Interview with the First Lady of Chocolate, Alice Medrich

Alice Medrich is a legend in the pastry department. Dubbed “The First Lady of Chocolate,” Alice is a two-time winner of the coveted James Beard "Cookbook of the Year" award and was nominated again last year for her book, "Pure Desserts." Her work has had a ripple effect throughout the nation's top pastry chefs.

In 2008, I was invited to judge the Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon, and Alice graciously agreed to give me some tips. What follows..touches on everything from the art of tasting chocolate to molecular gastronomy and an eye-opening discussion on various ingredients.

Alice has style and substance, and a careful study of her work reveals a wealth of information.

TS: This year for the first time, Seattle is hosting Taste TV’s Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon and I’ve been invited as a judge. I would love to talk with you about chocolate and your experience. When I bake and test recipes and my palate gets blown out so early. With that in mind, I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to work my way around this event.

AM: I haven’t done a huge amount of that kind of judging but I do know that…what I’m going to say is contradictory. On the one hand, trust yourself and your first taste. Then I’m also going to say, sometimes when you go back around, things taste different. For most judging and contests, a huge amount of what you’re going to taste is not going to be as good as the small amount of things that are really should be the focus of your attention…at the top. So you go around and just eliminate. You determine, “No, no, no.” Then you go back to the better things that capture your attention.

It means really teeny tiny little tastes. If it’s chocolate, it means a little warm water. Sometimes I’ve used things like matzo or unsalted, unflavored crackers to clear up your palate.

I was chatting with a really good friend of mine who used to work in my stores with me way back, and she told me something I just never paid attention to or never knew about. When she felt like she was eating too much chocolate just from being around it so much, she used to eat an apple.

TS: Really?

AM: I’ve never tested it myself specifically but I was just remembering that she said that the other day. So I don’t know if that’s worth it. I’ve never seen that done in a tasting or anything.

Are you going to be rating, describing, and ranking [the chocolate]? Or are you just going to be running around picking what you think is best?

TS: I’m not sure what to expect at this point. Based on the other people participating, I don’t think that they’re expecting me to be too verbose on articulating the nuances. You know how you can describe chocolate with a lot of the characteristics similar to wine?

AM: I’m assuming that they want you for your impression. So it’s not like you have to be a highly skilled taster. You have a palate, you have opinions, you write about food and people are interested in what you think. Rather than be intimidated by the fact that it’s a chocolate tasting, just go in there with what you’ve got. Take the tiniest little tastes on the first go around – really tiny. Take the time that it takes. If you can give [the chocolate a sniff], and don’t write with a pencil or anything that’s going to make your hands smell.

TS: Oh! I didn’t think about that.

AM: Yes, pencil lead in your hand…will smell like graphite. If you try to smell the chocolate…cupped in your hand or warmed, you’re going to smell the graphite. And don’t wear any scented lotion. Keep your hand as neutral as you can so that you can get a sniff.

TS: That’s good to know.

AM: You know that technique of warming a little piece of chocolate and rubbing it with your thumb or something, where it gets a little melted so you can smell it? And cup it around your nose? And when you get [the chocolate] in your mouth, rub it with your tongue against your palate with minimal chewing at first to let it kind of melt…rather than just chew, chew, chew, swallow. When you’re tasting, you’re going slow and paying attention. With chocolate, you want to get that melting going on.

TS: That makes sense.

AM: Just go slow. Don’t let all the pressure and the people distract you—otherwise you’re going to end up eating more than you want to get your impression. Do whatever you have to do to stay focused…whether that means turning around and closing your eyes. I’ve seen people do all kinds of stuff to blank out the hub bub in the room. Who knows if you’re going to do this in a quiet setting with just the judges or you’re going to be mingling with people. We don’t know that, right? I know that I always, always eat more than I want when I’m too distracted and not paying attention. And when I let any kind of stress around who else is there get in the way.

Then there’s the whole thing about whether you start out with the sweeter varieties and work towards the bitter, or not. That’s controversial.

TS: What are your thoughts on that?

AM: I’ve gone different ways. If you start with the sweeter chocolates, as you taste more bittersweet, it heightens the bitterness. But conversely, if you start with the bittersweet, and then move towards the sweet…they’re going to taste really sweet. And actually, I switched my preference over the years. Either way, it’s going to intensify the other experience by making one end of it too sweet or one end too bitter. What else can I tell you?

TS: Everybody is doing truffles and bars. Do you find that there’s a difference with truffles, should I be paying attention to the exterior vs. the interior?

