When you arrive in Paris, you’ll notice there are quite a few of France’s best chocolate boutiques in the elegant sections of town. They’re the shops of the French master chocolate makers, the best of the best.
Do you ever wonder how these artisans mastered their craft? Is there a typical path to becoming a French master chocolate maker, or “chocolatier?”
A Path to Mastery
The path to excellence seems to be a combination of early family initiation and formal training. Add to those experiences some high-level apprenticeships and regular participation in top competitions, both domestic and international. Now you have a recipe for success!
Here’s an example of the trajectory taken by one of my favorite French master chocolate makers, Jean-Paul Hévin. He has earned one of France’s highest awards given by his peers, the title of “Meilleur Ouvrier de France”, for his mastery of chocolate making.
(The M.O.F. or “Best Craftsman of France” is a title given during a competition held once every 4 years. Its objective is to maintain and transmit French know-how and excellence. There are many categories for a variety of professions. It’s so grueling it can drive its participants to tears).
Before earning this prestigious title, the road to success for Jean-Paul Hévin started early, was long, and involved working and competing abroad.
Jean-Paul Hevin’s father was a farmer in the Mayenne region of France. Like many great French chefs, he learned to cook from his mother. She introduced him to traditional savory recipes.
However, in his early teens, he quickly developed a preference for pastry and chocolate-making. After obtaining his diploma in pastry-making he started working for the luxury “Hotel Intercontinental” in Paris.
Hévin later apprenticed in pastry and chocolate with the legendary chef Joel Robuchon at the Hotel Nikko in Paris. Chocolate soon became his unique pursuit.
In 1983 he won First Prize in the World Chocolate Masters. It was at this time that he discovered Japan and began working for the prestigious French shop “Peltier” in Tokyo.
He quickly became a fan of the Far East. Today he has boutiques in both Japan and Hong Kong.
Jean-Paul Hévin is widely recognized for his mastery of beautiful, jewel-like presentations of his chocolates and often creates new flavors on a whim. In 1999 he created the unusual mix of cheese and chocolate with his “aperitif chocolates.”
Sculpture is also his thing, since he loves to create beautiful chocolate stilettos for the ladies and life-size chocolate cigars for gentlemen. And he designs each year for the Paris “Salon du Chocolat” a wearable chocolate dress worn on the runway by the model who opens the show.
His pastry talents haven’t gone to waste at all: his cakes are a reference in Paris for French chocolate fans. His chocolate cake infused with Tonka beans is one of my favorite desserts.
In 2005 his chocolate macaroons were ranked the best in Paris by food guide books.
Competition Ignites Talent
Between 1979 and 1984 he competed in and won numerous international pastry and chocolate competitions.
List of Awards (just a few of many)
1979 : Gold Medal in the Gastronomy Competition of Arpajon, France
1982: First Prize – French Pastry Cup
1983 : First Prize – World Chocolate Masters
1986 : Meilleur Ouvrier de France in Pastry/Confectionary
2003: French “Croqueurs de Chocolat” Club attributes their highest ranking of 5 Chocolate Bars to Hévin
2004 : Nikkei Shinbun (Japanese Business Newspaper) ranks Hévin as Best Chocolate Maker in Japan
2005: Best Chocolate Macaroon of Paris
After opening several boutiques in Paris, he opened his own boutiques in Tokyo and Hiroshima in 2002. Today he is recognized by the Japanese as one of the best chocolate-makers in Japan.
Innovation: No need to stop by the shop
I recently discovered Hevin’s chocolate “Traveller’s Cakes.” These dense chocolate cakes could be ordered easily online and sent through the mail during the COVID 19 lockdown in Paris.
The cake was beautifully wrapped, arrived in perfect condition. Each decorative chocolate figurine had been stashed in a beautiful protective gold box. This dessert gave me a good chocolate fix during confinement when all the Paris shops were closed. Surprisingly, it was not too sweet, and you could taste more high-quality chocolate than sugar.
Is French Chocolate Different?
I remember attending my first conference on the subject of French chocolate. The speaker was the founder of the Maison du Chocolat, Robert Lynx.
One of the key points made during that presentation was that French chocolate is different from Belgian and Swiss chocolate. Lynx explained that the French use less sugar than the Swiss or Belgians. They also favor dark chocolate over milk chocolate. (although he admitted to having a personal preference for milk chocolate).
Lynx insisted that the aim of French chocolate makers is above all to highlight the aromas of the particular chocolate he’s using. So he lightens up on the sugar and the milk (just as a jam maker highlights the aromas of the fruit used by adding as little sugar as possible).
This conference took place many years ago, so things have changed by now: single-origin chocolate and bean to bar chocolate makers can be found everywhere. They are also emphasizing less sugar and placing more emphasis on the high-quality chocolate they’re using.
There isn’t a typical path to mastery among French chocolate makers. However, most are initiated early into the love of well-made food by their family, usually their mothers or grandmothers.
Some have formal training, others not, but their apprenticeship begins at an early age. Skills are perfected through the transmission of excellence during these internships.
Often a willingness to submit their work to judgment in competitions, though not common among all French master chocolate makers, is certainly a catalyst that brings their talents to the fore.
And now you: do you have a favorite chocolate maker? Leave a comment below and let me know!