Saturday, April 19, 2008 | Master Chef Michael Antonorsi has a passion for combining unique ingredients with chocolate — goat cheese, Earl Grey tea, cayenne pepper and ginger.

Both he and his brother, Richard, graduated from the University of California, San Diego with engineering degrees. After starting the first computer and wireless networking company in their native country Venezuela, they used the cacao produced there to start their own chocolate company in Carlsbad in 2002. The company, Chuao (pronounced CHEW-wow) Chocolatier, is named after a famous region in which cacao beans are grown.

The company now has five cafes, four of which are in Southern California. Michael sat down with to sip some espresso and talk about the genetics of cacao beans, thinking about food 24 hours a day, and what some of his less-than-successful experiments tasted like.

You obviously have a knack for combining unique ingredients with chocolate. Have you ever had anything that went wrong? Something that you tried that didn’t work out?

Well, yeah, that definitely happens. Sometimes they work, but not exactly the way you want them to. One day I did garlic caramel with a rosemary butter cream, so it was sort of like a leg of lamb without the leg of lamb, and it tasted wonderful, but after you had the caramel you were like “Mmmm” and then you had the garlic after flavor, and you’re like, “Oh, did I just have Italian food or something? What’s going on here?” So, you had the wrong association with what you just had for food. That one was a little too much toward the savory.

I’ve been working with smoke — to make something smoky. But then everything you make with that tastes like bacon or smoked ham or something. And I don’t think it quite works. So I just say, “OK, put that aside, look for something else.” I worked with wasabi once, and what I wanted to do is I wanted to get that wasabi … you know when you get that sinus-type congestion and you go (takes a sharp breath) wasabi? So I wanted to do that, and I couldn’t do it. I was pretty much piping wasabi in a chocolate shell, and it wasn’t good enough. The chocolate would tame the wasabi, so all you would have would be this incredibly intense wasabi flavor, which is not, like, the best when it’s so much, so that didn’t work. So, yeah, there’s a lot of those missed tries.

We make a bonbon every month called the “Dare to be Different Bonbon,” and everybody’s always asking, “OK, what’s it going to be this month? What’s it going to be this month?” And when I make a “Dare to be Different Bonbon,” it has no restrictions. It’s not seasonal, it’s not because of a holiday, it’s not because of anything. It’s because of whatever. So, I don’t want to have any expectations on it. I don’t tell anybody what it’s going to be. Most of the time I don’t even know what it’s going to be. And if I know, or if I have some ideas, I don’t want to tell anybody because then they start getting excited or they start imagining something. And then if it doesn’t work, what do I do? Oh, and then I have to explain myself. So I said, “No, nothing. I have to wait until I have it.” And then once I have it, and I think it’s taste-able, then I’ll let people taste it.

How do you know it’s not going to work? Do you have certain people taste it for you? Or is it just you?

I taste it and I know it’s not going to work. Actually sometimes, because you have people taste it, because I want to do something with chocolate that might not be everybody’s taste, but I still want to do it, and I still want to have the liberty to do what I want to do. And not because people want me to do it. So if I start having tastings, “OK, try this, try this.” So using that as a guideline, then it’s not me anymore. So I’d rather do it and I’d rather have you tell me, “Oh you know what, it’s not for me.” OK, but I did it myself, it’s my production, it’s my child.

You grew up in a family that grew cacao beans. How does the chocolate you had as a kid compare to the chocolate you make now?

Well, I was lucky enough to live in Venezuela most of my life, and the best chocolate in the world is grown in Venezuela. So I was always exposed to really good chocolate. It was really good chocolate without being gourmet chocolate. Any good chocolate bar, like a Kit-Kat, would be very good because the raw materials they used are the best. And that was way back then when … cacao was dying away a little bit. Venezuelan cacao used to be the best cacao in the world in the 19th century until the late 1800s, and then it died off. And then we substituted that for another black gold — petrol, the oil. Today, Venezuelan cacao is really not that much. But, it’s still always had a very distinct preference in the very, very high markets. In Europe, anytime you had a chocolate bar that was really, really exquisite and fine, you flip that over, it says, “Cacao from Venezuela.” So they always use that as the best.

How can you tell it’s high-quality chocolate, just by tasting it?

Well, there’s high quality and there is, how can I say this? Hmmm. The genetics of it have a lot to do with it, too. Because you can have a very high-quality cacao that has a genetic profile called forastero. It’s a bean that’s very popular and it’s very resistant. About 80 percent of the cacao in the world is that bean. So, you can have a good bean of that sort, but it only has such a limitation in the flavor. Then there is a criollo bean which is very delicate, so the flavor profile on that one is very, very complex, it yields very little, so industrially, people don’t use it, but it’s the finest cacao. It’s the one we have mostly in Venezuela.

So, you can make a bad chocolate with that, too. So, in the end, the type of genetics, the origin of the cacao offers you a palate of flavor that is completely different from the African cacao. African cacaos are usually very horizontal, very cacao pudding-type flavor, very familiar to most of the market because they produce 80 percent of the cacao in the world. So it’s very familiar to everybody’s flavor.

You’re going to get a good, quality chocolate made with forastero beans and you’re going to get a good chocolate made with criollo beans. Let’s say you make them equally good, it’s depending on what kind of flavor you’re looking for. The criollo bean is very vertical, it’s very layered, very fruity, aromatic, a little acidic. And the forastero is a lot more flat but very rich, deep-flavored, smoky.

You got a bioengineering degree from UCSD. Have you found that applies at all to chocolate making?

