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Rebecca Kerswell

05 July 2011

Position: Founder, owner and head Chocolatier, Coco Chocolate.

What is a Chocolatier: Chocolatiers make chocolates. Chocolate makers (and ours are in Belgium) create chocolate from cacao beans and other ingredients including milk, sugar and vanilla. We use orchid vanilla but a great deal of chocolate uses vanillin, you’ll see it on the back of the packet. The chocolate maker then stirs the chocolate for varying lengths of time, anything from 5 hours to 3 days, depending on how fine you want your couverture chocolate to be. Ours is “conched” (the old term for the process because the paddles used to mix the chocolate resembled conch shells) for 3 days.

Bondi born Rebecca Kerswell finds the idea of creating and designing a product fascinating. Her dream has been to take a raw food from plant to plate. Two foods tempted her: olive oil and chocolate.
“Once you fall in love with an olive oil the last thing you want to do is experiment with it. Chocolate offers the full experience. I know where our supplier sources the beans – The Caribbean, Madagascar and Dominican Republic. It’s ethically taded and Organic. They’re important points to me. I know how the beans are dried: by the sun and not machine blast dried. I know how the chocolate is blended and mixed by the chocolate maker.
“When it comes to me, it’s couverture chocolate. I then hand temper it on marble, choose the flavour mixes, make the chocolates, package and present the final product in pouches and boxes I designed for sale in my shops.”

The benefits of control
We are in the presence of the ultimate chocolate control freak, but if taste is anything to go by, that control has brought many awards. Coco won Gold at the Great Taste Awards in the UK for its Organic Dark Chocolate with Rose and Black Pepper, an old Spanish recipe Rebecca found reading a history book. In Australia Rebecca’s chocolate business has won high praise from foodies and patrons alike, as well as a number of local business awards.

“Everything I’ve done makes up who I am now,” Rebecca says of her life path. “I’ve worked in cafes washing dishes and I still do that running the cafes attached to the chocolate shops. I’ve been a teacher, and with the chocolate schools and tasting nights, I still use those skills. I studied design and still design. Nothing I’ve done has been wasted. It’s all part of who I am.”

The path began early. Rebecca left school and home at 16, which she explains was for various reasons to do with her personal sense of justice and perfection.

Finding a job in a local café in Bondi she quickly came to terms with the hard work of self-reliance. Then, in 1988, when all her friends had their HSCs, she thought to herself, “I really want one of those too.” She enrolled at East Sydney TAFE and, while still working, did the HSC in one year. From there, she went to university and did economics. On the advice of her brother, she also “got into education because you can use it anywhere”.

Teaching may have been transportable but it was not something Rebecca really hankered to do. It was when she enrolled in postgraduate studies in design she knew she’d found her thing… well, half of it. Discovering chocolate joined the dots.

Chocolatier to royalty
How did a Bondi beach girl, who readily admits to loving the thrill of being the furthest out the back in the surf, end up a Chocolatier with shops, warehouses and factories on two island nations (the UK and Australia), as well as the job of supplying chocolates to Britain’s famous Harvey Nichols department store while also manufacturing Harvey Nichs own brand?

It all began with a ticket to Europe, $2000, her desire to product design, and the fearless go-getter nature evidenced by her beach swimming ways.

“I was in France. There’s a chocolate school in Lyon, Valrhona, so I enrolled to learn how to temper chocolate, which is what you need to do with couverture chocolate to then use it to make fine chocolate.

“Tempering is about movement and heat, where you are the movement with your palette knife and the marble surface you work on is the heat control,” explains Rebecca.

The $2000 she arrived with to live on didn’t last long and, with traveller’s luck, she landed a part time job with the BBC.
“I worked in design part time and that kept me financed. I wanted to learn more about chocolate so I went to Manchester to Slattery’s, which is a very famous chocolate school with a very unglamorous name.”

From there, and working part time teaching design, Rebecca went to Edinburgh to open a store and really give her chocolate a go with customers.

The set up
Edinburgh appealed because the rents were approachable while still being a big enough European city – without the incumbent language difficulties for her – in which to try the business idea.

Coco opened in 2004 using the 10,000 pounds Rebecca had saved while working for the BBC. Making the chocolates at home, running the shop, teaching design on the side to bring in some much needed cash, made the early days a struggle.

“My partner, who lived in London, paid the mortgage on the one bedroom flat we had, which had also been fully certified for food production, and that was a major support. But he didn’t want to live in Edinburgh so I only saw him on weekends. It left me time to concentrate on the chocolate,” Rebecca notes drily.

In 2007 she landed the Harvey Nichols account through dogged persistence with the stores head buyer for the food hall, catapulting Coco into a different league. Four years on, and the relationship remains solid.

“We made the process easy for Harvey Nichols and that’s been our edge,” explains Rebecca of the ongoing contract, which allowed her to expand her business premises to a large warehouse factory in Edinburgh and now employ 5 Chocolatiers as well as herself.

“Being real and honest in our dealings with customers – being myself – is what I’ve discovered is important. Having a plan, doing your homework, they are necessary. It’s translating what you say you’ll do into what’s done that makes the difference.”

Rebecca goes onto admit the harder work has come in financing Coco, never having been able to secure a formal loan.

“I’ve funded the business on credit cards, which means, I don’t think my terms have ever been less than 14 percent. I would work and save; pay things off and invest any leftover back in the business. Everything is in the business.
“Luckily, my husband has a job outside chocolate so I know my children will always be okay and it allows me to do this thing I love.”

Coming home
Moving back and opening in Australia is what’s currently keeping Rebecca busy. Much of the product for the Kirribilli and Mosman shops is shipped out from Edinburgh but once the planned August opening of the Balmoral factory, chocolate school and cellar door happens that will change.

On the finance front, Rebecca has just received her first business loan, which will support getting the Sydney operation up to speed and, for the first time, Coco’s ‘bean counters’ are predicting turning a profit. It’s cause for celebration.

Best sellers
The best sellers in Kirribilli are the milk chocolate bar with caramel, pine nut and sea salt, and the dark with ginger and date. The café also does a rose and black pepper hot chocolate with cream. It’s very popular.

Fast facts
The more a chocolate is conched the finer the grain of the chocolate – the smoother it is. If you eat a chocolate where the texture is grainy you know the maker has scrimped on the mixing time.

I can hand temper about 500 bars in a day. I never get bored splashing that chocolate out onto the marble and watching it transfigured in the tempering. Using a machine, and we have one in the kitchen, you can get 2000 bars done.

We make these liqueur cherries to a recipe from El Bulli, the restaurant in Spain. They’re really labour intensive: dipping them in the fondant and then the chocolate and making sure the stem doesn’t break. I can get 600 of them done in a day.

www.cocochocolate.com.au

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2 comments

  • Kate Meinck

    Kate Meinck 8 years ago

    What an amazing story! I love chocolate, and the flavours you create sound awesome, I hope I win the competition, I am such a foodie and as a chef I'm always interested in new flavour combinations. Rebecca are you planning on opening a store in Perth in the near future? I could do with some quality gourmet support over here.

  • Rachael McKenzie

    Rachael McKenzie 8 years ago

    As a regular customer of Coco Chocolate (my husband is a chocoholic) I can say that all of the chocolates we have tried are divine ! The packaging is beautiful and I regularly take some as gifts to friends who all love the presentation and of course the wonderful chocolate! As a foodie I intend to take one of the courses on offer at the new chocolate school! great article- next time I am going to try those liquer cherries!