Allsop, can rival any in Europe—they are in a similar position to Spanish chefs in the world of haute cuisine.”