November 2014 marks the 9th anniversary of my chocolate services business. The dream that led me here started more years ago than that, when I was in college. Here’s the essay I wrote for my college reunion book this coming spring, describing the chain of events.
One day toward the end of our junior year at Harvard, I woke up thinking of Paris. The thought stayed with me, indeed it permeated me, and I decided to spend the next semester in Paris.
As you’ll recall, studying abroad wasn’t common in those days. My roommates had no reason to expect I’d abandon them. Professors raised an eyebrow when signing a form stating that my Sorbonne courses would give me the same credit as Harvard courses. No one knew what to make of my announcement that I was going to study in Paris. I didn’t know what to make of it either. I loved being at Harvard. I only knew that Paris was calling, and I had to answer.
My semester in Paris was transformative. I loved the lifestyle, the history, my classes, the soft lavender early morning air, and the chocolate. Above all, the chocolate. I had been a chocolate maniac all my life: at age four I declared to my mother that the only way I was going to drink milk was if it were chocolate.
I can still taste in my mind the first piece of fine French chocolate I had during my semester in Paris. I had gone “chocolate scouting” – as normal a thing for me to do as finding my classes, the bookstores, and the Seine – and I selected a square of ganache at the great French chocolate house Debauve et Gallais. The richness, power, and purity of flavor in that tiny, perfect bonbon made me determined to enjoy chocolate of exalted quality for the rest of my life, and to take others with me on the journey of fine chocolate.
I began immediately. I asked a few Sorbonne friends if they wanted to come with me and sample the best chocolate and pastries in Paris. They looked at me for a moment as though I had invited them on a tour of paradise, which in fact I had. They said yes, and off we went on the first chocolate tour that I created. I didn’t call it a tour, or imagine that I would grow the concept into an international chocolate tourism and chocolate services business. I was simply sharing my passion.
After we had eaten our way through the truffles and chocolate croissants of Paris, I decided we needed to go to Belgium and do the same thing. And we did. We celebrated my 20th birthday in the glorious chocolate shops of Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges and Ghent, during a weekend in December of our senior year. Thus took place the first chocolate travel club trip that I created; I didn’t imagine that there would be more.
Today, after a not atypical career diversion into the practice of law, and some additional time in the chocolate and pastry centers of Europe, my passion, mission, and career are one: “uplift through chocolate.” I founded a business 9 years ago which was the first chocolate tour company, then I expanded into multiple cities, and now the company has grown to provide chocolate services such as tours, travel, and “Eat Chocolate, Be Skinny” wellness seminars for the chocolate-loving public, and consulting and importing for professional chefs and chocolatiers as well as for cocoa-growing and chocolate-producing nations.
The next step is to continue the current chocolate revolution by ending the child slave labor practices and other monstrous abuses that occur behind 70% of the world’s chocolate, and by replacing slavery chocolate with delicious fair trade chocolate for the public and culinary professionals. Chocolate can uplift chocolate lovers, chocolate workers, cocoa growing nations, and the planet. For irregularly-timed posts chronicling some of this journey, you can join me on my blog at http://www.chocolateuplift.com.
I’m grateful it all flowed from a thought I woke up with when we were at Harvard.
By Valerie Beck, founder of Chicago Chocolate Tours and Chocolate Uplift, the “Professor of Chocolate”
I was asked the other day why I’m against soy lecithin in chocolate, even if it’s organic soy lecithin. I replied that it’s because I’m against industrial sludge in any of my food, including my chocolate!
What is soy lecithin, and why is it in chocolate?
Soy lecithin is an ingredient used by commercial/industrial chocolate makers, to keep chocolate moving through their pipes. It’s an industrial waste product made from the sludge left after crude soy oil is processed with hexane and acetone. Soy oil refining companies found a way to sell their waste back to the food industry in the 20th century, in the form of lecithin. Whether that waste is organic or not isn’t the point. True, I prefer organic food to GMO food. But in the case of soy lecithin, even organic soy lecithin is still industrial waste, and there are whisperings that when it’s labeled as organic it still isn’t because there isn’t enough demand for an organic variety to actually produce one, but in any case it’s not part of the clean-food / artisan chocolate movement.
What does soy lecithin do to chocolate, and to us?
In addition to being processed waste sold back to the food industry for further industrial purposes, soy lecithin alters the taste and texture of chocolate, making it slicker and more standardized.
I love the pure flavor and rich texture of unadulterated chocolate, and I love delicious, complex-flavor artisan chocolate bars with just 2 ingredients – cocoa beans and sugar – such as bars by Askinosie, Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, and so many others. Depending on how the cocoa beans are developed through the chocolate making process, chocolate makers can express different stories and provide different flavors. Without additives, the chocolate can tell a more nuanced story.
Moreover, there are other serious issues surrounding soy, as some studies show it can lead to thyroid problems, infant abnormalities, and cancer. This is the case whether the soy is organic or not.
