HomePeopleJean-Francois Bonnet, Chocolatier & Co-Owner of Brooklyn Born Chocolate, Rahway, NJ

Jean-Francois Bonnet, Chocolatier & Co-Owner of Brooklyn Born Chocolate, Rahway, NJ

(This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

When did you first really get hooked on working with chocolate?

Chocolate has always been one of my favorite ingredients, whether I was working in restaurants or hotels – it’s one of the most noble ingredients you can use in pastry. It’s extremely versatile, there are so many different flavor patterns you can play with and pair with. It might be a cliché to compare it to wine, but it’s a fair comparison. Starting the chocolate factory with Michael [Michael Altman, his partner] was really a gamble, from my perspective. My wife was pregnant, I was not even a U.S. citizen at the time, I had just bought a house, and I was working at Restaurant Daniel. Where do you go from Daniel? Jean-Georges? A hotel? You move to Vegas? At the end, it’s a lateral move, whatever you do, so it made more sense to jump into something new. And my wife actually was the one who said ‘Go for it!’ She was the one with the guts, because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do this – I was ready to go for a more secure position, and stick with my 16-hour days, six days a week, or something like that. At the beginning, my sous-chef and I went through a lot of trial and error, and not just because of things we didn’t do properly. A lot of times it was just that we weren’t satisfied with the product.

You founded your company as Tumbador Chocolate in Brooklyn, but recently changed the name to Brooklyn Born and moved to New Jersey. What prompted the name change and move?

We started rolling out our second brand, Brooklyn Born, last year. We had such a great response just with the name and simplicity of the packaging that it’s almost too easy to get on the shelves (but not quite). Tumbador is now no more (sniff!) – we have changed the way we work in the new facility, and we are gearing the company and our offerings towards different markets. We are starting by the end of the summer a line of Paleo product (four bars and two nut butter cups), minimal ingredients, low glycemic, no additives and organic.

Tell us about your product line.

In the beginning, the goal was to start a private label for hotels – you know, chocolate on the pillow and customized amenities, and all that good stuff. And then, in 2008, when all the hotels were at 15 percent occupancy, we had to reinvent ourselves. We already had done a lot of American style chocolate products, because I like to take some kind of pedestrian dessert or candy or confection and turn it into something that I feel tastes better. I do this by using better ingredients and by using techniques without shortcuts, which is the problem with large confectioners – with them it’s all about shortcuts and getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. They made chocolate a candy, and it’s not a candy. As many people say, it’s its own food group. So then we started the factory, which was done a certain way, and we realized a few years later that we had to knock down a lot of walls and bring in a lot of machinery. We still make the bonbons, the hotel amenities, but now we are looking more toward the public. We feel that there’s obviously a much larger interest in quality chocolate and people are willing to ‘splurge’ on a $4 or $5 chocolate bar. We’ve launched a line of peanut butter cups that are organic and domestic. Domestic was a big point for me. I really wanted the peanuts to be from the States, not Argentina or China. Nothing against China, but why get them from another country when they are grown here, and they are actually better? I just couldn’t put together “organic” and “made in China” in the same sentence or on the same packaging. The way our peanut butter cups are made and the way that they taste and the texture that they have is very, very different from what most people know. We use a high cocoa butter chocolate, so you really get a chocolate experience. We make the peanut butter in-house, and we stone grind it, so it has a much more creamy, almost praline-y texture. It’s not sticky or chunky – I don’t like it when there are small pieces of nut in peanut butter. The peanut butter cup line has been rolling out slowly for the past eight to ten months, and we’re also pushing bars. You may hate bars – a lot of professionals don’t understand why there are so many bars out there, but chocolate bars are so popular in every form and flavor, whether it’s savory or fruity or vegan – even white chocolate bars are extremely popular. There are a lot of closet white chocolate lovers out there! People are kind of embarrassed about loving white chocolate – no one will ever tell you that they love white chocolate. I don’t mind it every once in a while – I wouldn’t eat it every day, but to me, it’s like a chewable condensed milk. In France we had a kind of condensed milk in a tube – like a toothpaste tube – and kids just suck on the tubes. Thinking about it, it sounds kind of disgusting – it comes in different flavors like chocolate, pistachio, vanilla and strawberry.

