Sweat condensing on her brow, an American Pasty Chef attempted to balance a crescent moon shaped chocolate centerpiece atop a three-tier cake. Being observed by a French chocolatier only added to the nerves that steeled into her clenched jaw and stabilized her trembling hands. Hours of work had gone into this elaborate piece, an expense that would hopefully be passed on to the customer when they purchase this decadent, luxurious and ostentatious celebration of chocolate, craftsmanship and refinement. It embodied various certifications, testifying to the veracity of the ethical production therein and extending its meaning from its origin, through the artisan, to the consumer.
Just as the bottom tangent of the chocolate piece began to set, aided by a can of spray-able liquid nitrogen intended to solidify the melty chocolate and fasten it into place, the weight of the moon rested at too deep an angle. It tumbled. Over the back of the cake, it gashed the bottom layer on its way to the stainless steel table where it shattered, breaking the silent concentration and cutting the tension in the room. The Pastry chef sighed and began to collect the shrapnel with a towel, slowly scooping it into a pile for re-melting.
“C’est la vie…” said the American Pastry Chef.
“C’est la guerre.” replied the French Chocolatier.
This semi-fictional scene reflects the dichotomous nature of chocolate in haute cuisine between French and American spheres of distinction. The deft use of fine chocolate is prevalent in both attitudes, both value the origins and efforts of the cacao’s genesis, both have studied and practiced their craft. However, whereas the American is resigned in the failed effort to express the cumulative value of the product and her skill, the French craftsman is steeled into resolve, determined to win the war. “Such is life, Such is war” is a common French expression that mirrors the approach of French and American approaches to chocolate in haute cuisine. The American approach is one of collaborative effort, emphasizing the transparency of sourcing to demonstrate the rusticity of the product. The French approach is one of competitive determination, steeped in refinement and luxury.
This analysis is not intended to present a normative argument. That is, this is not an examination of which culture has a better or worse approach to haute cuisine in that one way is right or another is wrong. Rather, these tools seek to explore how haute chocolate can reflect bifurcated levels of distinction. In the interest of flow and concision, the United States is referred to as ‘America’ wholly separate from other North and South American regions. Additionally, the habitus of other European Nations such as the Netherlands and Austria may overlap with those of the French, however France is selected as grounds for comparison as it offers special distinction via various guilds and the tradition of the chocolatier. This is also not intended to make over generalizations, it is understood that there are exceptions to trends and the examples herein were chosen to highlight the specific distinctions.
While neither nation produces cacao, the raw ingredient for chocolate, their relative attitudes towards fine chocolate are molded by habitus. Defined as a collection of culture, history and access to cultural and economic capital, Pierre Bourdieu offers habitus as the foundation of an individual’s foodways. (Bourdieu, 2005) The purpose of this comparative analysis is to explore the similarities and differences in American and French approaches to fine chocolate. While both nations enjoy a reputation for the production of fine chocolate, they have very different attitudes and approaches to the market. This analysis intends to contrast these attitudes, provide examples that demonstrate the distinction between distinctions, define the roles of distinction and habitus, and critically analyze how these attitudes are expressed in an effort to better understand the role of nationality and culture in the growth of the fine chocolate market.
Where an individual’s habitus lies is dependent on their perceived cultural and economic capital. This capital functions as a social currency, lending veracity to their perceived identity, be it as a ‘foodie,’ ‘gourmand,’ ‘conscious consumer’ or other informal title, cementing an individual’s place inside or outside of distinct groups. (Power, 1999) An individual’s food choices, in this case chocolate brands, reinforce their identity and allow them to explore other, tangential foodways with more comfort and familiarity. The intersection of economic and cultural capital is particularly informative in an analysis of chocolate brands as each is designed for a particular market. While the positions of brands along the axis may be of some debate, literature and marketing materials often guide it’s position by utilizing adjectives such as ‘luxury,’ ‘rustic’ or ‘bean to bar.’
For the purpose of this analysis, focus will be placed on the brands and approaches on the left side, High Cultural Capital with varying Economic Capital. Haute culture, if not cuisine, is by definition high in cultural capital as its purpose is to push the boundaries of sensory experience and offer unique, ephemeral products. Food choices made accordingly serve as evidence of ‘distinction,’ which “reflects the ability of dominant class factions to legitimate their tastes as superior.” (Johnston & Bauman, 2015) As illustrated, there are many brands that cluster in the top left corner, with High Economic capital. These products are advertised as expensive and luxurious. In this context, luxury can be defined as a product whose price exceeds the cost of raw materials, processing and labor. Fine cacao makes up only 5 -7 % of global production. (Martin & Sampeck, 2015) Its consumption indicates a desire to separate one’s experience from the challenges of the everyday. Within the world of chocolate, this means a simplification, or complete ignorance, of the harsh realities of cacao production.
