Need a lift? The awesome group Culinary Historians of Chicago just uploaded the podcast of the upbeat chocolate- and giggle-filled talk I gave for them in September 2017, and here it is!
It’s called “From Cacao to Craft Chocolate: Stories from the Past, Sustainability for the Future,” and I hope you enjoy it! [Note: Podcast ends abruptly during question period due to technical issues.]
Need a talk and tasting for your group? Here are some details!
Chocolate follows laws of temperature, starting with the fact that cacao trees like to grow in hot, humid climates near the equator. But good chocolate making or chocolate shops don’t necessarily depend on geography; some of the best chocolate in the world is made in the Midwest, such as Askinosie chocolate which led the bean-to-bar or craft chocolate movement and is located in the Ozarks of Missouri. And how many people would have predicted a generation ago that then-downmarket Brooklyn would become a hotbed of upscale craft chocolate?
So what was I doing in central Illinois? In my role as a professional speaker, I was invited to give a talk to an influential philanthropic ladies group in Springfield, IL. Click here for my blog post on that tasty talk, and on sweet Springfield. I had heard about Cocoa Blue and reached out. I boarded the train in my hometown of Chicago, and my first priority after getting off the train in Springfield, where my fabulous host from the ladies group picked me up, was to visit Cocoa Blue!
Cocoa Blue chocolatier/owner Joshua Becker makes delicious truffles, chocolate bark, and more, using top-quality ingredients. It was a pleasure touring his kitchen and shop and talking with him about his vision to create classic chocolates, his pastry and chocolate training, and the new tempering machine he’s ordered – another law of chocolate is that it must be “tempered” or properly crystallized through correct temperature changes while mixing, otherwise it won’t stay smooth or glossy. For more, see David Lebovitz’s famous post on How to Temper Chocolate.
Another law of chocolate: chocolate seems to attract former lawyers! Joshua and I are both former attorneys (and indeed so is Shawn Askinosie).
If Springfield’s “favorite son” Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, hadn’t become the 16th President of the United States, would he have become a chocolatier? Pure speculation of course! But, before Lincoln, the Founding Fathers certainly loved chocolate – for instance, Benjamin Franklin used to sell it out of his print shop in Philadelphia – but that’s a story for another day.
Joshua and I discussed similarities in our backgrounds: he became interested in becoming a chocolatier after spending time in The Netherlands as a study-abroad student; my transformative chocolate moment that ultimately inspired me to start my business took place while studying in Paris, when I tasted my first piece of truly fine European chocolate.
We both went to law school and became lawyers, and both exited that profession for something sweeter: Joshua attended Le Cordon Bleu, fulfilled his dream of becoming a chocolatier, and embarked on the next phase of his journey by opening Cocoa Blue. I started the original Chocolate Tours, grew my business across the US (including in Philly, where our chocolate tour groups paused outside Ben Franklin’s above-mentioned chocolatey print shop), exited the tour business, and am now the founder/CEO of Chocolate Uplift where my talks, consulting and brokering work, and Chocolate Freedom Project take me to places as diverse as New York City, Ecuador, and central Illinois. Click for a podcast on my story of leaving the law.
Back to Cocoa Blue’s exquisite chocolates: I was impressed by the purity of flavor, precision of technique, and respect for the classics, plus Joshua’s special creative touches. For example, the dark chocolate truffle was rich yet clean, with pure chocolate notes – precisely what a top-quality classic truffle should be.
Then there was the marvelous chocolate macadamia bark. Macadamia nuts aren’t frequently paired with chocolate, but I think you’d agree with me that they should be after tasting Cocoa Blue’s white and dark versions. The creaminess of the nut harmonized with the creaminess of the chocolate, while the roasted and salted aspects gave a nice counterpoint to the sweetness.
Cocoa Blue Chocolates are delightfully classic, deceptively simple, and deliciously innovative.
by Valerie Beck, Chocolate Expert and Sweet Speaker
What do chocolate and President Abraham Lincoln have in common?
They have honesty in common, when the chocolate is made with real ingredients and fairly traded cocoa beans.
Why the “Honest Abe” comparison at all?
Because I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time in sprightly Springfield, Illinois, 200 miles from my home in Chicago, where I gave a chocolate wellness talk, and where Abraham Lincoln lived much of his adult life, practiced law, campaigned for office, and was returned for burial after his assassination.
