It’s a very French company and has an equally Gallic director general in the guise of the suave and genuinely charming Geoffroy d’Anglejan-Chatillon. He has a lifetime of chocolate appreciation, and has made that a delicious career for almost a couple of decades.
M. d’Anglejan-Chatillon explains in a rich accent that would have any red-blooded Anglo-Saxon woman melting like fine chocolate and reaching for a glass of Cointreau: ‘I have been working in the chocolate industry for 23 or 24 years, and that’s a long, long time. Why? Because as a child I loved chocolate, and today still, after 40 or 50 years, I have hot chocolate for breakfast each morning.
‘I was born in Savoie, not far from Lyon, between there and Geneva, and I’m from a big family – I am one of six brothers and sisters, and my mother was one of twelve, so it was very important to share. My parents loved to eat well, and that included chocolate.
But I came to the chocolate business by chance, it was not a case of my saying when I finished my studies, “Now I have to go into chocolate”, no. I was in the real estate business, and we happened to be selling a large house. It was bought by the owner of De Neuville, a producer of mid-range chocolates in France, and when we met he asked me if I wanted to be president of that company. It had a network of franchising, and I was familiar with that from my job, so I accepted the position. I learned all about chocolate during the five years I was there. Then I met Robert Linxe, and joined Maison du Chocolat, and now it’s my passion – I am sure I will finish my days in chocolate!
‘I have worked at Maison du Chocolat for 18 years now. When I arrived, there were just three or four shops; Robert had an amazing talent, and they were looking for somebody who could manage the company and expand it. I think I was very lucky because I met somebody who was exceptional: he is a creator, and has a real passion, and that’s the idea behind Maison du Chocolat. When I started we had around 40 people working for the company, and now we are more than 500. By the end of the year we will have about 38 boutiques, located in Paris, Cannes, London, New York, Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong. Each is our own shop, a subsidiary, because we want to control the quality, the presentation, the culture.
‘Robert Linxe has found a great chef in Nicolas Cloiseau. He travelled worldwide to find the best cocoa varieties, and combined them to give to his chocolate a very specific taste. He has been with us for 16 years and in 2007 he was awarded Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the highest distinction – since the beginning of the competition in 1920 there have only been 19 Meilleurs Ouvriers de France in chocolate: it’s a very, very difficult field.’
I asked Geoffroy if he found that having such an array of boutiques in such diverse countries caused any difficulties with selection of chocolate. Is there the same taste for chocolate in Japan as there is in France? ‘Of course we think about that, but, honestly, we have a worldwide range. In the main range we have around 32 different tastes of chocolate, and there is a good choice for everywhere. In Japan, they prefer some chocolates over others; in New York, they love ginger, and that’s not the case in France. In Japan we adapt the packaging because the Japanese don’t tend to buy big boxes, they prefer little packs, so we create small boxes for them, but we don’t change the recipes. Except for Valentine’s Day, which is a busy period for our company in Japan – it’s like our Christmas in Europe, and we create a new box and around 4 to 5 new recipes every year, adapted for that market. We have found that if it works for Japan, it works for everywhere else, too.
‘Talking of Christmas, the most successful Christmas for us is in France, so we choose our recipes with the French market in mind. But in Hong Kong, for example, they don’t like sugar so much, so if we have a pâte de fruit in the Christmas box, we don’t include that for the Hong Kong market. We create a lot of different products and combinations. We design around 40 different chocolates during the year, for Christmas, Easter, or Summer – like the coffret (box) called Île de Beauté, which has the taste of Corsica. Each time, we create something new; we could just say, ‘Oh, last time we did this recipe in a black cover, this time let’s do it in red.’ We never do that; each time it’s something really different.
‘Creating some of our products is very difficult and takes 14 to 16 months to perfect the recipes. One thing that is very particular to Maison du Chocolat is that when you taste the chocolate you have three stages: first you have to taste the chocolate, then you have the flavour, then you have to finish with the chocolate – that’s very important for us. That profile has to last for the 4 or 5 weeks’ shelf-life of the product.’
How does La Maison du Chocolat maintain consistent quality over their branches across the globe?
