(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Philip Ashley Rix has been making chocolates since 2012 and has become successful beyond his dreams, beloved by corporate gift-givers and celebrities such as Oprah and Morgan Freeman. Inspired by his historian father, his grandmother Jean, and Willy Wonka, and having earned a degree in chemistry, Rix used the network of contacts he gleaned from working at Apple and FedEx to build his business, which continues to grow and thrive. At his store in Memphis and on his website (phillipashleychocolates.com), customers can purchase chocolates with innovative flavor profiles such as Thai curry cashew, double-oak bourbon or sweet potato. Here he talks about family, success, his ‘Taste of America’ chocolate collection, and what he does to maintain perspective.
Who was the biggest influence in your career?
Growing up, I learned how to cook and how to appreciate and explore food, try new foods, cook new things. My grandmother Jean grew a lot of her own food – she was a big-time gardener, and recorded recipes over the years. I learned about the touch, taste, feel, smell and look of things. She grew sweet potatoes and made sweet potato pies. My grandmother taught me to appreciate what you do, and to do it well; a lot of that was exemplified in her cooking and gardening, and caring for others. She was artistic and creative. I learned to appreciate timeliness, orderliness, preparing things ahead of time, and not being wasteful with money.
You’ve been successful while remaining focused on integrity. How do you manage that?
People want to buy into you before they buy from you. Relationships are the most valuable currency. Being the best doesn’t mean you have to compromise yourself or someone else. There’s always going to be a second, third, fourth place. So, not being afraid to compete, but being genuine in competition. People might be my biggest classroom; whether it’s talking to sommeliers, cheesemongers, vintners or artists of all types, I learn from the environment that’s around me. Talking to people – you tend to get a lot of education out of that.
When you decided to change careers at age 35, you were able to rely on previous executive level experience at major corporations. What are some of the lessons you learned from your corporate career?
Being available to help others, and then, when it was time to start doing things, being in position when you need help, assistance, or advice. People want to be excited about something; people want to be a part of something, whether directly or indirectly. Understanding the network, being able to offer something to it and then therefore being able to leverage it when it’s necessary.
People want to buy into you before they buy from you. Relationships are the most valuable currency.
What do you think is the key to your success?
I spent a lot of time just figuring things out. I was always captivated by the Willy Wonka story. When I set out to learn how to make chocolate, I looked at it as something that would allow me to be as imaginative as I possibly could be. I’ve always had a big imagination. Putting into practice what my grandmother taught me earlier on in terms of using ingredients – mentally creating a vast encyclopedia of ingredients, how to understand them, knowing the history of them, the origin of them. Learning from mistakes, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Finding inspiration in places that people wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Trying to think in new ways and be inventive.
You have a degree in chemistry. Can you talk about the connection between the aesthetics and the science of chocolate?
The visual aesthetic is intertwined with the formation of the ganache, the mouthfeel. We start with the concept, the storyline. I take an approach in a lot of ways like a fashion designer creating a piece or a script writer or film director preparing to produce some kind of visual work. What story are we trying to tell? Then it’s like, ‘What does it taste like?’ or ‘How much of each of those ingredients do we need to put into this formula for a key lime pie chocolate or a pomegranate cherry molasses?’ It really started with me understanding its ability to take on different forms; it’s kind of like the Bruce Lee philosophy: ‘Be water’ – for me it’s more like, ‘Be chocolate!’ I had to have the chemistry to understand the element that is chocolate and how to manipulate and wield it into shapes.
Chocolate is something that in many cases has very distinct flavor profiles. The challenge is how do I celebrate the cacao, but also impart it with flavors, where I am not just saying ‘Well, this is pineapple ginger and wasabi’, and it tastes nothing like chocolate? You actually taste those elements so that they work together. I learned the rules so I could break them. I learned how to do basic chocolate making – how do I create a stable ganache, first and foremost. How do I temper chocolate to have that shine, that snap? How do I transfer images to it? How does humidity impact it? And how does heat, how does cold, how does water? Now I understand that I can make a piece that tastes like carrot cake (my mom always made carrot cake) and name it ‘What’s up Doc’ because I grew up watching ‘Looney Toons’ and ‘Bugs Bunny’! Now it’s a platform that I can manipulate to taste like a certain person, place or thing – what they do inspirationally. What does a Prince chocolate taste like? How do we make ‘Raspberry Beret’ into a chocolate? And oh, by the way, Prince really liked raspberry mustard. So, you know, find a raspberry mustard, figure out how to put it in chocolate, and there you go.