Tell us about your process of creating a new chocolate piece or product.  Where do your inspirations come from?

A lot of times it’s the inspiration of the day or the need of the day. There was a chili pepper fiesta a few years ago in Brooklyn. As a French man, chili was not something that I had a lot of in my pantry; maybe a little bit of ancho and chipotle., but anything that would rip my head off I just wouldn’t have. So, I had the ladies from Puebla, Mexico teach me a little more about different chilies and about the molé poblano and the ingredients in it. They brought some in and I tasted it and it burned my face, but that was ok. As a result of that, we came up with the Holy Molé bar, a spicy dark chocolate bar with toffee bits, toasted almonds and a blend of molé spices…Inspiration can come from anywhere. How many recipes, how many products have come out from a cook or a dishwasher or even a Grandma, or somebody brings you something from Portugal that inspires you to figure out how it was made and then put your own twist on it? My inspiration for new products comes from anything, anytime – a trip to Cuba, a trip to San Francisco or Puerto Rico – it can come from anywhere.

What’s a typical day at work like for you?

A lot of times as soon as I come in, the first thing I do is put out a lot of fires. There’s always something – somebody calling in sick, an order didn’t go out correctly, somebody placing a last-minute order, somebody quit, a machine breaking down – this is one of the favorites. Machines love to break down, it’s amazing. There’s always something. People just jump me when I walk in. Then I go through my emails from the night before, if I haven’t done that on my phone beforehand. Then it might be a meeting with a client – there are so many things that I put my hands into, so to speak. Last Wednesday, for example, was our first renewal of our organic certification, and I spent most of the day with the inspector going through our paperwork. Basically, I put my nose in everything, whether it’s packaging design, ingredients, labeling, formulas, R&D, recipes, everything, everything. It’s fun. By about 6:00 most of the staff is gone, and I’ll leave somewhere around 7:15 or 7:30. I start my day slowly in my car, then get to the office and get hit, and then finish my day slowly at my desk.

What chocolate trends do you see coming down the road?

One obvious trend is bean-to-bar, but I’ve yet to see a bean-to-bar product that’s creative. It’s always about ‘Yeah, we got this bean from this farmer’s garden in Ecuador, and he only produces 50 pounds per year, etc.’ I feel that there’s a need for chefs to get involved in the bean-to-bar movement so it can be much more interesting. Maybe the chocolate can be aged – different sweeteners and different milks have been used in chocolate, but there’s got to be something else to make cocoa more interesting. Most bean-to-bars focus on bars; a few do pannings, very few of them do bonbons. It’s the attitude of ‘I’m a chocolate maker, but not a chocolatier.’ I feel like there are not enough true chocolatiers making bean-to-bar chocolate.

As far as trends go, most of the things that come out are just reinventions of things from the past. Paleo is also another trend –  you know, making chocolate with different sweeteners. There are a lot of fiber and vegetable-based sweeteners – sugar substitutes – that are actually pretty decent now, so that’s something you’ll see a lot more of. What’s needed is a really good line of, pardon my French, ‘shitty’ bars that are really good. like, a good Snickers bars, for example, or a good Twix or Take Five. Because these bars – they’re not good, for the simple reason that the chocolate used to make them is absolute garbage. But if you take a Snickers bar and remove the disgusting milk chocolate on the outside and enrobe it in a good chocolate, then you are going to see a major difference. So that’s something that really needs to be done. We do a Take Five bar for a company, and we make a peanut butter praline with large pieces of pretzel inside and a chewy caramel and enrobe it in milk chocolate, and I have to say it’s pretty bad-ass. In fact, I can’t eat the whole bar, and I’m a pretty big boy, but I can’t eat the entire thing. It’s very rich. But just imagine a Snickers bar without the crappy chocolate or the wax or corn syrup—that would be NICE. It’s really all about quality ingredients. But let’s face it — if you’re buying a chocolate bar for 89 cents, you probably shouldn’t be eating it.

Photo Credits: Evan Sung


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