The soy industry and Big Food industries are obviously massive, and some people will tell you that a small amount of soy lecithin in your chocolate won’t make a difference to your health. But even if you didn’t mind the flavor and texture reductions or alterations, the amount of soy lecithin that many people are eating may not be so small after all. That’s because it is in so many processed foods ranging from salad dressing and mayonnaise, to bread and cake mix, and even tea bags.
Do you want hexane-processed sludge with that?
Even if you steer clear of most processed foods and fast food, do you want any hexane-processed industrial sludge in your food at all? Imagine you were at a fine restaurant, and the server asked if you would like ground pepper, parmesan, or a few drops of hexane and soy sludge on your meal. Yikes!
Isn’t it an upside-down state of affairs when industrial waste in food is the norm, and we have to explain why we don’t want it?
What we can do about it
Don’t despair! How can you make sure there’s no soy lecithin in your chocolate bar? Read the label! If you see something you don’t like, or can’t pronounce, you can back away from the bar, and make a different chocolate choice.
Happily, there is a chocolate revolution happening right now, with wonderful bean-to-bar chocolate makers such as the ones I highlighted above and many more including those in my distribution and broker portfolio, creating amazing chocolate deliciousness with cocoa beans. By controlling the entire chocolate making process, from sourcing the cocoa beans through controlling the steps such as fermenting, roasting, and mixing or conching the cocoa beans, they can draw out different flavors based on differences within the steps of that process.
More good news: artisan chocolate makers who use pure ingredients are generally the same artisan chocolate makers who use fair or direct trade, slavery-free, sustainably grown cocoa beans. Chocolate that’s delicious, ethical, and full of health benefits? That’s how it should be!
Remember: chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which are the seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree. Yes, chocolate comes from fruit! Keep the chocolate pure, and you have wonderful health benefits, wonderful flavor opportunities, and benefits rather than harm to farmers and the planet. That’s chocolate uplift indeed.
To sum it up in hashtags that you’ll see if you join me on Instagram or twitter at @chichoctours: #eatrealfood and #eatrealchocolate!
The title of this post refers to one of my nicknames, because I’ve studied chocolate all my life. Meanwhile, I’m a new “Professor of Business” and I love that too! Here’s what happened:
As the creator of Chicago Chocolate Tours and Chocolate Uplift which provide a variety of chocolate services from tours and travel to consulting and importing, I’ve always enjoyed speaking about chocolate and business to universities, schools, corporate groups, women’s clubs, and of course tour groups. My mission is Uplift Through Chocolate, which means basically I’ll talk about fine and fairtrade chocolate to anyone who will listen!
My speaking engagements about chocolate and business began in Chicago not long after I started Chicago Chocolate Tours in 2005, and followed me to Boston, Philadelphia, and beyond when I opened chocolate tours in additional locations. Popular topics that I speak on include Chocolate Wellness, Eat Chocolate Be Skinny, and ABCs of Business Success. I also love sharing chocolate and business stories on television.
Recently, I began thinking that in addition to giving one-off talks, I wanted to teach whole semesters. I love academic, culinary, and business environments, and love giving back through knowledge, and working with students.
So when I found myself sitting next to the Provost of Kendall College at an Ecuadorian dinner to which I was invited by my chocolate consulting client the Ecuador Trade Commission, I was fascinated as she described the new and innovative programs at Kendall. The college is known for star culinary grads like Rick Bayless and Jose Garces, and has added international business programs. I told her I would love to be part of it if there were a place for my contributions. After going through the interview process, I became the newest Adjunct Professor at Kendall College, and started teaching this Fall!
That means I’m a part-time professor, which is perfect because I can share my knowledge and practical experience with students, while still being an entrepreneur and continuing to develop my businesses.
I’m thrilled to have created and to be teaching a new class at Kendall, called Growth Strategies and Franchise Management. The course is about scaling a business, and opening in multiple locations. I’m impressed with my students, who are creating new franchise concepts as their class project.
I’ve created an Entrepreneur Speaker Series as part of the course, to bring in guest speakers to share their stories and add value. Kendall’s leadership has been kind enough to open the speaker series to the full Kendall community plus interested members of the public, so you’re invited! Click for dates and speakers, and let me know if you’ll be my guest. And, we post inspiring business quotes using hashtag #growthquote; join the social media gathering at @kendallcollege and @chichoctours.
Finally, naturally I’ve added a chocolate component to the course: at the start of each class, we sample chocolate or pastry that I’ve brought, and we discuss how the owner of that particular business is growing the enterprise, such as for instance through opening multiple locations, or by selling wholesale to grocery stores or specialty markets. My students are keeping a chart of such growth strategies, and are creating a list of factors to assess scalability and growth viability. Our chocolate tastings support the educational process, through real-world examples of business challenges and successes.