The “Picasso of Chocalatiers” is how Michael Recchiuti is described in his new book, Chocolate Obsession. His skill of mingling artistic creativity with his culinary IQ stands out in his unique line of chocolates. Beyond the visual artistry of Recchiuti Chocolates, they are transcendent in texture and flavor. Outside the shop and warehouse, Michael recently shared his affection for chocolate and humor. On U Tube, Michael illustrated how easy it is to make Recchiuti hot chocolate on a moving trolley. His hilarious side kick on the trolley, eventually gets off his cell phone, tastes the rich hot chocolate with the creamy, frothy top, and comments “it is like drinking from a chocolate river.” What was his motivation to make hot chocolate on a moving trolley and post it on U Tube? “I hope after watching this video, one would be inspired to make hot chocolate on a trolley, in a row boat or anywhere for a special valentine… unexpected, fun, and leaves you feeling warm all over.” Somehow, Michael is able to not only make a living with chocolate, but to also have fun with it. His chocolate was also seen enrobing a model down the runway in New York City. Considered one of the leaders in the world of chocolate Michael breaks the mold by setting himself apart with his clever whimsy. Recently, I attended one of his cooking classes in San Francisco. I was scheduled to attend a 2 ½ hour “Chocolate Obsession and Demo Tasting” of dipped chocolates, truffles, and molded chocolates, after which, I planned to sit down and interview this clever chocolate idol. Walking down the gloomy hall of this cold warehouse on a windy day, I was curious of how the day might unfold. Little did I know that behind the black metal door, a magical world was waiting? The warehouse was curtained off and an intimate room was set up for class. As each student entered they sat down to a dreamlike place setting with a ceramic dish of chocolates, and were immediately served a steaming cheesy herb popover. Each popover was taken out of the oven with a tongs and gently laid in front of the student like a Faberge egg. One bite and I knew I was in a special place. The class handout was twelve pages of theory, history, technique, and recipes. In addition to all the chocolate work, Michael shared a recipe for a sublime Triple- Chocolate cookie and a Chocolate Sesame Tuile. In the corner of the room sat a glass mixer swirling a curious brown concoction. The students were later treated to a warm Milk Chocolate Malt drink that slithered down the throat in creamy ecstasy. With each demonstration, an angel appeared from behind the curtain like a magician’s assistant, holding 2 platters of the finished product that he was currently demonstrating. After two hours, I felt like I had just consumed a 6 course grand chocolate buffet. Michael and I sat down and talked about his career and how he started out, but not before he paired a rare port and some cutting edge chocolate to sample.
How did you get started out in the business from a very young age?
My grandparents are from Italy and my grandmother is a baker. My father is in the food business. He has a grocery store and is out in Philadelphia. My grandmother was always baking. As a little kid we weren't able to just go there and hang out in the kitchen and lick the bowl, you had to participate. She said roll this out, do this, do that, and then you can have a cookie. I would always just hang out with her and make cookies, make dough, make pasta. I think it was a subliminal kind of inspiration.
Did you know at that point this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life? I thought I was going to be in music, I play drums (pointing at a large drum set in the office) and I studied music from when I was really young all the way to the point where I went to a conservatory. The food industry was supporting my music. Music wasn't really supporting me and I was too busy working in the restaurants. I would miss band practices or rehearsals and it got to the point where I either had to make a decision to stop working in restaurants and really focus on music as a career, or work in restaurants and focus on music as fun. So now I play with people when I want to play with people and not worry about making a buck from it.
Did you go to cooking school?
No, I did the apprenticeship route. I worked with a series of European chefs on the east coast. A lot of European chefs in the late 70's and 80's were floating around in the United States because there, from probably the 50's post World War II all the way up, a lot of European chefs were really sought after in the United States. They had technique down, they had skill, but they were working in the states because they made more money.
Was anyone specifically influential in your style?
I would say there were a variety of people. There was this one gentleman, his name is Jean Marie Gichard, he was a pastry chef instructor for a school called Cocoa Barry. It was a chocolate company that moved into New Jersey and opened up a cooking school in the mid 80's. I found out about him and started doing whatever I could to just learn from him. I would wash dishes, clean the floor, just hang out and I think he realized that I was really into it. He would always show me how to do things. Then I would help assist classes and that is why I started learning about teaching and structure. How to structure a class and how to keep it moving and the flow. I worked with him for a while and worked in a lot of restaurants in the city. I worked at really upscale restaurants like Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, which has been around for 35 years. It is an old school haute cuisine French restaurant.
And you were doing pastry?
