Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Twenty-First-Century Artisan

chocolate, originally uploaded by azurenath.
I drove across Belgium again today, through its gray fog and brilliant redheaded landscape, its gingham leaves and soil. But it wasn’t a farmer I was coming to meet this time. Everything else about the trip there was the same: the sleepy villages, tractors on the road, the piles of beet pulp and tired cows munching them. But buried inside the small triangle between Belgium, Luxemburg and France, past the sign that says “L’Ardenne Profonde” (translation: Officially in B.F.E.) lies an artisan chocolatier that no one would confuse with a farmer.

There’s nothing old-school about tall, intense Edouard Béchaux. His sleek silver eyeglasses are Armani Exchange, his shoes Italian leather, and his cell phone smaller than a baby’s fist; he plays constantly with the flap on his PalmPilot while we talk.

We meet in an office surrounded by glass. He has me wait a few minutes on the sofa while he finishes a meeting that involves briefcases on both his part and the other man’s. When he comes out, all business, we shake hands and he leads me into the conference room. Before I even have a chance to ask a question he’s already launched into his “this is what we do” spiel, and doesn’t bat an eye about the fact that I’m taking notes; in fact he talks so fast that later I can barely decipher what I’ve scribbled down. It’s a far, far cry from the friendly, awkward coffee in some farmer’s tacky dining room I’ve gotten used to. (He’s from here but has no accent. Hm.)

Béchaux left his potato-farming family for hospitality school at age fourteen. There I learned hard work, he says, collaboration, and an appreciation for good things. I learned to resist shock, to control my nerves. It forged me.
Then he went to pâtisserie school in Brussels. From illustrious chocolatier Pierre Marcolini he learned whimsy, fine techniques of decoration, and that famous people can be assholes. Those were lessons in self-defense, he says.
Afterwards he did an internship at caterer Panda, another eminent house. There I learned not just hard work but good work, faultless work, he remembers. That I had to be better than my best every day. I learned how to present myself to people, and that leaving the atelier was just as important as being in it.
At famous Brussels caterer Wittamer, his first big-league post, he learned to solve problems on his own, how to avoid panicking. That Christmas was la folie furieuse, absolutely insane, he says, since I was in charge of all the ordering, organization and production. He was twenty-two. At Eddy van Maal’s he discovered fantasy, real innovation, how to surpass the banal, but that your quality has to stay sky-high if you’re going to create. There he stopped being satisfied with following and began to lead. He practiced rigor, discipline, perfection.
Finally he spent seven years in Italy, where he learned to delegate, to mobilize and manage a team of twenty-two. And now he’s come full circle, opening his own shop back in Flarenville. Although perhaps full circle isn’t the right term…

Yes, we’re in Flarenville, but as Béchaux reminds me when we flip through a matte binder of color-printed modernistic blueprints for the shop, the architecture firm that’s putting together Les Chocolats also designed that Starbucks of cosmetics, Sephora. The store is on a corner of le square Albert Ier, which hosts the same-old small-Belgian-city compilation of war memorial, superette, and assortment of mousy, cigarette-gray bars with Tiffany lamps and slot machines. But Béchaux is confident that the ubiquity of French and Luxembourgeois consumers in Flarenville will override the fact that the store finds itself there. And he’s making sure that it’ll be a draw in itself: warm brown, red and orange tones, and elegant chairs that are modern takes on Louis XV. Behind the nine-meter banquette, refrigerated counter and framed food porn—gold-leaf shaved chocolate towers and silver soufflés glacés—will be the glassed-in atelier, where customers can watch the chocolatiers at work. It’s all planned out. Le savoir-faire vient des artisans, he says. Le savoir-vendre, de l’industrie. (I went to the artisans to learn how to make the product, but I looked to the industry to find out how to sell it.)

Béchaux, who teaches courses in “chocolate marketing” (who knew?) explains his consumer theory to me, and boy is this guy is savvy—he even speaks in sound clips. Supermarkets don’t destroy the artisan, he tells me. It’s that the artisan thinks he has to compete price-wise, when what he really has to do is set himself apart through the quality of his product. Artisans today are killing themselves because, feeling the time-money-stress crunch, they’ve begun doing industrial work—using time-saving powders and mixes—at an artisanal level. They handmake what the industry can do far more easily, and are shocked to see themselves fail.

Béchaux doesn’t see his product at odds with big supermarkets the way so many other artisans do. In fact, Flarenville’s GB sells Edouard’s chocolates, too. It charges the same price he does (steep) but in doing so A) adds a notch to its scale of offered chocolates and B) supports local products, for which consumers increasingly clamor. In this case the supermarket profits rather than demolishes Béchaux, as it has so many other artisans (according to them). Everyone’s happy: the GB, the customers, Béchaux. Everyone wins.

The artisan mustn’t sell cakes, but pleasure and fantasy and indulgence, he tells me, wagging his finger. He should remember the customer’s name, smile when they enter, listen to their desires, give them reasons to come back. And then he can command a higher price, and receive it.
I make people buy my story, says Béchaux. The tea in my whimsy chocolates isn’t just tea, it’s a Kashmir or a chai or a Lapsang Souchong that I personally selected (which he does). Let’s say I’m making my ginger-port wine-raspberry chocolate cake, he explains, which only requires about thirty grams of port per cake, very little. If I use brand-name, high-quality aged port, it’s going to cost me more per bottle, but ultimately the higher food cost is trivial in comparison to the value added by the brand-name port.
Or, he continues, I make them want the product before it even exists, associate it to other things they want. Marrons glacés? I could make them all year, but I hold out till Christmas, so that people fantasize about them the other ten months of the year.
He looks at me intently, to make sure I understand. I make them dream, he says. You must make people dream.

Béchaux makes sure his packaging’s appealing (his cake boxes are 3-D all-clear cubes, so the cakes, which are outrageous, speak for themselves). He makes sure customers know he spent seven years in Italy and works as a consultant for the most reputed houses, because those are things on which he can capitalize. He brings his chocolates to events sponsored by BMW, not Skoda. For him, the twenty-first-century artisan’s job is more cerebral than material, more delegation than hands-on. Anyone can whip cream, he points out, even (especially) the industry. But thinking of gianduja with nutmeg or ginger or tea? That’s up to the artisan to do. Listen, he tells me. I just worked out a deal with Cora, the Luxembourgeois superstore, to have my chocolates on display at the front door during the last two weeks of December. If I’d started my day at four a.m. with my hands in the flour, what do you think? I’d have been a wreck at my four p.m. meeting.
We artisans have to learn to make our product and manage our scheme, but above all, to sell.

Sometime in the middle of our conversation, we cross the square, dim and rainy, to check out the construction site. It’s in total chaos: pipes, mud, wheelbarrows of dried concrete, but Béchaux assures me they’re on target for the Dec. 2 opening date. Then we hop over to the makeshift workshop next door, where Béchaux’s assistant works in the interim. The smell is arresting, and everywhere are racks and pallets of chocolates of all kinds: stuffed with nuts, sprinkled with powder, injected with liquor, drizzled over with more chocolate. We pass through so quickly that I don’t ask to take a picture because I’m so sure we’ll go back at some point. But we never do.

How ironic this all is, and how frustrating. Because here I’ve been complaining for weeks about how the people who profit from the revival of interest in traditional food prep are often are foreigners like me and Sylvester (see earlier posts) or the industry. And here home-town boy makes good and something about the way he’s doing it disgusts me too.

See for recipes. I'm trying to avoid having this website show up if anyone googles Edouard, which is why I'm writing the link down funny, but it's worth checking out, beautiful stuff on there.


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