For my latest interview I caught up with Johnty Tatham, aka Lucid Chocolatier. Based in rural Wairarapa, Wellington, Johnty launched his business in December 2020, offering a stunning range of single origin bars made with the highest quality Peruvian beans available. Despite only being 23 years old, Johnty is making some of the best chocolate in New Zealand. I thought it would be a good idea to have a chat with him and learn more about what's been happening behind the scenes...
What is your background and what led you to the world of chocolate?
Arriving at the world of chocolate for me, is the current point of progression in a lifelong journey of following of passion. I have always been someone who will put their absolute all into something they believe in, and will most likely flunk out or ignore something they don’t.
After being instilled with an art and design mindset for many years, I became immersed in the culinary world and haven’t looked back since. My original desire was to become a fine dining pastry chef, however as I got closer to this goal I felt like my curiosity was honing in on chocolate. After entering an open chocolate petit four competition and learning to properly temper chocolate I was hooked. The calibre of creativity that extended from this one product was astounding, and I wasn’t surprised to find that in France there were people whom had dedicated their entire lives to understanding and working with it. I am very inspired by the French chocolatiers, as they exude real passion and discipline in their craft. Starting work for Nico Bonnaud at Honest Chocolat was the beginning of my entrance to the world of chocolate, and the opportunities I received there are a core part of who I am today.
What made you decide to start making chocolate from the bean?
It has been a fair few years now that I have been aware of bean to bar chocolate making. I always wanted to do it, but it never seemed possible until moving back to our family farm pre-Covid. The thought of making my own chocolate to use in bonbons and confectionery was dreamlike, however I was torn between starting a business as a chocolatier, or a chocolate maker.
There are big pros and cons to each, and the reality is that I knew I wanted to do both eventually so that I could have full control over both processes.
A major contributing factor, if not the contributing factor was calling David from Foundry Chocolate to ask about what his life was like as a chocolate maker. He was extremely accommodating to my request to speak with him, and solidified a lot of what I imagined the lifestyle to be like. I remember after going through my series of questions and hanging up the phone I thought to myself, well that settles that, and I went home and started writing the business plan.
After making my first batch of bean to bar, properly ageing it, tempering it and tasting it, I knew this was what I wanted to do, and haven’t felt an ounce of doubt since.
Why did you choose the name Lucid Chocolatier?
I am viewing this as a two part question - first, why Lucid? Secondly, why Chocolatier as opposed to maker or chocolate etc?
I had been toying with names for a long time, always wondering if I owned a restaurant, or patisserie, what it would be called. Sometimes names come to you out of the blue and I always felt inclined to write them down. Subsequently I had a list of names I was toying with, notable mentions being ‘Silva Chocolatier,’ and ‘Tranquil Cacao.’
I can’t remember the exact moment I landed on the word Lucid, all I know is that I did. After doing some research I discovered that it was derived from the Latin word, lucidus, meaning shining. Lucid has been used since the 16th century as a way to convey clarity and luminosity, both of which I was hoping to convey in the business. For me the word in itself is interesting, unique, and I loved it more when I looked into it, so the choice here was easy.
Choosing to use the word ‘Chocolatier,’ as opposed to ‘Chocolate,’ or ‘Chocolate Maker,’ etc really comes down to the vision and drive for the scope of the business. Again it was a decision that was inspired by the chocolatiers in France, whom have full control of the process from bean selection through to an array of chocolate products. Also thanks to Luke for the original suggestion!
How has your work as a chocolatier affected the way you make chocolate?
This is a juicy question. First I think it’s important to briefly break down how the two professions differ, in terms of what type of chocolate they require and why...
Chocolatiers who are buying in good quality chocolate to begin with can expect good flavour, and a chocolate that is nice and fluid. Either through additional cocoa butter or some kind of lecithin. Fluidity is paramount for the chocolatier, as often the flavour of the chocolate being used isn’t the star of the show, however workability is. A classic example of this is a bonbon. We want the shell of the bonbon to be as thin as possible so that when we eat it, the shell cracks and the inside flavour bursts out onto the palate as the chocolate melts away nicely on the finish. If we were using thick, two ingredient bean to bar chocolate for this, we simply wouldn’t be able to achieve a technically exemplary bonbon. However if we use a chocolatier-specific chocolate, we are able to achieve extremely thin shells, and the beautifully formulated filling will shine through, reflecting the skill of the chocolatier.
