I already introduced you to Gaston Chocolat in my Candied Orange Dark 70% review.
So on this occasion, I will start with a special introduction to explain what they handed down to me on conversations:
Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.
What is the story of Gaston Chocolat? When and how did you start this challenging project?
Gaston Chocolate was born in 2017 after over half a decade of work in the field with the farmers to develop a fine flavor cacao production in Vanuatu, introducing advanced pre and post-harvest and plantation management skills and training over 130 farmers across the archipelago. Value addition was triggered by the remoteness of Vanuatu and high logistic and transport costs which are limiting the cacao exports and have a detrimental effect on the price paid to the farmers and the quality of the cacao beans.
David and I had previous experiences as chocolate makers and we have been involved in bean to bar projects since 2009. Gaston was born from our appetite for quality craft chocolate and the love for Vanuatu and the Melanesia region and culture. Since the beginning, we have always wanted to showcase the best of what this country has to offer in terms of cacao and chocolate establishing new borders on the worldwide chocolate map.
I read Olivier has French roots, when and how did his Vanuatu life start?
My name is Olivier Gaston Fernandez, I was born in 1982 from a Spanish dad and French mom. I grew up in my parent’s resorts backyard on the French Riviera, interacting with clients on a daily basis and spending most of my time in the kitchens harassing the chefs to teach me food. I felt in love with chocolate at a young age after visiting Jean-Louis Vaissaud’s chocolate factory. At the time, I was 7 but we became good friends, and 20 years later he taught me the art of the chocolatier. At the same time, I studied finance and worked in investment banking and commodities trading in London for 4 years before settling in Vanuatu back in 2010. The connection to this place is through my wife who was born and raised here, her family is part of the local Vietnamese diaspora. Since then I have worked on the development of fine flavor cacao in a market that only knew about the bulk and commodity cacao market, while setting-up a chocolate factory and trying to make a good name for Vanuatu Cacao as a fine flavor origin. It’s been quite a ride and I’ve enjoyed every bits and piece of it.
Who are the members of the crew that makes these dreamy bars come true? And what`s the subdivision of labor between them?
Gaston would not be without the friendship, hard work, jokes, and Australia to Vanuatu transport services of my business partner David Cram. His friendship is the best that happened in setting up my business, and he is now part of our family to the point that I have a spare room at home that goes as David’s room by my 2.5 years old daughter Moiira.
Our team has the best talents in town, Christie Meltewomu is one of my former student (I’m involved with the local university and teach finance and entrepreneurship as part of an educational program) and she graduated with a Master in business management, she’s 24 and the head of our sales department and shop manager.
She is assisted by Pauline Nuzzo who landed in Vanuatu after traveling for a while, freshly graduated from the French university of art and music. Her passion for tribal music and travels got her to Vanuatu a few years ago and she has been a customer for 3 months before breaking the ice and asking for a job. A 28-year-old girl who managed to cross Papua New-Guinea on her own with a backpack is all I had to know to give her a job, anything in comparison would be a piece of cake.
Our sales team is completed with Ziana Maltecoin who is an understudy, she’s working part-time and completing a master's degree in hospitality which she will rock no problem.
Our production manager Roy Buktan was a cacao farmer and he turned up at the shop a morning willing to learn about the process of chocolate making and never left. He started cleaning chocolate molds and now supervises all our production. His passion is as big as his smile and heart. His brothers are looking after our main supply plantation on Malekula Island and they are the backbone of our cacao farming operations.
Tes Buktan is our youngest recruit and got on board after being kicked out of school and tricking me with a fake birth certificate claiming he was 18 though he looked like a teenager. I finally got his true age (16) counting candles on his birthday cake, and we gave him a chance under the close watch of his Dad. It’s been challenging but you know, there isn’t much left when the education system failed to set you on the right track and we could not shut eyes on what would happen to him. Sadly he’s one of many but the education system has made significant progress over the last decade and now offers a variety of serious graduations post-high-school.
How did you learn the chocolate-making process and the best plantation techniques?
Like many in the craft industry, mostly self-taught, and then from traveling the world to meet and learn from the best. For the chocolate making part, I spent countless hours working with other makers and chocolatiers and David was one of them. On the plantation side, we spent years reading any book, study, research material available on cacao, traveled the world but also invited specialists to Vanuatu to get to know more about this fascinating fruit of the Theobroma family.
