Interview 004: Tim Shephard
Setting the Bar: A Craft Chocolate Origin Story follows the adventure of a group of chocolate-makers hunting for rare cacao in the Peruvian Amazon and bringing it back to the US to make one of the world's most loved foods.
2. What is your background and how did you end up making this film?
I am originally from Sydney, Australia and spent most of my working life in Aus as a video journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald before moving to San Francisco 6 years ago. My work in the US was centred largely around environmental and food based films.
We first got started on this project after spending 6 months driving around the US and down to Guatemala searching for interesting stories about food. On our first night in Guatemala a friend took us for dinner at a really wonderful cacao farmer's house, which is where we first started learning about agroforestry systems and the challenges of growing cacao. The next day I sat down at a bar next to another guy who turned out to be Steve Bergin, who would eventually become our cacao guide and expert. Over many mezcals and coming weeks Steve got us further and further hooked on the idea of cacao as a conservation crop particularly in the Amazon. Steve spends his life traveling through Latin America trying to preserve heirloom cacao and the promotion of sustainable practices through the Amazon. It was the passion from these two guys, and all the chocolate makers and cacao farmers that we met later that inspired us to make this project. I also realised, despite the fact that I spend my life in and around the food industry with film work that I knew next to nothing about how chocolate is made and how it actually grows. I wanted to connect the dots between the farmers, chocolate makers and the hungry consumer.
3. Who is featured in the film?
We worked with a whole host of chocolate makers, chocolate experts, cacao farmers and a range of other people who are involved in the cacao industry, both in the U.S. and in Peru.
The chocolate makers who joined us on the trip were Nate Hodge from Raaka, Ryan Berk from Parliament Chocolate, Elaine Read and Matt Wayandt from Xocolatl and Dan Rattigan from French Broad Chocolate.
We met with a number of farmers and their families while in Peru and will include their thoughts on cacao's environmental impacts, social challenges and views on the chocolate makers coming to do business with them. Included are stories of farmers who moved from growing coca to cacao for economic reasons, older farmers trying to encourage their children to stay and work on farms instead of moving to the cities and some young enthusiastic farmers who want to get behind the craft chocolate movement for sustainability reasons.
4. What appeals to you about the world of craft chocolate?
I think chocolate is delicious, and I crave it after a really good meal. I wouldn’t have called myself an addict before, but when I started learning about cacao and the issues surrounding it, my filmmaker taste buds started tingling. Cacao itself may not be my life long passion, but telling stories through the medium of food most definitely is. From a film perspective, it's visually so stunning, with the cacao tree being one of the few trees to have fruit growing directly from its trunk. From a cultural perspective, cacao has the ability to change the entire face of the Amazon. We met farmers in Peru who had moved away from growing coca for cocaine production to cacao for chocolate production purely from an economic point of view. From an environmental perspective it could be a key driver to sustaining the Amazon. Instead of cutting down the rainforest to plant African Palm, soy and raise cattle (which are just so unsustainable and along with logging have lead to 20% of the Amazon being destroyed), we can promote cacao production. The reason this is a positive crop is that it can grow in the shade of existing trees and doesn't require any clearing for planting.
5. Sometimes when people see the price of craft chocolate they think that somebody somewhere is making a lot of money, but in reality it seems that everyone involved has actually chosen passion over profit. Is this what you found whilst working on this film?
Great great question! This is something that struck me very early on. It’s very evident after talking with the chocolate makers that the craft chocolate industry is not your first stop if you want to make money. The amount of steps that go into producing a good craft chocolate bar is staggering. It’s possibly twice as intensive as coffee (yet coffee routinely charges high prices as well). Very few people are rolling in it as far as I can see. One of the biggest problems is, because the chocolate making process has so many steps and apparatus, as soon as you start doing well and scaling up, you need to scale up so many different machines along with it. OR, if you can’t do that you still need to get enough workers to make up for it. These chocolate makers are certainly not making chocolate as charity, but for the high level of skill and expertise, effort and thought that goes into these bars, you can very quickly see a higher price point easily justified. That’s one of the main goals of the film as well - I want people to come out and understand why craft chocolate should cost what it does and more.
6. How is craft chocolate more sustainable than mainstream industrial chocolate?
I’m very interested in the genetics of cacao. The main reason we went to the area of Peru we did was because that part of the world has been traced back to the genetic origin of cacao. This means that there is likely more unique species growing organically there than anywhere else. Mainstream industrial chocolate companies come in and clear huge swaths of land to plant their big, very productive but very prone to disease types of cacao. We were there to try to encourage farmers to preserve these old types of cacao trees before they’re lost to the world forever. Mainstream industrial chocolate is listed on the London Stock Exchange so prices fluctuate along with global economics. Trying to explain to a cacao farmer with very little access to the outside world why the prices they receive for the same product go up and down so much is incredibly difficult. Craft chocolate makers who source their own beans or buy as part of a collective can offer better prices to the chocolate makers and make sure they are sustainably farming and meeting expectations on a more personal level.
7. You travelled in the Peruvian Amazon and met several cacao farmers. Are there any stories that particularly stand out from that trip?
Working on this film has solidified the idea that working with food can alter communities. Connecting consumers with where our food comes from really does have a global impact. Celebrating these farmers instead of trying to 'save' them is crucial. A lot of these farmers are incredible artisans just like the chocolate makers. They can grow just about anything anywhere with very limited resources. The point of us being there was to guide them towards a direction that was more sustainable for the amazon, and produced a higher level of quality for this style of chocolate maker. We met so many farmers who really wanted to know how they could improve their product to meet the expectations of the chocolate makers. They really wanted to collaborate.
My favourite moment however was when the chocolate makers offered their chocolate bars to the farmers to try. Most had never eaten anything like this before and the reactions were so mixed, ranging from being really interested in what it was to one of the guys spitting it out and wiping the rest off his tongue. But that’s what I find really interesting- reconnecting the farmers to the product and vice versa, and let the people work out how they feel about it.
8. What stage is the film currently at and what is the plan moving forward?
At this stage, we have shot the sourcing section in Peru. Now we’re about to head back to the US for a month and film the chocolate making process in different parts of the country. We’re also having a couple of fundraising events to try to raise money to pay the good people working with us. Over the next two months, we are having events in Los Angeles/Redlands,CA (Parliament Chocolate), Brooklyn, NYC (Raaka), San Francisco, CA (Dandelion) and will be presenting at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle. We will have more info about upcoming events on our website.
9. What incentives are you offering for people who support your crowdfunding campaign?
We will be offering a variety of chocolate prizes including special chocolate mixed baskets, factory tours, and chocolate making classes in different cities around the US. The grand prize which people from all over the globe may be interested in is the chance to go on an overseas sourcing trip with the owners of either Dandelion (San Francisco, CA) or Raaka chocolate (Brooklyn, NY). The choice of countries that are likely to be on the table for this prize is Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Belize or Brazil. This will launch October 27th. These two guys are two of the best in the biz and their skill and dedication towards sourcing is amazing to see.
Thanks so much to Tim for taking the time for this interview. We look forward to the seeing the film on the silver screen in New Zealand!