Chocolate makers on the other hand, particularly two ingredient [cacao and sugar] makers, generally won’t prioritise the additional fluidity and melt in the mouth components of additional cocoa butter or lecithin, instead opting for potency, viscosity and originality of flavour. This is great for eating chocolate, as we are able to capture the true flavour of origin without offsetting it with cocoa butter. However, if we want to then take this chocolate and make a bonbon or a hand-dipped caramel with it, I can see many chocolatiers, including myself, pulling their hair out at the thought of it.
Moving forward I intend to bring my chocolatier skills into play utilising bean-to-bar, and I will be creating chocolates specifically for each intended purpose. The three ‘Purist’ bars I have created for Lucid’s launch are designed to reflect the three different types of chocolate I see being used across the industry. The 67% is almost a two ingredient bar, exuding all of the expected characteristics of such. The 72% is a small percentage cocoa butter chocolate which can go either way, it is just fluid and workable enough for a chocolatier, but still potent enough for a two-ingredient maker to marvel at. Thirdly, the 78% is a high fluidity bar, designed to be a chocolatier’s dream. It has an extremely smooth flavour profile, not too sweet, and melts in the mouth like a bar of Zotter.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in setting up a business from scratch?
The biggest challenge has been juggling the many hats that need to be worn as a sole trader, along with the insane amount of learning that has needed to be done to get to this point. Originally I didn’t respect the amount of effort and determination required to go from scratch and this saw me nearly not being ready to get off the ground last year.
On top of the learning and juggling, the aspect I have found most difficult has been to simply looking after myself. It is very easy to wear yourself out, become antisocial, and prioritise the business at all costs. I barely saw my friends or felt able to leave home for the majority of last year, and I hope that as I move forward into 2021 I learn to better manage my time and maintain a more balanced lifestyle, whilst pushing forward with my goals for Lucid.
Why did you decide to exclusively use cacao from Peru?
I am not someone who likes to have their fingers in many different pies. In fact, I would say I prefer to have a whole hand in a single pie.
As a child, one of my favourite things to eat was spaghetti Bolognese. Everywhere I went I would request spaghetti bolognese, whether it be at a restaurant, at home, or a family friend’s house. After some time, I developed a very in-depth understanding of the dish. I began to notice very subtle differences in the way the pasta was cooked, the mince-to-sauce ratio, and the balance of cheese on top. It was almost obsessive, to the point where I was critiquing every meal of it I had, and I loved the in-depth comparison, always existing within the frame of ‘spaghetti bolognese.’
I view my approach to making chocolate using beans exclusively from Peru much the same. Although there are many great origins (other dishes) out there, I know what I like, and I would rather explore all of the different origins I can, coming from within Peru, than chase beans down from other parts of the world.
I analysed nearly thirty samples from different parts of the world before making the choice I did. Some of them were outstanding, but three out of the top five were from Peru, and it was a simple choice for me. Believe it or not, I think this opens more doors than it closes, and I am absolutely loving learning about Peru and South America in general. I really hope that one day I am able to travel there to visit the places where my beans come from, and I look forward to learning and offering more from there in the future.
How do you source new cacao origins and how do you test the beans?
Sourcing is an interesting one. I think there are a few really solid options for makers starting out, such as Meridian Cacao and Uncommon Cacao. Trade Aid is also a great option for within New Zealand. I think opting for suppliers outside of this bracket opens up a whole new world in terms of rarity but it also comes with risks. I have heard horror stories from other makers around the world, talking about receiving top tier sample packs then having a tonne of commodity trade cacao turn up, which would really sting. Thankfully my partners in Peru have looked after me so far and I am excited to continue working with them.