AM: Oh my god, you mean you’re going to be tasting confections too?

TS: Yes. That too.

AM: And bars?

TS: Yes.

AM: Okay, let me think about a few things if you’re tasting confections. Oh, that’s really hard.

TS: Yes, because there’s a huge difference right? Sometimes the filling is good but the exterior is off, and there’s the snap and a number of factors to consider, right?

AM: On confections, if you were writing about them, you’d be descriptive and you would notice, “I love this filling but I feel it could be offset better.” I mean, you can notice all that stuff but if you’re judging, you’re judging on the overall success of the piece and how it all goes together.

Going back to what I was thinking before, I’m thinking it would be best to start with the bittersweet and go to the sweet. If you could do the confections after the bars, that might be better because the confections are going to have sweeter fillings--they’re going to have caramel, toffee, and ganache and all that kind of stuff. I’m tempted to say even though it’s all going to taste sweeter in the end, you’ll still want to finish with the sweet. I hope, with a break.

TS: That’s what I’m hoping for too. You know, I was reading in Sherry Yard’s book and she mentioned that her staff carries toothbrushes with them at work, so they can cleanse their palate throughout the day. So I’m packing a toothbrush. And you mentioned hot water? What’s the deal about hot water?

AM: If you sit down at a chocolate tasting, normally the glass of water that’s there to cleanse your palate will not be cold water. Because there’s so much fat in chocolate, it coats your tongue. The reasoning is that the warm water helps to get [the fat] off your palate. If [this event] is a wandering around kind of thing, maybe you should microwave your water. Don’t go for cold water.

TS: I’ve got a couple more questions for you, if you don’t mind?

AM: Go ahead.

TS: I’m curious to know…how do you keep up on your skills? What do you do to build you’re A game? I know you’re writing and tasting, but what are you working on these days?

AM: I am writing more cookbooks, but for tasting I think you just keep on doing it and paying attention to it. I also notice since I’ve been doing this for a really, really long time, it’s gotten important for me to pay attention to all the younger voices. We’re learning from all these new tasters coming in who have a different palate and grew up with different flavors and who are sensitive in different ways. I find that an infusion of new information for me…helps to pay attention differently.

TS: How do you get access to those people that you’re learning from?

AM: You talk to them, or meet them at different places. You don’t assume that everyone you meet doesn’t have something new to offer because you’ve been in the business for so long. I have a daughter who is younger and I’ve had younger assistants. I started noticing it when my assistants were younger and I thought they were really smart. So I started paying attention to the kinds of things that they were noticing. And as a result, I really like having much younger assistants. All of this contact with all the new people, and bloggers are one way for those of us who are a lot older--because there weren’t blogs, first of all, so there’s a whole bunch of people now weighing in on stuff who wouldn’t have had a stage to do that.

TS: Whose blog do you read?

AM: I’m embarrassed to say I’m totally new. I can’t even give you a list. It started out with me meeting them and getting curious. So I met you at the party in Seattle, and I met Molly (Orangette), and Matthew Amster-Burton (Roots & Grubs) and people like that. But I’m really not that savvy with all the blogs, I’m really not. I’m way more open to it than I was…because I realize how important it is and what those people are doing, seeing, tasting, eating.

TS: I heard you had a chance to spend some time with my friend Dana Cree while you were in town?

AM: Oh yeah! Dana…you see…there’s a good example. When I have the opportunity to meet the younger pastry chefs, I really pay attention to what they’re up to and what they’re excited about because it’s like bringing in fresh air. It’s impossible to keep up with everything now, I think. So that’s a way, you [keep up with things] though other people.

TS: I agree. And it’s interesting to bring everyone together because Dana adds a whole new perspective. She’s done a stage with the pastry chef at WD50 in New York and she worked at The Fat Duck. And I’m fascinated by her interest in molecular gastronomy.

AM: I got excited when I talked with her about [molecular gastronomy] because I thought “Ah well, that’s what these other guys are doing and I’m not doing that. I’m not so interested.” But after talking with her, I did get interested. Also because Elizabeth Faulkner is an inspiration.

TS: Your book (“Pure Desserts”) talks about the interaction of flavors and how the ingredients work together. Molecular gastronomy addresses that too, they just take it to another level.

AM: It’s true.

TS: When I made this pumpkin ice cream from Saveur, the texture was just incredible. Dana pointed out that the starch in the pumpkin makes a big difference. If I remember right, one of your recipes also has starch in it. Is that right?

AM: Yes, the Sicilian gelato-style. I’m crazy about that. I think starch is a fascinating way to get creaminess without fat and extra stuff, you know?