C’est la vie…
The American approach to haute chocolate is as diverse as any other. Foodie culture has elevated chefs to rock-star status. As such, in 2018 one is as likely to encounter an acclaimed chef or chocolate producer who looks a bit different from a traditional, clean cut chocolatier. Tattoos, long beards and bespoke eyeglasses offer credence to the adept skill and alluring aloofness of urban chefdom. This approachability, itself a rebellion from rigidly structured hierarchies of French brigade styled kitchens, offers the transparency that consumers demand. Buzz words such as ‘bean to bar,’ ‘artisanal,’ and ‘chef inspired’ adorn many of commodity products. The Mast Brothers experience is an exceptional case study of the consequences of betraying this transparency.
In late 2015, a former employee who blogs for dallasfood.org under the name Scott, posted a blog that uncovered a betrayal of transparency by the Mast Brothers, operators of a specialty chocolate company that sold ten dollar bars of chocolate at Whole Foods. According to the author, commodity chocolate was being melted down and repackaged into luxury advertised bars. The follow up Quartz article blew the story up and the Mast Brothers became the poster boys for forged identities in the artisanal community. The placement of the product, in high end grocery stores, themselves suspect of duplicitous marketing, combined with a curated narrative about the ‘hipsterness’ of bar, offered little defense as the supposed transparency on offer became opaque. The backlash was swift and harsh, eventually leading to an apology and reintroduction of the product.
Right Image: Nick Zukin Twitter @extramsg
Left image: Mast Brothers Facebook
Taza chocolate is a craft chocolate producer based in Massachusetts. Their branding and sourcing heavily refers to Mesoamerican origins, minimal processing and Fair Trade sourcing. The chocolate itself remains slightly grainy, an effect usually eliminated in industrial processing, testifying to the rustic nature of the product. Taza offers a chocolate experience very different from luxury French and European Brands. Advertised as ‘stone ground organic direct trade’ their products offer a sensorial connection to Mesoamerican chocolate history cementing the consumer’s identity as a thoughtful ‘foodie’ if not a conscious consumer. Taza compounds their commitment to transparency and rusticity with tours of their manufacturing facility, with old timey equipment and informative guides. This producer is an example of the ‘rustic’ or unrefined American approach.
In any chocolate culture, Valentine’s Day is a special occasion. Heart shaped boxes of chocolate for any price point are available for gifting. It is no surprise that at the highest level of foodie distinction, The James Beard Foundation, would center chocolate consumption for the event. Enter Staten Island Chef Peter Botros and his team. Famous for his restaurant The Stone House at Clove Lakes, Chef Botros collaborated with the JBF for a themed titled ‘Dreaming in Chocolate’. A 7 course dinner for 175$ per person, the evening featured Seared Dayboat Scallop with Chocolate-Chestnut Cream, Potato Crisps, and cocao nibs and other creative chocolate expressions. This event is one of many collaborative efforts between institutions and individuals that celebrate and market the chocolate experience.
Chocolate competitions, courses, books and best practice videos further explore the collaborative nature of American haute chocolate. Working with certifying bodies such as USDA organics, The Rainbow Coalition and Fair Trade emphasize the transparency and minimal processing that offers a more rustic experience typify the American approach.
C’est la guerre…
French haute cuisine needs little introduction. France it is often claimed is home to the best wine, the best cheese and the best bread. An encounter with any Francophile will bear this out. However, the French approach to haute chocolate bifurcates from the American approach in a number of ways. Examples of the competitive nature, refinement and luxurious identities offered by French chocolatiers contrast with those of American producers is telling ways.
French chocolate bars and advertisements market the luxury of French chocolate through visceral imagery. Gold script, royal velvet and dark shiny tones offer justification for the high prices of luxury bars. An extreme example of this is the famous Jean Paul Hevin chocolate stiletto, featured in BBC production ‘Chocolate Perfection with Michel Roux Jr”. Produced by hand, in one size and for only the right foot, this chocolate product blurs the line between food and art. The creation is demonstrative of refined skills of the chocolatier. Its image practically screams ‘SEX’ and its lack of purpose pushes its existence into one of pure ostentation. This product would be unthinkable using the methods and consistency of a rustic chocolate, such as Taza and pedigreed chefs rely on relationships with the most refined legacy chocolate producers in France.