I was doing pastry. Then, I was inspired by this other chef who was the private chef for the Shah of Iran. I graduated from high school in 77. I moved out at age 17 and started living in the city and was a mile away from where I grew up in Philadelphia proper. Later, I started working with this guy Alain and then the Cocoa Barry guy came in and I started working with him. I worked at three different restaurants simultaneously and I never really slept. I just kind of worked and took advantage of my youth. I just sucked it all in and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was very challenging and then throughout that whole experience I really liked working with chocolate as a medium. I always felt that chocolate was a very kind of fascinating medium to work with, really challenging. Very scientific.
I think it takes a lot of intelligence, because pastry is temperature and timing, but chocolate is so temperamental.
Yeah, exactly. Like every time I teach a class there is something else you learn based on what is happening with temperatures or the product you are using. So today was a perfect example in class, the room was really cold and the chocolate, it is very difficult to keep chocolate in temper when it is cold. You know it has to be the best of conditions, in the 70's.
What is your favorite pairing with chocolate?
One of my favorite chocolates is tarragon grapefruit. Tarragon and grapefruit! Yeah, I just love the tarragon infused ganache and then a candied grapefruit peel on top. I just think it is really a scrumptious sublime experience.
What do you see for the future of chocolate, as far as new flavors coming in, and all the new techniques, like molecular gastronomy? Do you see any direction that you want to explore; we talked about the bean to bar movement earlier.
Everybody is really going nuts with the crazy flavors; it is like everybody is trying to come out with the next weird flavor. I have decided to just pay attention to the classics, and really make wonderful classics, using the best chocolate and using the best covertures. I want to come up with the best truffle instead of it being mint, or not mint, or like spices with pork in it. Everybody is trying to get a little strange right now. I see it is going to flip; it is just going to take another turn, like this molecular stuff is really cool, but it is not really food. I have a million molecular books and I work with these guys, but I don't know if they really want to eat that food. It is cool looking and it is fun and scientifically it is a blast to work with, because you play with science. You can use these high speed emulsifiers and basically they can incorporate different types of fat that would never come together. With 10,000 rpms you can make anything come together. They really defy science using devices and different types of liquid nitrogen to freeze things. In the restaurants like Millennium in Chicago, it is like you are at a circus eating food.
Are you working on any new chocolates in your lab?
We have been coming out with this whole line of dragee, the little coated candies and that is a classic. We are trying to make it like it was in the past. A really amazing peppermint, a junior mint. I love junior mints, so was a junior mint ever really amazing? We are experimenting with making a really great junior mint by using wonderful mints from the Willamette Valley, really good fondant and really good chocolate. We have come up with some incredible ones!
Tell me about the chocolate dress you worked on?
Yeah, I worked with the Valrhonna Chocolate Company. We worked on this dress to enter in the New York chocolate show last year. It was cool. That’s amazing, how did you make it? Well we were actually able to work with the model prior to the actual runway show. Did you cover her in a transfer sheet? ( Laughing) (Ha…ha…) You probably could, but her body would melt unless you really chilled her down. This past year the theme was super heroes and we got Laura Croft from Tomb Raider, which was good because she didn't have much on. Some of the super heroes had a lot of gear, like blades and stuff flying all over the place. They are really challenging to work with. She basically just had a bra on and a skirt, guns and boots, so it was fairly easy. When we made the skirt, we actually created a piece that the chocolate adheres to and we made this chocolate plastique which is chocolate with glucose in it and it turns into clay. You can roll it out like clay. So we made this skirt and we put stitching in it and we wrapped it around it. We had fabric underneath of it and it adhered to the fabric and we had Velcro so we could adjust it on her. Then we made a bra and we actually got the bra and then we adhered chocolate to the bra. It is pliable, like clay.
Is it heavy?
Not too, you roll it really thin. If you just use chocolate on its own, on the body, it either melts off or just cracks. So by the time she makes it down the runway she would have nothing on. Some chef’s models outfits just fell apart. They are structurally not that sound. So the whole show was models wearing chocolate? There was like 20 outfits. (showing me a picture of a mannequin adorned in chocolate)… this is the outfit on the mannequin. It was really funny because this woman didn't seem like a model to me. She was just all muscle. Most models are really long and thin and they don’t' have muscles. They are skinny and she was ripped. I was thinking, where did you get this person? She looked great, but she was strong looking. I mean she looked like a body builder. All of it is casted out of chocolate and we made molds. Was that a competition or just something that you did? It is not a competition; the money goes towards an organization. Sometimes it is for AIDS, sometimes it is for the homeless. It is like $200 or $300 a ticket for the fashion show and we all donate our time.