‘When I arrived there were three challenges: First, to keep the high quality of flavour – easy when you have 3 shops, difficult when you have 38, and it will be more difficult when there are 60. Second is about creation: Robert is in the luxury market, so like a chef, like a directeur artistique, we need to be inventive: people want creation, good innovation (not like chocolate and cheese, but nice combinations with the right taste). Third, client experience: When you meet Robert you will want to buy a lot, because he welcomes you so passionately. Everyone in the company is so enthusiastic.
Our strategy is to produce all our products (except our pastries, because the shelf-life is very short) in our atelier in Nanterre, and to send them by plane; but we ship the boxes by boat, because we consider environmental sustainability. We prefer to make everything in Nanterre because in production we can control quality. We could send the cocoa to New York or to Tokyo and that would be easy, but then we use crème fleurette which has a particular taste, and if the recipe contains mint we use a very specific mint. To find that cream and that mint in Japan or the USA may be possible, but they will never have the same taste. So everything is hand-made in our laboratoire in Paris, and we have a lot of savoir-faire. That way we can make everything in one place and ensure the quality and consistency.’
Does the company continue to look for innovation in flavouring ingredients?
‘We look for ingredients that are familiar to our home market – France. So for example when our Japanese customers taste our chocolates they don’t want to have an experience with sake, let’s say, as a flavouring, they want to be introduced to Bordeaux. When we create products we look for French ingredients, and we select those that we think are best for that market. We have a ganache with tea, for example, but we are not going to create a specific range of ganache with tea just for the Japanese market. It’s the same thing for Thanksgiving: we have a French turkey,’ Geoffroy laughs, ‘it’s a turkey, but we adapt it with some French decoration! We do that because the origin of La Maison du Chocolat is France. Of course, for the couverture (coating), the cocoa, we go where we can find the best.’
Recipes tend to evolve over the years, so how much have things changed in the boutiques since Geoffroy has been there?
‘In the beginning, when Robert started the company, he created the 32 different recipes; today it’s exactly the same range. But 20 or 25 years ago the recipe sometimes contained some alcohol to make the taste a little stronger; today, that’s not done, so Nicolas worked on the recipes to achieve the same taste but without alcohol.’
So La Maison du Chocolat is selling not just a package of fine chocolates but an experience?
‘Exactly: a philosophy, a culture of the company. For example, when you have a ganache with lemon, the chocolate must be a bit stronger to balance the lemon. And we explain to the customer that a ganache of lemon is not simply a ganache of lemon but something very particular.’
Visiting La Maison du Chocolat is part of the experience. The personal touch is evidently important to the company but is it difficult to replicate that across both Europe and Asia? ‘We are working on the customer experience: we have someone in the company who knows the products very well, and the story of the company, and we organise staff training.
‘Our Japanese staff have a very different culture, very respectful of the customer; but we have to have contact with the customer, so we have to change the culture a little, we have to instil our passion. In Japan they don’t create a link to the customer, but now we are training our Japanese staff to interact. I believe our chocolate connects the two cultures, I think it’s really important to make that connection …and it’s easy with chocolate!’
Where does Geoffroy think the company will go next?
‘The target is to be stronger in Asia, and we would like to be in China, but this is a very difficult market, and it will take time. We have to go step-by-step – we could go everywhere but it would be risky for the company. Our first goal is to be stronger where we are presently established. We are in New York, and we will take time to be stronger there, and then look at perhaps Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Similarly in Japan, here in the UK and in Hong Kong. We have just signed an agreement for the Middle East, which is very important to us.
‘We are launching a lot of shops in travel retail locations, such as in airports. We have seven shops in Paris airports, and one in Hong Kong airport, and we are looking at Heathrow. People are travelling a lot, and it’s important to give them the opportunity to buy. Because of the positioning of the brand we have to find the right location, the best place, and that takes time. For instance in the Middle East, we decided 18 years ago to open our first shop, and we have just found the right location!’
We were bound to end this interview with this question: What’s your favourite?
‘I would say there are two: the first is a ganache natur called Caracas, created by Robert 35 years ago, made with Venezuelan chocolate, and it has a long, long taste; the second is Zagora, a very small chocolate with mint. Honestly, when you taste that chocolate you think you are biting into fresh mint!’
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018