One of the elements of my talk involved playing a game I created called “Sometimes, Always, Never: What’s Really In Your Chocolate.” The way it works: I explain which ingredients and origins to look for in chocolate bars, and which to avoid. Then we have audience members read the labels on a variety of chocolate bars I’ve brought, and we talk about where the cocoa beans came from, and what the ingredients are in each chocolate bar are. Knowing the health, labor, and environmental benefits or risks, the group decides whether each chocolate bar is one that they might sometimes choose for themselves and their families, one that they can always feel good about choosing, or one that they would never want in their household.
The game resulted in some surprises as it does every time, and then of course we ate the chocolate bars that the group decided to put into the “Always” pile! This included delicious, healthful, fair trade chocolate bars by Alter Eco, Dick Taylor, and El Dorado. The latter is made in Ecuador and is not yet available in the US, and this group was my first group to sample it!
I was impressed with the group, and moved by the glowing testimonial I received:
“Valerie is an exuberant and extraordinary speaker who superbly involves the audience as she presents such interesting facts about chocolate and wellness. She is very friendly and personable, yet a cylinder of dynamite showering listeners with delightful energy! The manner in which she shares her heart, soul, lively humor and vast knowledge makes her presentations quite enjoyable. Valerie is highly recommended as a speaker to your group!”
Janie Rast, Ladies organization, Springfield, IL
Thank you, Ladies of Springfield! I appreciate your hospitality, eagerness to hear about chocolate’s health benefits, and openness to my Chocolate Freedom Project to raise awareness of child slave labor on West African cocoa farms and of fair trade alternatives that are healthier and more delicious. “Keep eating real chocolate!”
There’s even more deliciousness to this sweet Springfield story:
I arrived in Springfield the day before my talk and checked into the Inn at 835, a captivating antiques-filled bed-and-breakfast. The rooms were lovely, breakfast was delicious, wine and cheese hour at night was a charming touch, and the chocolate chip cookies at bedtime were the ultimate!
From the Inn, it was a short walk to the Abraham Lincoln Museum. This was my third trip to Springfield since this exceptional museum opened 10 years ago, and I’ve visited the Lincoln Museum each time. I continue to notice additional details in the exhibits, such as the pile of legal papers in the re-creation of Lincoln’s utterly disorderly law office marked “if you can’t find it, look here.”
The exhibit that shows the 4-year Civil War in 4 minutes, using a video map of the US, music, and a running tally of the dead, but no spoken words, always makes me weep. And the exhibit in which the late journalist Tim Russert broadcasts about the 4-way presidential race “Campaign 1860” always makes me smile.
I followed my museum visit with some chocolate scouting – of course! – and some sightseeing, and enjoyed every element of my sweet Springfield visit.
The first time I had French pastries in France was as a 19-year-old Harvard College senior studying abroad in Paris.
That trip put me on a mission to spread fine chocolate and pastry, led to my founding of the original Chocolate Tours in Chicago and beyond, and – after closing the chocolate tours earlier this year – still continues to inspire me as I speak and consult about chocolate.
Chef Peter Rios has opened a little bit of Paris in Chicago, with his new Alliance Patisserie. Pastry followers worldwide may know Chef Peter as the owner of Alliance Bakery, also in Chicago, known for innovative specialty cakes and more, or may know him through one of his many incarnations as pastry chef superstar.
Chef Peter told me it has always been his dream to open a shop focusing on French pastry, ever since he graduated from Kendall College and later studied with pastry giants such as the great Pierre Herme in Paris.
His dream came true, and Alliance Patisserie now helps the dreams of others come true, whether by sharing some of the best macarons or classic French pastries outside of Paris, or by serving as the romantic site of a marriage proposal, which I was thrilled and honored to facilitate for a lovely couple after a chocolate tasting I led for them in the shop!
Think about this any time you need a lift: chocolate comes from fruit!
Chocolate is of course made from cocoa beans (cacao), which are the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree. The seeds are harvested, dried, fermented, roasted, ground, and fashioned into chocolate.
Why is cacao so loaded with health benefits, that it’s considered a superfood? Because it’s plant-based. It comes from fruit. It can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, it’s a metabolism booster and anti-inflammatory, and it’s filled with valuable vitamins and minerals.