I know you work in close collaboration with Vanuatu cacao farmers to whom you taught the best practices to produce high-quality cacao beans not only for your own products but also for contributing to the fair-trade chocolate movement. Which better defines your identity: bean to bar or tree to bar chocolate maker?
Definitely, tree to bar. We’ve got our hands in every fermentation, we’ve developed the fermentation patterns, the harvest management techniques, we’ve structured the farmers to work together, redesigned the pricing mechanisms in a fair and ethical way that remunerates the farmers and their families’ work, equipped them with the right tools and infrastructures. Literally, the only step we do not take is to buy the land on which the plantations are growing because we firmly believe it should always belong to the farmers. It is a very westerly approach to set boundaries, raise fences, and claim land. The Vanuatu way of life is very communitarian and it takes time to learn and understand the deep meaning of it.
I know Vanuatu is an archipelago located in the South Pacific Ocean. Where you are precisely based? All the islands are prolific in terms of cacao growth? If not, does it depends on the natural environment (soil, climate, flora) or cultural backgrounds and lack of people like GC to showcase the prominent importance of an extraordinary fruit?
We are located an hour of flight west from Fiji, an hour south from the Solomon Islands, and about three hours North from New-Zealand or East from Brisbane (Australia). We are at the southern limit of the cacao belt, this inter-tropical area where all the cacao in the world is growing and cacao in Vanuatu is found mostly in the northern part of the archipelago. Cacao actually grows in all islands but the southernmost you travel the cooler the winter which affects the yield as well as profitability commercial growth. We are also located right on the ring of fire and our soils are volcanic, dark, and rich with a substantial amount of vegetal matter at the top. Pristine and free from any pesticides for they are way too costly to buy for the farmers and there is no culture of mass farming which is a blessing for us.
Where do you source your cacao beans (islands, farms), and why are they so special? Can you describe the flavor profiles and varieties of each origin you work with?
We work mostly with cacao from Malekula and Espiritu-Santo Islands which are the largest by production and have a history of bulk cacao production. Cacao is the fourth largest crop exported from Vanuatu. Our main genetics are from the Amelonado-Trinitario type and they have a distinct dried fruit apricot and fig and strong nutty flavors. What makes them special is the terroir but mostly the pre and post-harvest treatments which are driven by our relationship with the farmers. The level of commitment and passion is the key development factor, and not every community is a recipe for success. We have a network of about 130 farmers and we source beans from ten different areas. Though the island might not seem large on a map, it takes hours to reach out to some of the remote villages. Some places are only accessible by boat or hard-core walking trails which we adventure on with motocross. It makes the logistic of moving cacao a nightmare but this is also what makes our product so special, we go harvest in places no-one else would.
Did you find a rare cacao variety of cacao trees in Vanuatu possible to restore?
No. As much as we would love to stamp heirloom varieties, cacao was not born in Vanuatu and it is a heritage from the colonial era. The cacao growing in the region came after the Dutch traveled from Trinidad and Tobago in the 17th and 18th centuries and crossed the Atlantic to Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and finally Vanuatu about 200 years ago. We have fine flavor cacao beans at the research center but their collection was imported. That said, I believe that the flavor profile is 70% affected by the harvest and fermentation methods. Genetics and terroir have their importance on flavors however it is not a variable of magnitude compared to what a variation in fermentation can achieve. I believe in the future we will see cacao suppliers offer different fermentation profiles for the same beans. Fermentation is a complex process and with some genetics, you can have three different flavor profiles with the same plantation and harvest based on the number of days and brassing of the beans throughout the process.
What is the principle you follow to create your inclusion selection? Is it "locally-concentrated"?
Definitely yes. The Vanuatu terroir is rich and we love to pair the local nuts and fruits to make them known to the world. I’ve been in the field for quite a while now and there is not a harvest season that I do not get to learn about new fruits or leaves and spices I haven’t tried before. It is not always a match for chocolate inclusion and sometimes works best for bonbons and fillings but it is always inspiring.
I notice an interesting option: milk chocolate with olive oil. As Italian, I love olive oil and this is the first time I see such an intriguing combination. How did it turn out? Is it well welcomed to the public?
This might be reminiscent of my Mediterranean origins. More honestly, it was found out of a trial batch where we were working on parts size and thickness and ran short of cacao butter. All I had was a bottle of olive oil and a few spoons went into the refiner. The result was subtle and it had covered the extra nose of milk powder while boosting the cacao flavor. Olive oil has a lot of matching flavors with raw beans and we believed it would question people which is a good thing when it comes to pairing flavors. The bar founds its clients and we decided to keep it in our range though olive oil is not an ingredient produced locally.