Are you doing any competitions?
I don’t do competitions that much. I find they are just a lot of work. I'm not really into that whole culture. I mean I like going to them sometimes but it is kind of geeky, kind of weird. I never was into that scene.
Are you going to the world pastry Forum this year? No, it is hard because I'm running a company; it is hard for me to get away.
I am mostly testing, and there is also a gentleman here that I do research and development for other companies. I am going to be on a big project for Kraft. I did a project for McDonalds. I do these whacko projects, and you get all of these chefs together and we do these really interesting projects. That process is wonderful. It is what they do with the food afterwards, it is kind of disgusting. They synthesize it and mechanize it and they automate it and they put a lot of preservatives in it. At our stage we use really great ingredients.
Do you have taste testers in your factory? Do you have people that have a gift for that?
Like sommeliers, they learn how to analyze flavors and aromas. If it is your company you obviously have the power. If you are a chef of a restaurant, a sous chef, or have chefs working under you, they should really adhere to your kind of palate, if they don't, they should leave. Not because they are bad chefs, just sometimes they don't taste the same things. They might be the most incredible chef in the world, but they don't have the same palate, they may use too much salt, they might back off on seasoning. And what if they are a smoker? Yeah. Usually when we interview chefs these days, even here, we ask people if they smoke. If they have to go out and smoke, their hands smell, we don't really hire smokers. You need to taste all throughout the process. Regardless if the recipe is set in stone, you should still taste and get a sense of it, every time you make it.
I read that you support local artists. How do you incorporate art and chocolate?
We do a thing with Creativity Explorer which is an organization that takes care of adults that are challenged with autism and other kinds of mental illnesses. They have created these places where they can actually paint and hang out. We got involved with it because we always liked the organization and then we said “well why don't we use some of their energies in our chocolate and a percentage of our sales will go towards Creativity Explorer.” We get to use art work from these really cool artists. How do you put that on to a chocolate? They create the images and we scale them down on to the transfer sheet. They get scanned and printed. A lot of the artists, because they just don't have any filters, they go with whatever they are feeling and they just do it. I am lucky to have worked with a lot of autistic people.
Interesting, it sounds like they have no inhibitions. How did the connection with the Autism foundation come about? It is really amazing.
A friend of mine that tried to run a chocolate factory, he is the president of the Autism Foundation. I spend a lot of time there. I love them. They are really smart, really passionate and in your face. They are extremely emotional and sensitive. People just perceive them as being, you know, they have tantrums because they have no filters in themselves. We want to just lock them away in a corner and not deal with them, but they are actually really inspiring to hang out with. When you go to the Creativity Explorer, they have an art gallery on 16th Street; you can see that the art is amazing. You can buy the most incredible art for $200 or $300. It is better than all the stuff in the expensive galleries. So, do these artists design all of your chocolates? Just all of the artist series. We also have our graphic designer create the other collections. That is really incredible. You can go on the website at Creativity Explorer, it is really cool. They do an event every Friday at 1:00 for all the artists. They gather around, they are not kids, they are adults, I think the youngest is maybe out of high school. They all get around in a circle and they dance and they hang out, it is wild. I just did a fundraiser auction dinner tasting for Creativity Explorer. It was last week, it was a group of people that hung out here, 8 people and I did a wine and chocolate tasting. It was a completely different room and the whole room was filled with candles and there were light shadows on the walls. I did this kind of sensory thing where they had to smell all of this stuff we had chocolate melted onto these big salt blocks that they had to eat. We just sat around, tasted chocolate and scotch and Sherries. It was really cool. One of the guys, he was a professor at Goddard for 10 years and then a professor at Rhode Island School of Design for 30 years. He just retired and this guy was very interesting and his wife was a performance artist and they are like in their 70's and they were just really interesting people. They were saying stuff that was just making me shudder. And you are giving money back to the Autism Foundation.
That is awesome.
Yeah, a bus driver drops them off at the gallery, the place where they paint and they hang out. You walk in there and you are pretty blown away. It is really inspiring.
Hmm, what is this? (Chef Recchiuti hands me a piece of chocolate)
This is Madagascar, 70%.
Wow. Who makes this chocolate?
This is Amano, this stuff is amazing. Look at the color, it is red. You can taste all the fruit, acidity.
Oh yeah. This is really good. (chocolate melting on my palate) This is some great outrageous chocolate. Oh, my God, this is amazing, am I dreaming?
Written by Ellen Anderson