Aside from our passion for the diversity and craftsmanship of chocolate, it is the people and their stories that continue to inspire us here at Rococo Chocolates. We spoke to Karen Waller, our busy Head Chocolatier and right hand woman to Founder Chantal Coady OBE, to find out a bit more about how she began a career in chocolate and what gets her excited each day.
” I was born in Yorkshire and was the lucky grand daughter of two baking-mad grandmothers. My Gran would be griddling Welsh cakes: their scent filled the air, and on November 5th, we would gather round trays of rich, treacle toffee, butterscotch and crisp toffee apples. Christmas brought Gingerbread men, whose recipe is the basis of the Rococo Gingerbread bar. All of my favourite books included food – from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Mr Greedy’s troubled choice between chocolate, strawberry and lemon cakes in The Mr Men books. These warm, family memories have undoubtedly influenced my life, and how I associate sweet things with happiness, family and friends.
Aged 20, I studied sugar craft and cake design, and spent years making stunning wedding cakes. We did a module on chocolate, and I was fascinated by the science and art of this amazing medium. We were using Belgian chocolate, and up to that point I really only knew Cadbury, my local producer, Rowntree of York, and one or two handmade chocolate shops in York city, one of whom made the only violet creams I’ve ever found to rival Rococo’s!
Then, for my 21st birthday, I visited Paris, discovering a multitude of wonderful chocolate shops and pastries. A sign over the Carrousel du Louvre enticingly read ‘Salon du Chocolat’, and an arrow pointed down a stone staircase. Intrigued, I ventured down, and discovered a room of maybe 30 or 40 stands. This was the very early days of the Paris Salon, which now runs annually at the Porte de Versailles and is easily ten times larger and attracts visitors and exhibitors from around the world. For me, back then, it was a whole new world! Cacao beans being ground by a Peruvian lady, origin chocolates from Madagascar, Equador, Venezuela – long before they were seen in the UK, salted caramels, single flower honeys…I think it’s fair to say that something sparked in me that day and that an obsession was born.
I later decided I had to live in Paris. I spent a year doing a bit of work experience in tiny artisan chocolate shops, studying the language and culture, and observing everything about the French attitude to sweet things. They have a respect for sugar in a way that we are still learning. The skills of the chocolatier and pastry chef are highly regarded and protected there. This fascinates me almost as much as this wonderful chocolate that now makes up my daily life.
I ended up moving to Wales to become production manager at a wonderful chocolate factory/tourist attraction. Following this, I started my own business, but fate drew me to Rococo Chocolates, where I’ve been now for four years, and took over as Head Chocolatier in January 2016. I much admired Chantal’s creativity and style, and the company’s links with the Grenada Chocolate Company, whose chocolate I already loved.
I greatly enjoy the creative part of my job and the daily contact I get with some of the best chocolates in the world (I have never become complacent about using Valrhona every day). A career in chocolate doesn’t come easy, and requires long hours, dedication and serious hard work. For budding chocolatiers, a formal college training in chocolate in this country isn’t easy to find so I would advise gaining work experience. Most of my day is spent not only producing the beautiful Rococo Couture range, but transferring my knowledge to my team, and encouraging them to learn and grow, and appreciate how fortunate they are to work in this kitchen.
I think it’s fair to say that any good Chocolatier is obsessed by their work. We can talk about it, look at it, learn about it and eat it every day. Going to an event, discovering a new origin or technique, or nugget of knowledge that makes you go ‘aha!’ is never a chore, and I spend a lot of my spare time doing things somehow linked to chocolate. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am.”