We are kicking off the week with something sweet. A chocolate factory tour of Recchiuti Confections.
Even before bean-to-bar was a term, Michael Recchiuti and his wife Jacky started pioneering the new chocolate movement.
In the industrial Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, Recchiuti Confections has been at home since 1997. What started with young Michael licking out the vanilla cream leftovers his Italian grandmother had whipped up for her wedding cakes, developed into a fine chocolate business. Self-taught chocolatier Michael started experimenting with chocolate using European preparation methods and sourcing only best ingredients. While Michael takes care of the flavors, production and new creations, Jacky is in charge of the packaging, design, and presentation of the products. For more than 20 years the couple has been living in the Dogpatch and feeling very connected to the community. The soon to re-open Lab, Recchiuti’s former cafe, will turn into retail space and also offer hand-held dessert, think their celebrated Burnt Caramel ice cream. We caught up with Michael, got a delicious tour of the factory and talked all things chocolate.
You are one of the pioneers in artisan chocolate making. How did you get here? Tell us a bit about your journey?
The passion that led me to chocolate was inspired by my grandmother who specialized in wedding cakes she catered to the Italian community in Philadelphia – the communal celebratory aspect always appealed to me. Where it began with me licking the bowl lead to assisting her on the baking of the cakes, then decorating as a young boy. This lead to my apprenticeship with two European pastry chefs who passed on their knowledge and mentored me; cultivating old school European methods which I still incorporate in my work but with a slightly more contemporary American twist. It took years of pulling sugar, building architectural structures out of pastillage (a sugar paste which hardens so you can sculpt and build forms with) and lastly conquering chocolate – which is the most elusive with its small window in tempering. Yet, so rewarding in that it also can be molded, sculpt, baked, blended into multiple edible art forms. Combined these forms played a key role in the desserts I made as a pastry chef until the love of chocolate won me over, and I began focusing solely on chocolate as a medium to work with.
How does a typical chocolatier’s day look like, from am to pm?
I’m huge proponent for lists; I start with a prep list not matter how minutiae a task and cross each off as completed. This crosses over to anything I do within the business – developing new recipes, working out the recipes in production, assisting in distribution or planning tasting events or workshops. There are times I have multiple lists going (all at various stages of completion). I’m huge on Post-it notes too; it helps if I’m pulled away mid-project to get back on track, which happens a lot running a vertically integrated chocolate business. (Manufacturing, Retail, Corporate, Wholesale, eCommerce, Direct)
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work? What’s not so great?
This question brings me back to my Nonna and the satisfaction of contributing to a community of food lovers – when we started the business back in 1997 our first retail venue was the Green Street Farmer’s Market. I remember a farmer’s market shopper coming up to the tent and a bit outraged at the price of “candy” as he reviewed the packs of truffles I was selling. I offered him a sample of a truffle as he was walking away from my tent – he got half way down the past the other tents and literally pivoted and briskly walked back to my tent with a sheepish grin on his face. He said “Ok, I get it” and bought several packets of truffles from and became a regular Saturday farmer’s market customer. That kind of satisfaction of putting a smile on someone’s face who appreciates the technique and flavors is the most rewarding. The least rewarding part of the culinary industry is the long hours without a break on your feet. The fatigue can get your spirits down when it doesn’t feel like you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, of course, there is an end, but in the middle of it exhaustion and sore feet is not a motivator.
When you create a new chocolate, where do you start?
In the beginning, it was just my wife Jacky and I brainstorming to create a product – that’s how our s’more kits & s’mores bite came to be; tasting a nasty s’mores dessert at a restaurant which consisted of soggy store-bought grahams & marshmallows and generic bottled chocolate syrup. Needless to say, we did not finish the dessert, but we swore we could create a better house-made version … we did it and it still is a favorite of our customers today. Nowadays, it’s with our production team + sales & marketing team, we look at flavor trends, customer requests or spin off the profiles we currently have and cultivate a complimentary flavor based on these various criteria and begin developing & testing from there.
In your opinion, how has the chocolate industry changed over the past years?
There appears to be a lot of focus on bean to bar, many more producers than when we first came on the scene and truffle makers who are trying to be overly outrageous in flavors, not sure if they are going for the shock value or really thought it translated well into a truffle form.