Well, you know, when you’re growing up, I guess, you have to go through various stages — school, high school. And you’re going to work your way around the system and get the minimum possible grade you need to pass. And if you are really thriving, you go to college, and you choose a subject and many times you have no idea what you’re going to do. Actually, most of the times. I’ve always admired the people who know when they’re born, they start flying a little (toy) airplane and they know they want to be an airplane pilot. And then all their life they do that, and then suddenly they’re an airplane pilot. And they knew it from day one.

I wasn’t that. But I knew I loved to cook, but you know cooking was not considered what, 20 years ago? Whoa. How many years ago I graduated? Nineteen-eighty-five? Whoa. Twenty-three years ago, cooking in the United States was not really a big deal either. It was more like fast food and home food. But I loved to cook. And it was more like chefs were people with no careers. Now chefs are celebrities.

As soon as I graduated from college, I wanted to go to cooking school. I wanted to peel potatoes, but my dad would have killed me after spending all the money that he did on university. I couldn’t say, “Oh I want to make my way to Europe and peel potatoes and make my way through a culinary career.” So, I did biomedical engineering pretty much for the only reason that I figured, you know, I chose the most difficult career I could find. And I figured, if I can do the hard ones, I can do the easy ones.

The first day there was a lot of glamour around — you know, the Bionic Man and the artificial limbs and then reading all those magazines. It was very ego-driven in that sense. So I finished that, and it at first gave me a good background to learn, be disciplined, work, party (laughs). So, after I did that, I continued for an MBA, still following the route of “Hey, Dad. Look, I got an MBA.” And then after that we started working. I always had an entrepreneur-type desire. So, we put together a computer networking integrator and communications company. We did that for about 14 years. But still, it was very ego-driven. Everything was ego-driven. And then I decided to break up my ego and follow my passion.

I said, the thing I like the most is food. So that’s when I decided, when I was able to afford myself, I went to France to become a chef. I took my wife and kids. We lived there for two years. And I realized my exciting dream in that sense. And now all I do is think about food and try to make a job out of it.

Do you ever get sick of chocolate?

Well, you know, chocolate. I don’t do much chocolate. I don’t eat that much. Well, I eat more than a lot of people, but I eat like one or two pieces a day. It’s not like I’m all desperate to eat chocolate. I’m more of a savory chef in that sense. I love to think about food and dishes. I think of food 24 hours a day. Chocolate is definitely one way of expressing the whole food thing. I wanted to open a restaurant, I worked in a restaurant in Paris, but I realized that I wasn’t at that age where I could stand for 18 hours a day. It was basically very demanding.

So when I specialized in chocolate, I realized it’s very easy to understand. You don’t have so many barriers. Like, if I offered you this new frog legs rolled with duck liver and little black truffles you would be like, “Ugh.” So I can give you chocolate, and you may be saying, “Oh I’ve got a coconut curry cover on there and I have a goat cheese filling,” and still chocolate seems safe. So you try it and maybe you don’t like it. Normally, we say that our motto here is “to arouse the senses with unusual, unexpected and delicious chocolate.”

Do you see a trend in the chocolate industry, in adding interesting things to chocolate, or is that just you?

No, there is definitely a trend we started. I think things tend to start forming themselves along and they become a trend. When I went to culinary school and I went to visit the different Spanish chefs, and the Spanish chefs there right now are very famous for being really ahead of time. They’re like experimenting with foams and shavings and textures that transform food. And it becomes food entertainment. You know, you sit down, and you kind of look at the dish. You have to first talk about what you see, which is pretty impressive. Then when you eat it, Wow! You’ve got to talk about what happened. What’s going on. Explosions, dish, layers, temperature, whatever. Flavor combination. So, you know the dinner and theater type party? It’s becoming just dinner, and the theater came to the dinner… Everything is an event. It’s entertainment.

In the chocolate area, it wasn’t happening yet. When I started with chocolate, I thought you could do a lot of that into the chocolate, too. Because at this level and at this sophistication, everybody’s looking for stimulation. It’s music, it’s noise, it’s Game Boys and iPods and everything. You have no quiet time. And food—it’s probably the same thing. If you have a box of chocolate, and you eat it and you’re reading about it, you’re engaged—it’s a whole experience. So sharing a box of chocolate nowadays, at least the ones we do, could be a party because you’re reading what it is, you’re anticipating the flavor, you’re sharing. . . It’s much more than you opening a box of chocolates and eating it and then you’re talking about politics. And you’re just gobbling down sweets and satisfying your sweet tooth.

Is there anything in your life that you’ve wanted to accomplish and you never got to?

Yeah … I think when I was around 16 or 17. I graduated from high school — I graduated pretty early at 16. And I went to the U.S. to go to college, and sometime in that time I made a set of dreams for my life. There were three main ones. One was to do a road trip in South America — travel all over by car. That I did in 1994. The other one was go to France to become a chef. That I did in 1999. And the third one is to get a sailboat and to sail to New Zealand for four years. I haven’t done that one yet, but due to the fact that my kids, three girls, are getting into the 12, 13-year-old age, I’m thinking that one is a good one. Because I’d just go with them for about four or five years, and every time they meet somebody, we’ll just move to the next port. There’s no arguments, they get some maturity, and then we’ll come back and they’re free to go and have fun. (Laughs.)

So, that’s the only one I haven’t done. But, in a way, I don’t want to rush it or have to think of new ones. Because it would be sad to think you’ve done them all and there’s nothing else on the horizon. So I’ve got to start thinking about new plans.

Clarification: The original version of this story stated that the Chuao Chocolatier was named after the region in which the cacao beans are grown. While the company is named after a region known for its cacao beans, it gets its beans from another location in Venezuela. We regret the error.

— Interview by BETHANY LEACH

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