It takes a lot of research, a lot of reading, a lot of figuring out – not just throwing things into a pot! We’re giving you insight into someone or someone else. I didn’t want to just make marzipan, nougat or truffles and call it a day. There’s nothing wrong with that, but everybody is doing that. I want to be able to continue to learn about ingredients over and over again. Chemistry has allowed me to break down material, change matter. It boils down to the process. Beta crystals relate to the tempering of chocolate – it’s the fat crystals or cocoa butter that exist in the chocolate when you go from bean to bar. Melting chocolate to a certain temperature, cooling it off, and raising the temperature. Time, temperature, and motion. Without beta crystals you don’t get the crisp snap or the shiny jewel-like chocolates that everybody loves.
Tell us about your ‘Taste of America’ collection.
My dad was a history teacher, so I grew up around history. As kids, we would go on epic, long road trips through the country. For example, we drove from Memphis to San Diego, and that took us through several states. I was like, ‘How cool would it be to create a tasting tour of the country?’ Because we may not all be able to go physically to South Dakota, but you can at least see what it tastes like. That gives you a sense. For example, Maine is known for wild blueberries. With everything that goes on in the world, that has been going on in the country – it’s a way of showing that at the end of the day we’re just all chocolate. We’re just a bunch of folks out here trying to do what we do. We’re all different, but we’re all in this box, or in this country together – it’s all sweet, so we’re all good, in a sense. The preamble to the constitution is on the inside of lid; that’s a bit of a nod to history. The box is designed to look like the American flag. In the first iteration, all fifty pieces were painted white because they represented the stars on the flag. This time we’re doing something cool – each piece has the state emblem, the shape that’s actually going to be emblazoned on the chocolate. Then the pandemic came, and that was like, ‘Well, we definitely aren’t going anywhere right now! We may as well make an Old Bay chocolate from Maryland, so people have some sense of what they would experience if they were in Maryland.’
When I set out to learn how to make chocolate, I looked at it as something that would allow me to be as imaginative as I possibly could be. I’ve always had a big imagination.
Do you have a favorite from the Taste of America collection?
I have a couple favorites; the New York cheesecake is one; just because it has strawberry jam, and I love strawberry jam. The soy sauce caramel from Nevada is probably another favorite of mine, because it’s one of those things you wouldn’t expect, and it is really good. Because of the casinos, the state of Nevada seems to have more sushi restaurants than most states. California, we went with red wine, because we work with a winery in Napa. In my research I would ask, ‘What are the popular flavors? What are the popular foods? What are the popular restaurants?’ I chose Dr. Pepper for Texas. In researching, I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to do hot sauce, I don’t want to do barbecue, because we’re doing barbecue for the Tennessee chocolate – Memphis barbecue, I just can’t bring myself to shout out someone else’s barbecue like that!’ Dr. Pepper was started in Waco, Texas. We take copious amounts of Dr. Pepper and reduce it down into the chocolate.
How do you keep your staff motivated and happy?
Turnover is the nature of the business in a production environment, but I try to be open door, inviting. It’s a serious business. I meet with my team leads and managers on a weekly basis. We communicate via text, project management boards. The goal is to keep that flow, finding people that fit the culture and more importantly developing a culture that fits. The reality of it is there are people that will come and go; my hope is that their time spent is a pleasant one. If not, if we drop the ball, if I drop the ball, I understand that I’m always evolving; I can’t do it all myself, so I’m looking to teams, staff, and advisors. I’m involved, but I don’t do everything. Going back to relationships, I’ve worked really hard to understand people. There’s sacrifice – we pay more than is typical. We’re looking to do even more; we want to be a leader in that area, as well.
How do you avoid burnout?
A couple of things: I understood very early on the importance of being part of a team and delegating responsibility. That’s important for my own sanity. There are people that I can trust, and we learn together, we grow together, we succeed together, we fail together even. I’ve made many boneheaded mistakes! Pre-pandemic, I would try to go to the movies every Monday and see something; I’ll double feature it up every now and then; that’s when I can turn off the phone. I’m big into Legos. I’ve been into Legos since kindergarden. I just finished the 1989 Batman Batwing; before that I did the Voltron. I use my dining room table as my desk – when my son is over he’ll help out. Friends come over and I cook – make a huge paella or steaks, lobsters, mussels on the grill or on the stove. I watch sports, I’m into football. There are times where I will sit on the couch and listen to Nina Simone, doing nothing! I always remind myself when the challenges come in, there have been those, but also even in success they say blessings come with burdens. I look for fun in the midst of trying times, and then when things are great, I’m not acting like I’m too important to have fun. My center is to always have fun, and my advice is to always have fun; if you are truly trying to that, then the decisions you make are driven from that. You’re never getting away from what the original goal was.