Every other Monday (most of the time), we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, and everyone who helps make our chocolate possible. This week, we’d like you to meet Pearl, one of our former chocolate makers who took some time off to get deep into every facet of chocolate making and the cacao supply chain last year, and has since returned to help us open in Japan.
Name: Pearl Wong (or PWONG)
Hometown: Trumbull, CT
Job Title: Consultant – Interim Production Manager for Kuramae
Worked at Dandelion since: March 2013 – June 2015 (San Francisco), November 2015-present (Dandelion Japan)
Q: What do you do at Dandelion in Japan?
Seiji, CEO of Dandelion Chocolate Japan, hired me to set up production at Kuramae and train chocolate makers on the Dandelion chocolate making process.
Q: What is your favorite part of what you do?
We temper by hand (using a marble slab) right now because the test batches are too small to go through the Unica. This means everyone really gets to learn what is happening during the tempering process. I thought it would be easiest to learn that if they had to stir and mold the chocolate by hand.
I love tempering – it’s a beautifully complex process and it feels like the chocolate is talking to you about where it’s at and what it needs to be predominantly Form V (the ideal crystal structure that we want the cocoa butter to take). Also, chocolate tastes great when it’s been well-tempered. And I like tasty chocolate.
Q: How does tempering affect the taste of chocolate?
Basically it changes the way the cocoa butter melts in your mouth and therefore how your mouth draws out the flavors, whether it involves a bit more work on your part or just more time. So, how these flavors are perceived will change due to the crystal structure of your tempering. Not to mention a whole ‘nother set of factors like smells, sounds, and other people’s influence. But I find tempering is a factor that gets a little overlooked.
For an analogy – think of a time you had one type of soup. One time you had it fresh and hot. The other time you had it cold the next day because you don’t own a microwave and extra dishes are work. Think about how those two experiences were different or similar!
Q: Cold soup? Ew. What does your typical day look like?
I stroll in around 8:30AM to write up the plan (we start at 9AM); vacuum out the roaster; take lids off the melangers and test batches; taste everything, and the day just flows from there. Every day we do most of the steps in chocolate making even though we’re still mostly at the test batches phase (i.e. 1 kilo batches).
Q: How are the test batches going? Is the process different at all because you’re in Japan?
Well, the overall Dandelion process hasn’t changed – we’re doing a ton of experiments to narrow down the flavor profile of each bean. But the additional work I’m doing here is to figure out our 10 kilo roaster which uses a different heating element and therefore it has changed our roasting style from Valencia. It’s been pretty interesting because I’ve been roasting manually – something we almost never do at Valencia. And I’ve been roasting cacao as though I were roasting coffee (to a bean temperature rather than to a set time). I’ve been really enjoying the learning process of how this roasting style affects the flavor of cacao. I’ve also been able to dial in the roaster a lot better now that I’m working with Camino Verde beans. They are the beans I am most familiar with since I spent 6 weeks on the farm helping to harvest, ferment, and dry them last fall.”
Q: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve confronted in the last month?
The way companies are structured here is a little different, and working within new kinds of hierarchies takes some getting use to mainly because I’m not a hierarchical person at all. There are so many different etiquettes in business you have to observe. Little things always get lost in translation, so learning to manage here is just different.
The 10-kilo US Roaster and now the used Hobart cutter mixer can be mechanically challenging too. So I guess another continually challenging aspect is dealing with equipment that doesn’t behave the way you expect it to and/or breaks down unexpectedly.
Q: But what else is new, right?
True, it’s not really a chocolate factory until everything breaks down at least once or twice, and then on a monthly or weekly basis. Sometimes I wonder if being a good chocolate maker really means being able to troubleshoot and fix up the machines that make the chocolate.
Q: Big question: what’s your favorite chocolate?
Ugh this kind of question is tough to answer because it really depends on my mood. But I always love Marou’s bars (Vietnam). Their Treasure Island is my favorite of their line. I think 24Blackbirds (Santa Barbara) makes great two-ingredient chocolate, as does Letterpress Chocolate (LA). Also, Bar au Chocolat (LA) makes beautiful Madagascar and Bahia, Brazil bars, and their packaging is some of the best I’ve seen. Finally, Om Nom (Iceland) is another one of my favorites for their packaging, and their Papua New Guinea bar is great.
From Dandelion? The Madagascar from 2014 and 2012 are my favorites, as are Mantuano and Öko-Caribe 2014. I will always cherish the original Papua New Guinea bar from 2012 which, by the way, I still have a few of, and I think I must be the only one in the world with these bars now. Obviously, the unicorn Camino Verde 70% 2013 bar is a favorite. Too bad it was too thick to temper.
Q: Sorry to interrupt, but I thought I was the only one who hoarded 2012 Papua New Guinea bars. I keep them locked in a golden box buried three miles underground. I love them.
That’s weird, how would you ever get the chocolate out of the ground to eat it? But honestly there are a lot of great bean-to-bar makers out there, so it’s hard to call out just one favorite. It highly depends on what I’m craving that day. And also I’m very picky, so what I really like might not be reflective of other people’s taste preferences. For example, I only named dark chocolate bars above because that’s my go-to chocolate type. I’m highly biased against milk bars, so you shouldn’t trust my opinion on milk chocolate.
Anyway, my point is: always remember that these things are highly subjective to the individual. Find out what you like and stick with it – don’t worry too much about what experts, foodies, or judges tell you are good or bad.
Q: Good advice. Tell me about Kuramae.
Kuramae is a town within Tokyo. It is considered old Tokyo because there haven’t been as much development here, so there aren’t skyscrapers everywhere. The architecture is also quite old in the neighborhood. It’s quiet, mostly residential, but has some neat craftsmen shops and great little restaurants that are owned and operated by just one or two people.
One of my favorite spots is the 500 yen sushi don (sushi rice bowl, like a chirashi) take-out window. They serve fresh sashimi on top of flavorful sushi rice. And did I mention it’s stupid cheap? 500 yen. That’s less than five dollars.
Another favorite is a handmade soba noodle shop that is literally called the soba izakaya (izakaya means pub). I haven’t gotten to try everything on the menu, but I hope to be able to do so before I finish my assignment.
Q: That is stupid cheap. Speaking of things that are not stupid cheap, do you miss San Francisco?
Not at all. I’m surprised how many people are trying to live in the Bay Area right now. It’s kind of crazy considering all the other great and affordable places where you could be living comfortably, instead of fighting for an old apartment/studio lease with 50 other people. And the even better thing is that you can find local coffee roasters and brewers and chocolate makers almost everywhere in the US. I know because I took a road trip across the country last summer and I found all the comforts I enjoyed in San Francisco, elsewhere.
Q: Ok fine, sure, whatever. Just try to change your mind, okay? San Francisco misses you.