Charles and the Self-Made Chocolatier
Chuck Siegel’s earliest chocolate confections were a true labor of love. Attempting to impress his Italian girlfriend, he began making truffles at 25 and soon realized that he had discovered his calling. His original muse may be long gone, but Chuck has still succeeded in starting and expanding his own premium chocolate company, Charles Chocolates, based in Emeryville, CA. Once a fine art student, Chuck applies his artistic sensibility to his products, such as edible chocolate boxes bearing sophisticated prints and tea-infused truffles that feature symbols drawn by a local calligrapher. With a devotion to the best ingredients – he sources teas from Asia and uses organic fruit in his handmade marzipan – Chuck continues to set high standards for the confectionary industry.
Anna Mowry: What drew you to this line of work?
Chuck Siegel: I had an Italian girlfriend who loved chocolate, so I started making truffles to impress her. I realized I loved playing with chocolate and was soon selling my stuff at stores in Rochester. Looking back, I don’t think I knew very much about the business aspect of it – I doubt I was even making any profit! When I was 25 I started my first company and was one of the first to make super premium chocolate.
AM: Did you complete any education or training to become qualified?
CS: I actually dropped out of business school – please don’t tell! After that, I moved to California and continued to teach myself the art of making chocolate. I never attended culinary school – I’m entirely self-taught. As a result, I think of myself as being technique-free. Not going to culinary school freed me from a lot of conventions. I’m able to use ingredients and develop flavor profiles entirely to my own liking. I create the concepts – our production manager, Marika Doob, comes in when it needs to be taken to the level of greater production.
AM: What did you do before this? Did any of your previous occupations prepare you for this job? How?
CS: I sold my first chocolate business 12 years ago. After that I worked for a dot-com – that’s what everyone was doing around San Francisco for a while. I also consulted for a couple chocolate companies, helping them grow their business and develop a product line. Consulting made me realize that I miss the thrill of producing.
AM: What are the opportunities for advancement in the industry?
CS: It’s a fast-growing market. Two and a half years ago there were only six or seven companies making premium chocolate. Now there are over twenty. It speaks to the phenomenal appetite for premium chocolate.
AM: Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you have any further ambition?
CS: This is my ambition right here. I founded my own company and saw it grow.
AM: What are the highlights of this line of work? The challenges?
CS: The true highlight is watching people eat our chocolate. It’s great to work in an industry where everyone loves what you do. It’s about pleasure, pure and simple. The biggest challenge is to expand business without compromising flavor. The lifestyle is also difficult – the hours are long, as we are committed to delivering fresh products to every customer. We make fresh stuff every few days. At the same time, I know that if a chef heard me complain about that, he would laugh at me, so I guess I don’t really have it that bad.
AM: What particular skills, talents, and personality traits are helpful in your job?
CS: A strong understanding of ingredients is so important. Here’s a restaurant analogy: there are literally hundreds of places in New York where you have an outstanding meal, but then there are places like Per Se that can still take it to an entirely different level. Per Se is using the same ingredients as everyone else, but they have an unmatched understanding of them and can prepare them in the way that reaches the fullest flavor potential. I like to think that we have this exceptional understanding of our ingredients, too.
AM: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in this industry?
CS: Work for someone you appreciate and admire in the industry. We hire interns and externs, and we’re especially interested in people who want to do this business themselves. We love to train future competitors – competition ensures that the market remains innovative and interesting.
AM: When exhibiting at a show or convention like this one, is there anything in particular that you do to make your product more attractive to potential distributors?
CS: Nothing. I have total faith in the product. I let the chocolate speak for itself.
AM: What new trends have you observed in the industry?
CS: Mostly just the continuation of modern French styles, which means using the best ingredients. There are some trends that I would like to see end, such as shocking flavor combinations. I’ll admit that this is very subjective, but I believe that spices and savory flavors shouldn’t be paired with chocolate. I’ve had bacon-flavored chocolate, and it’s just bad. Chocolate should just make you feel good. I’m an advocate for chocolate as a purely pleasurable experience.
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