I also notice the Rum Drummed Raisin Dark along with Raspberry N` Kumbava bars. It is obvious you really plan ahead sourcing/using the best ingredients of the territory. How much territoriality is relevant to bring out the specificity of chocolate entrepreneurs like GC all over the world living in strict contact with the source?
Both bars are David’s creations and this is where our duo works best. He is a very creative chocolate maker with his own cultural influences but we both share the same love for the region and its terroir. This is our identity and commitment. I relate to the stories of other chocolate makers like Marou and Akesson who committed to a region, a culture.
The bean to bar movement is genuine and I find it nice to scout the world for new cacao genetics and flavors. We need to consider that when you set the boundaries of your sourcing to a single origin, you have to work with what is available and a particular harvest is giving you, exactly like winemakers, and it is challenging. While you are able to develop your identity, you have to push your own limits to come up with something new. I’ll give you an example. All our bars are made of roasted beans but our latest creation is raw chocolate. It was triggered by a chat I had with Jaques Cop, founder of Coco Caravan whom we met within San Francisco at the Chocolate Craft Experience back in March. His Jamaican origin 72% had many matching flavors with one of our local cacao and it struck me straight when I tried the bar which is marvelous. Flying back home I wanted to see what would come out of a raw Vanuatu chocolate and honestly it was one of the most exciting moments I’ve experienced since we started Gaston. The bar is one of our best sellers and reflects how people were surprised that we can still come up with something new using the same cacao beans.
I hardly believe you produce just chocolate bars, am I right?
It is the core of our craft and drives our exports but you are right, we also have a range of bonbons that we keep for the local market together with a range of coated nuts. The bonbons are a way to sublime some of the local fruits and work with the seasons in a different way. Their shelf-life is short and the logistics to export would prove too challenging so we keep it at a small scale for our local customers. It is also something new to experience for people who have tried our bars and travel to Vanuatu (yes it happens). Some of my favorite bonbons are our coconut jam ‘dulce de leche’ recipe, our soursop compote, and our wild tomato and basil filling.
Nowadays, GC is the prominent Vanuatu Chocolate maker achieving international academy chocolate awards?
It’s been a long journey and these medals were quite a significant step for us. When you work and live in a remote country, options to measure and scale your work are limited and it is easy to fall into the impostor syndrome trap. Awards are sometimes at the center of vibrant discussions and some passionate bloggers have strong opinions on what it should or should not be. I can only share what it meant to us and tell you that it is nice to see your name next to other chocolate makers you admire and be recognized for the passion and efforts you have put into your craft. Our medals were bronze and we know there is room to improve and we’ll keep working on it.
As far as you know, Vanuatu exports cacao beans? If not at all or not as much it should, what do you think overseas chocolate makers are missing?
Vanuatu does export cacao however the fine flavor production is very limited. The main market produces in bulk quantity and often dried on copra dryers which are fire-wood powered and give beans a distinct smoky taste that is the tag of most cacao sourced from the region from Papua New-Guinea or the Solomon Islands. You have to go beyond the perception and walk the extra mile to source the right stuff. This is what I meant by saying you can miss on the good stuff when traveling the world to source beans. Out of a dozen of big plantations that made a name, there is such a variety of options at a micro-scale that it is almost luck that would get you to the right spot, and not much is documented.
We are currently relocating our factory to build a bigger workspace and offer a better experience to our customers and visitors in anticipation of our borders to re-open. The option to relocate has materialized as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic which led to about 20,000 job losses and countless close of businesses. Vanuatu has been closed since March after the pandemic outbreak and it kept us free from the virus, which is a blessing, but our economy that relies mostly on tourism has been severely affected. On our small scale, I haven’t seen David since March because he has been stuck in Australia. We are working our arses off to get export contracts because it is our only source of income at the time and got us to survive. We have leveraged on every opportunity to drive sales and it is a challenging situation but we want to survive. The new factory will be an amazing tool to share our passion and showcase the best of Vanuatu cacao as a fine flavor terroir.
What is your chocolate massage to the world?
Be open, adventurous, and try new things. Walk the extra-mile and understand what makes your chocolate bar and the number of efforts it takes to get you the privilege of experiencing chocolate as a finished product. Be humble and passionate.
Thank you Gaston Chocolat!