Diplomats may be the most tactful people on Earth, never displaying undue bias or preference. But in Belgium, chocolate is a necessary staple of life, nearly on a par with oxygen. And on one afternoon in 2010, détente was simply no match for cocoa. On that day, Duke Jan Gravls, Belgian ambassador to the United Nations, told his chef, with no disrespect to other dessert delegates, that he simply must have the chef’s chocolate mousse. There were other options, of course. Chef Johan Halsberghe was quite able to make an excellent tarte tatin, speculos cheesecake, lemon sorbet, chocolate brownie or panna cotta, but the Ambassador claimed rank and insisted on mousse for his guests . . . and, well, for himself, since one mustn’t be rude enough to leave anything in the bowl.
The Duke wasn’t alone. Honored visitors or their representatives began calling to ask about the dessert, as in Um, we’d love to attend. We hope to make it. Ah, is the mousse going to be there? That got Halsberghe thinking and creating.
Today the chef has stepped into his own starring role, opening Mojo Desserts, a shop in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood that is dedicated to mousse. Mojo has three regular flavors – hazelnut, dark and white – and two rotating options, including matcha and a passion fruit he gets from Brazil. The leap of brick-and-mortar commitment is an extension of Mojo’s wholesale offerings that Halsberghe introduced to the marketplace three years ago. In 2018, he began operating a production factory out of his current location, even while maintaining a catering business that includes savory selections. While the Big Apple has no shortage of bakeries and ice cream shops, Mojo is a bit like Rice to Riches, a unique shop dedicated to a themed dessert that appears on parts of many menus but has never stood alone until the first enterprising confectioner gave it a starring role in the U.S.
Granted, Mojo may have an older cousin in Paris – French chef Patrice Chapon created a specialty mousse section for the Salon du Chocolat show in 2006. Today his Mousse Bar stands proudly near Paris’s Musee d’Orsay on Rue du Bac. But Mojo has broken new terroir on the domestic dessert landscape.
It was family that got Halsberghe started in his native Antwerp. “My grandfather [Joseph] was a baker, and he took me to make bread,” he recalls. “I didn’t love it. It was too measured, too structured. Cooking is more about how you are. I didn’t just want to copy people.” At eight, Johan made his grandfather’s secret mousse recipe for the first time. At age 12, he studied at a culinary boarding school and later did an exchange program at 18. He completed internships at Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium, the Netherlands and France, before his travels took him to Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Hong Kong and, of course, New York. At first, he found the city too busy, but after earning an invitation to work for the ambassador, Halsberghe opened his mind to his new surroundings. “Actually, I realized that’s the way New York is, and it’s how I am,” he says. “I need busy projects. If it’s too quiet, I don’t feel well. I need to be creative. It gives me big satisfaction.”
For Johan and his wife, Jacqueline, who were also starting a family, Mojo was an especially taxing project, from product refinement to distribution, promotion and a taxing negotiation for a location to make the mousse. Mojo debuted in outdoor markets and then in four New York stores (Zabar’s, Union Square Market, Garden of Eden, Brooklyn Fare), but days and nights blended together for the ambitious couple. “That’s when you meet yourself,” he says. “There is no, ‘I’m tired, I’m sick;’ I have to do it.”
For now, Mojo is a welcome addition both to an underserved neighborhood and the dessert landscape open to new ideas. “It’s my American dream come true,” Halsberghe says. “I never thought I’d be here.”
Photography by LG3Photography