What kind of magic does it take to turn a young South African accountant into a chocolatier? If that’s a question that keeps you awake at night, Greyton’s Richard von Geusau would be the one to ask.
Nineteen years ago, he decided to escape the corporate rat race in favour of a less-hurried, easy-going small-town lifestyle. And then, entirely by chance, he fell under the spell of chocolate, which has since become an all-consuming passion – turning this essentially European ‘food of the gods’ into one with a uniquely African twist.
Unlike Willy Wonka’s wildly whacky workplace, Richard’s chocolate factory is a picture of organised efficiency, but the hedonistic scent of chocolate swirls around you like a comfort blanket and the sight of neat rows of chocolate logs, tempting truffles, cherry wedges, miniature gold bars and slabs in every possible flavour are enough to start your mouth watering and your senses reeling. And like many other successful enterprises, it all started with a book picked up casually in a bookstore.
The book was by Chantal Coady, the renowned doyenne of all things chocolatey, owner of Rococo Chocolates in London. He made contact with her, asking where he could learn to be a chocolatier. Thanks to some string-pulling on her part and a personal visit to the factory of the famous Callebaut chocolate-makers of Belgium, he managed to secure a place for himself on one of their courses (only one student is selected from each continent per course). He subsequently attended another course at the even more famous Valrhona Chocolat in the South of France. For the rest, he is self-taught, he says and finds great fulfilment in experimenting with new flavours and techniques.
Richard still sources much of his couverture from these two highly-regarded suppliers. Whatever form his chocolates take, he knows the base material will guarantee their quality. He is very much a hands-on chocolatier, focusing on product development and experimenting with new flavours and textures, while his six assistants, most of whom have been with him since the beginning, handle the day-to-day production process under his supervision.
Although people come from near and far to sample von Geusau chocolates in his small shop on the premises of the Oak and Vigne Restaurant in Greyton, his primary thrust is no longer towards retail sales. He continues to supply old customers, like Cape Dry in Kleinmond and the Ou Meul Bakkery and Grootbos in Stanford, as well as a small selection of outlets in Cape Town, but his main focus now is on the top-end hospitality industry. In some cases, he supplies them with specially-branded chocolates for their guests and in others, they prefer to feature his own brand.
In Hermanus, for example, Birkenhead House is one of his clients and in Cape Town, the new 5-star Silo Hotel at the Waterfront has recently come on board. There is even an hotel in the Seychelles which is supplied by him.
Another niche he has made his own is wine pairing. When Richard started his business, he was one of a very limited number of artisanal chocolatiers in the country and his iconic relationship with Waterford Wines broke new ground. He created special chocolate brands to pair with their wines and still regularly tweaks his offerings as new vintages are produced. “There is a similarity in the production of cocoa beans and grapes which has to do with the terroir of origin,” he points out, “and the trick is to match them so that they enhance each other to perfection. With Cabernet, for example, the amount of salt contained in the chocolate is critical.”
These days wine pairings are a dime a dozen, but not all of them are of an equally high standard, he says, which is unfortunate, because it tarnishes the image of the experience. What he is finding particularly fascinating, though, is creating pairings with other products, like whisky, brandy, port and gin. At the moment rum is becoming a hot property and there are definitely pairing possibilities there. As Richard adds, though, Greyton is not exactly at the centre of the honey pot, so it has taken years of building the von Geusau brand to the point of recognition it now enjoys.
Over the years he has been in the business, Richard has not noticed much change in taste preferences, although at the moment, both salt and pear seem to be enjoying some resurgence; a few years ago it was chilli. However, he is never happy to rest on his laurels, and is constantly experimenting with new recipes. The current sensation is ruby chocolate, which is produced by Callebaut. It is not artificially coloured in any way, but is made from hybrid cocoa beans of that colour, with a slightly acidic, fruity flavour.
He is very excited that a new Chocolate Academy opened its doors in Fourways near Johannesburg last year. Up to now, there has been nowhere in this country where it was possible to train as a chocolatier. And, in the meantime, the use of chocolate in cooking is becoming increasingly popular. For the past couple of years he has enjoyed participating in the Inter Hotel Challenge by Showcook, organised by Annette Kesler, the doyenne of foodie journalism. It is a competition for the top hotel chefs in the country, ending in a huge banquet and major prize-giving at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Sponsored by top companies like Tsogo Sun and Distell, Richard has also managed to get a foot in the door, as the chocolate sponsor. “The media coverage is extensive and the world is the oyster of any prizewinning chef,” he comments.
So has all the hard work and the fight for recognition for a brand from the rural hinterland of the Western Cape been worth it? Especially since Richard went there to escape the commercial rat race? “Oh my goodness, how can you even ask?” he laughs. “I am no longer a victim of the corporate world; I am the master of my own destiny and I love chocolate!”