So how delightful to discover a new brand from California, Nemzer Chocolate, which incorporates freeze dried fruit into dark chocolate. Since chocolate comes from fruit, these chocolate bars are basically a fruit salad!
Founder Roman Nemzer bases his chocolate on a French recipe, and the flavors are nicely balanced, with a mild and chocolatey 65% cacao.
French flair, freeze dried fruit, California cool. That’s a fruit salad!
by professional speaker and chocolate expert Valerie Beck
I love speaking about the history and health benefits of chocolate, and about entrepreneurship. Getting me to stop talking about my passion topics would be the hard part!
I also love “chocolate scouting:” visiting old chocolate friends and searching out new ones, in any given neighborhood.
So when I was invited to speak to a women’s initiative group at a law firm in New Jersey, with time the next day to explore a favorite neighborhood in New York, I hopped onto a flight and off I went!
Thank you to my sister law school alumna Chris Osvald-Mruz of Lowenstein Sandler for inviting me to speak to her group of partners, clients, and contacts, after we sat next to each other at a reunion dinner in Cambridge to celebrate 60 years of women graduates of Harvard Law School.
She asked for my “Eat Chocolate, Be Skinny” talk, plus remarks on how I transitioned from law to entrepreneurship, founding the original chocolate tours years ago and now working on speaking and consulting projects. I’m always happy to create a custom talk, especially for such a special client.
What a treat it was to talk with her ultra-professional and ultra-engaged group on how to interpret chocolate bar labels and choose the right kind of chocolate for maximum health benefits, how to choose ethical chocolate, and how to use the ABCs of Attitude, Belief, and Commitment in any transition, career, or project. We also sampled raw cocoa beans (pure health!), and delicious and satisfying bean-to-bar chocolate that I brought from Askinosie.
Plus, I was thrilled to be able to include delicious chocolates by another friend, Elyissia Wassung of 2 Chicks With Chocolate, who is located in New Jersey not far from the law firm and who set up such an enticing display that I was impressed with the audience for being able to stick to savory food and my chocolate samples during my talk, before diving into her creations later during the Chocolate Hour!
At the end of the night, I gave away one of my Sweet & Chic sets in a prize drawing.
The evening was elegant and energized, filled with food, fun, networking, and of course chocolate, and I was honored to be part of it!
The next day, I zipped across the river to Manhattan in an Uberx, for a day visiting old friends and new in “sweet Soho.”
Among the many stops I made in this delicious New York City neighborhood was the famous bakery of Dominique Ansel, creator of the Cronut – a croissant-doughnut pastry with deliciously layered dough and ever-changing flavors. Cronuts sell out practically by dawn of course, but there’s no shortage of classic and whimsical French pastry on hand any time of day, including some of the best macarons and canneles anywhere.
I enjoyed hearing Chef Dominique speak at the Fancy Food Show in New York last year. He was very humble, and spoke of growing up poor in France, saving money as a boy for a beautiful shirt, and then hanging it in his closet to save it for a special occasion. When that occasion finally came, years later, he found that he had outgrown the shirt! He learned to seize the moment, and do it now.
After visiting Laduree and other lovely locations, it was time for some chic with my sweet, so I popped into one of my favorite boutiques anywhere, M Missoni. I held a book signing event there a few years ago, wear the brand and the parent brand Missoni regularly and with relish, and was delighted to see the Soho team!
A trip to sweet Soho wouldn’t be as glamorous without a stop inside the gilded cocoa room at Mariebelle, where I had lunch – yes, actual savory food! 🙂 – followed by an exquisite chocolate mousse cake and spicy Aztec hot chocolate.
Then, it was back to sweet home Chicago, where the excitement of the trip didn’t end, as a stunning bouquet of flowers from my dear and thoughtful client greeted me at home the next day.
It’s a joy to work with great people, doing what I love, and spreading chocolate education and enjoyment. That’s Uplift Through Chocolate!
For more information on my speaking engagements, click my old site or my new rebranding site – in beta but live:
I’m excited to speak to the Batavia Women in Business group, outside of Chicago, on the “ABCs of Sweet Success,” and excited about the corresponding article in The Chicago Tribune about my speaking engagements and rebranding to Chocolate Uplift!
Click here for info on booking me for a Chocolate Wellness talk or business talk, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.