Refined chocolate producer Valhrona based in Tain l’Hermitage outside of Lyon, France is one of the leading producers of gastronomic chocolate. Their products offer elite levels of distinction with a legacy dating from 1922. (Coe & Coe, 1996) A central player in haute chocolate, Valhrona has a robust sourcing plan, has established chocolate schools, and is based in one of the richest wine cultures in Europe. As such, they were one of the first to offer chocolate in the cru, grand cru, and premier cru varieties, highlighting the value of the terroir expressed in their chocolate. By using adjectives familiar to audiences with an excess of cultural and economic capital, Valhrona’s refined approach to chocolate typifies the pride and mastery of knowledge demanded by French haute chocolate. The institutional investment in chocolatiers and their craft is shared with official national recognition.
The Mielleur Ouvrier de France, MOF, is awarded to the ‘best craftsmen of France’ and typifies the competitive nature of French haute chocolate. Rather than compete against others, this competition invites only French chocolatiers to compete against their own skills. Preparations take months or years, the winners are selected by former MOFs, and each competition may offer none or many awards. The award is offered to other craft industries as well, but few are as compelling or tempting as the chocolatiers. This competitive nature, designed to weed out the unworthy, is distinct
As illustrated in the diagram above, French and American chocolate distinctions differ in a number of ways. The central overlap, that of price, exoticity, specialty and terroir, form core values from which the cultures begin to bifurcate. These adjectives, among others, describe shared distinctions, realms where haute chocolate is intrinsically valued, fetishized and subject to the highest levels of cultural and economic capital. An analysis of French and American examples of haute chocolate yields different yet related levels of distinction.
These differences can be juxtaposed to fully illustrate and expose a dichotomy of distinction. Collaborative vs competitive, rustic vs refined and transparent vs luxurious are just a few of the bifurcated approaches to chocolate and the core values that make up their relative haute culture. The American approach is market based, placing emphasis on the quality, economic value and artisanal specialization of small ‘bean to bar’ companies who place equal importance on the genesis of the cacao as well as the locality of the producer, collaborating with certifying bodies to enhance the veracity of their claims. The French models emphasizes a more competitive approach where the chocolatier is subject to communally agreed upon standards, exemplified in the MOF and artisan guilds. The American ‘bean to bar’ isolates a particular geography, culture and terroir and the artisans strive to express that sense of place through minimal industrialization often to the detriment of texture, color or perceived sweetness. Conversely, French legacy brands, such as Valhrona, often refine the raw product, blending it with other select varieties of plant and geography to create a specialized flavor, emphasizing the elite-ness, luxury and unique qualities of specialty varieties.
Critically, the transparent and luxurious approaches to haute chocolate may be the most illustrative of the distinct dichotomies. American chocolate bars often prominently feature recognized symbols of transparency. Affiliations with USDA Organics, Fair Trade, Free Trade the Rainforest Alliance offer cultural capital to the consumers that reflects their personal core values and communicates to themselves and others that they are concerned with the class struggles and systemic inequities inherent in the cacao trade. Conversely, French chocolate bars rely much more heavily on images of luxury. French chocolate production is more closely related to national legacy; one removed from the conflicted history of colonialism and offers a product with a value that exceeds the costs of raw materials and the human labor used to produce it.
Both chocolate cultures have evolved foodways that reflect cultural values inherent in wider social and economic spheres. (Meigs, 1997) The arguments of the analysis herein could very well be extrapolated and transposed onto similar products, such as bread, cheese or wine. Chocolate holds a special place in this reflection because the raw material, cacao, is not grown in the US or in France. Both carry with them a burdened class legacy and have had a historic hand in oppressive economic systems that relied on exploitation and enslavement. Future research could examine how haute chocolate deals with these legacies differ between nations, however both mold the perception of the consumer based on external values already inherent in their respective cultures.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 2005. “Taste of Luxury, Taste of Necessity.” In The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink, edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer, pp. 72-78. New York: Berg
Coe & Coe, 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London p259
Johnston & Bauman. 2015. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. p32 Routledge, London & New York
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. 2015. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. socio.hu. The Social Meaning of Food, Special Issue in English 3: 37-60
Meigs, Anna. 1997. Food as a Cultural Construction. Food and Foodways 2(1): 431-457.
Power, Elaine M. 1999. An Introduction to Pierre Bourdieu’s Key Theoretical Constructs. Journal for the Study of Food and Society 3