“For me, it goes back to the basics; subtlety & simplicity speaks the loudest when using premium products and putting a twist to it utilizing its core taste.”
Chocolate means so much to different people. What does chocolate mean to you?
Having just spent time in Peru this past summer, the meaning has evolved for me since I was finally able to meet the cacao farmers. In the past I was focused on the end product, and what I could bring to the story of chocolate. Now I feel a connection with the farmers and want to see how I can contribute more to the beginning of the story. I’m participating in the clean water project through Valrhona; the program is to help in developing a water source, not only with the irrigation systems on the plantation but to the villages as well, to ensure the livelihood of the people are considered when providing a clean water source and finding funds to support it.
Where do you find the inspiration for new chocolate creations?
In tasting seasonal products, trying new fruits, vegetables, spices or herbs, testing between highlighting the infusion ratio to the couverture in order to keep the balance and enable to taste both the infusion and the chocolate.
How is chocolate enjoyed best?
At room temperature to allow the flavor of the cacao and/or infusion to blossom. Too cold and the flavors are tight and undefined. Too warm and the flavors can get muddles as the chocolate melts… that is unless a warm drinking chocolate is what you’re tasting. Then again it’s about the balance to pull the best of the cacao and the infusion or blend.
With what other food do you like to pair chocolate?
We did a great pairing with our Kona Coffee truffle and an aged parmesan cheese. You wouldn’t think it would work, but the nuttiness of the cheese actually went well with the mocha-ness of the Kona. I like the European-style toast with melted chocolate.
Do you bring back home chocolate from your travels? If so, which one was your favorite?
Absolutely! Patrick Roger from Paris and William Curley of London are favorite confectioners.
What is next for Recchiuti Chocolates?
Converting theLab café space in Dogpatch into a retail store but continuing to have some hand-held desserts as take-way – which means bringing back our famous Burnt Caramel ice-cream we used to sell at the farmer’s market and the café when it was a restaurant. We’re refreshing the Ferry Building Marketplace store after Easter 2017; it’s long overdue. The footprint will be the same since there’s little we can move in such a small space, but the design will be completely updated. We’re also scouting locations in the east chocolate.
Quickest chocolate dessert?
Brownie a la mode made with our Fudgy Brownie topped with our Burnt Caramel ice-cream and our Extra Bitter Chocolate Sauce or our hot drinking chocolate – made with dark chocolate pistoles and hot water blended with an emersion blender until frothy.
Tell us your five favorite food spots in San Francisco…
★Delfina – we’re friends with Craig and Annie, they fed us in the early years when we needed comfort and nourishment after a long day making chocolate
★Stone’s Throw – we think Jason is an amazing chef and love the coziness of the restaurant.
★Petite Crenn – we love to walk-in when they open their doors so we can get a counter seat and order off the menu a la carte rather than the prix fixe
★Mosto – best margarita and botanas in San Francisco
★Ken Ken Ramen – brothy noodles hits the spot on cold, foggy San Francisco nights.
And three favorite outdoor spots…
★Golden Gate Park – we’re walkers and have taken epic walks from Dogpatch to the park, and back, we love the city and discover alleyways and shops we typically wouldn’t on public transportation or driving
★Embarcadero at night just in front the Bay Bridge to sit and watch the lights by artist Leo Villareal, it brings us peace of mind – we love public art
★Our backyard in Dogpatch where we garden by day and drink wine at the fire pit at night to unwind from a busy week
If we have only 12 hours in San Francisco, what should we do … Where do you take out-of-town friends?
If it’s a Friday or Saturday night the Audium to listen to the sound sculpture then if any time left find a bar to get a drink and trip out on the “exploration in sound and space” with them. It’s a one of a kind experience.
Best kept California secret…
A hidden park at Stanyan and 17th. I don’t know what it’s called (maybe Mt Sutro Forest?) but a staircase leads you into the most amazing walking trail – once in it, you feel like you’re in Marin Headlands not in the middle of San Francisco
What do you love most about California?
It’s not hot and humid in the summer like in the east coast – it’s the reason I moved from Philly to the Bay Area, plus I feel my tribe is here.