Regarding testing the beans, I don’t have a bean cutter so my analysis is pretty much on a case-by-case basis. I take notes on the aroma, the overall look and distribution of size of the beans, and the list goes on... I then theorise a roast profile based on my analysis and go from there. All samples I have received to date have been made into chocolate, and this is the single most important part for me. You might think you know what the chocolate will turn out like, but you never really know until you take it through the entire production process.
Some beans appear to have been poorly fermented and according to industry standards aren’t ‘good beans’, but they turn into beautiful chocolate. Some appear to be very lacking in flavour but after ageing they develop potent and distinctive profiles you didn’t think would come through.
Before I had ever analysed an origin, I read countless articles and forum posts about it and I didn’t know what information to take in and what to reject. I have notes from all over the show on this subject, and truthfully I don’t think there is one single way to analyse the beans, other than on a case-by-case basis. I know that for me, being here at the start of my journey, there is still a lot I don’t know, and as the years progress and my knowledge base expands, perhaps I will have a clearer answer on this in the future. For now though, I am happy as I am until some clearer patterns emerge.
We’re featuring your Caramel Tonka milk chocolate in our February subscription boxes. What attracted you to tonka beans?
I picked up my first jar of tonka beans about two years ago at a specialty supermarket, when I was looking for some vanilla pods. I was interested because it was completely new to me, and it was described as being a nutmeg-like substitute for vanilla from South America. After taking it home I lifted off the lid and whiffed in an extremely potent and completely new smell. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it! Until I met my now great friend Thomas, a chocolatier from France. He was with me when I made my first batch of chocolate and, looking for some inspiration, he pulled the jar of tonka out of my pantry. He told me about how it was really taking off in France, and couldn’t believe it was in my pantry in New Zealand! Later on, when I tasted my caramel milk chocolate, I finally felt like the tonka was calling, and the rest is history. It is currently my top selling bar, and although its formulation may be tweaked in future, the flavour combination is certainly here to stay.
What are some of your favourite chocolate bars that you’ve recently tasted (other than your own)?
This year I have tried an absurd amount of chocolate, especially craft chocolate. For strictly market research purposes of course.
I think there is a lot of outstanding chocolate being made all across the world. New Zealand-wise, I always have and always will be inspired by David from Foundry Chocolate. I don’t think you can go wrong with picking up something of his. Standout origins of his for me are the Tanzania, Vanuatu and India.
Two others that come to mind are the Manoa 70% banana bar. I don’t know what I expected, but that bar was really something! Also the Golden Berry bar by Chocolate Naive will forever remain a favourite!
What are your hopes and plans for the first few years of Lucid Chocolatier?
Right now the priority is very straight forward: expand and perfect the bean-to-bar range. In terms of product development, nothing else matters other than achieving that, and I don’t really want to move forward creating other things until I am confident that this has been achieved. I would love to talk about ambitions to expand into chocolatier operations, but realistically I think putting one foot in front of the other and continually testing and investing focus into the bean-to-bar operation is what I need to do right now. I am hopeful that by this time next year, I will be running a confident and exemplary operation and will be ready to look at expanding.
When it comes to the end goal, think Patrick Roger.
What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
I think the aspect I enjoy most about making chocolate comes down to my desire to want to live a tranquil life. Working with chocolate allows me to breath and not worry about a lot of things. Living in the city, I found that everything moves very fast, and coming from an isolated rural upbringing, I struggled to see myself living a normal life there. You cannot rush chocolate, but instead you must work around it, and for that reason I find it somewhat grounding and stress-relieving.
In many ways I think I am yet to discover exactly what it is within chocolate that attracts me so much. I would really love to be able to invest some time into developing showpiece building skills. But for now I am happy making bean-to-bar and constantly testing and tweaking. It is hard to have a bad day being surrounded by cacao, especially when your respect the journey it has taken to get here.
Thanks so much to Johnty for taking the time for this interview. Thanks also to Hayden Warren for taking the photos of Johnty. Be sure to check out the Lucid Chocolatier bars in our online store.