TS: I agree. Dana was telling me they made a taro ice cream at WD50 and you know taro has a high starch content. After then, they started putting starch in all their ice creams to get that texture. The texture in that pumpkin ice cream was unbelievable…I’m so excited about that.

AM: I’m excited to try some other substances that have starch in them, or fiber. With that pumpkin ice cream, you’ll notice that fiber has the same outcome as starch. That’s why mango sorbet is so creamy, because the mango is so fibrous and I imagine the pumpkin would be the same way. And I’m really big on the thing that’s the opposite of what everyone is saying…is that less fat makes more flavor, to a certain extent. Doing ice creams [with starch or fiber] is a way to achieve that and I really enjoy it.

TS: I’m glad you said that. I’ve been making a lot of ice creams and sorbets and I find that I’m happier with the flavor on the sorbets, more than I am on a lot of the ice creams.

AM: Yes, the flavor is so much brighter and cleaner. And sherbets, too. I’ve rediscovered sherbets because they’re kind of in between [gelato and ice cream] and they still have those really bright, clean flavors. It’s just a constant exploration and discovery.

TS: Do you travel out of the country much for your work?

AM: I haven’t much. A lot of my beginning was because I was out of the country and exposed to different ideas, different ways of doing things and new ways of thinking in France, but that was a long time ago. I love to travel; I just haven’t done any recently.

TS: I was just reading a book called “The Culture Code” and they were discussing the impact culture plays on various aspects. For example, he says that Americans basically kill their cheese. It’s pasteurized and mummified in plastic. I was just wondering if you’ve had any experience on a pastry level from that perspective.

AM: I definitely resonate with the cheese talk because there are certain cheeses that I never buy here because I have such a total memory of eating them where they are originally made and they’re so much better. I just don’t bother buying them here because of the disappointment level. Although we have some wonderful cheese makers doing some wonderful things here too. But on the pastry and dessert level…

TS: I was thinking about how France has various different butters…”dry butter” vs. regular butter.

AM: France has all those different gradations of things and the ingredients are used for different purposes. That’s fascinating. We don’t have a highly developed sense of it yet. That’s interesting. I’d forgotten about the butter.

TS: I’m intrigued by the different flours you’ve been using.

AM: I love to use these alternate flours as flavor ingredients and the fact that they taste delicious as opposed to “Oh you’re supposed to eat these.” I’m not trying to sneak these flours into desserts as a form of “stealth health” but the different varieties of flour impart much more dynamic flavors.

Back to your question, you know, there are some places that have such an appreciation for simplicity that we still don’t have here. One example that comes to mind: A few weeks ago, in our San Francisco paper, Janet Fletcher—she’s a lovely writer who writes articles and cookbooks and has a great profile, she has a regular cheese column and another column in the San Francisco Chronical food pages.

And she was writing about a really common recipe in Italy-- a really simple sautéed steak that is served over arugula and drizzled with a little olive oil. And she wrote about it—she wrote very well about it and the deliciousness of the meat and how the juices mingle with the salad and the oil and maybe there’s a little vinegar, I forget, but it just creates this wonderful, simple dish.

Then she interviewed chefs around town who were doing versions of this and reproduced some of the recipes. But what she said was that for all of the chefs, the really simple, incredible version that you get in Italy is just too simple for the American public.

TS: It doesn’t sell?

AM: It’s just that they do more to it. Chefs have to make it a little bit more involved and more complex to sell. And they sell out of it, but they don’t do it in that pristinely simple way that the Italians do. I find that to be true about a lot of food that comes over here. It gets translated into an American version…and sometimes—this is shocking to me—that the American version gets translated back to Europe, so you get a more American-style of things that used to be European. A good example from the old, old days…you know that really simple baguette sandwich in France? It was just a split baguette with butter and a really thin layer of really good ham or salami. Just thin, overlapping rounds of salami—not like 2 inches of meat, and that was a fabulous sandwich! A really good baguette, really good butter, maybe some mustard, and a really thin layer of some good ham or salami or some delicious cheese. It was all beautifully balanced.

Americans have to have their sandwiches chock full of meat—you know 2 inches of meat! The deli sandwich where they have to add tomato, lettuce, mayo and all of those things. Now when you go to France, you see this American-ized version of sandwiches with many more things in it. The bread’s not as good anymore and the whole pristine concept is just lost.

TS: It’s funny, the chef I used to work with…he loves serving crudos and everything is very simply prepared. What’s interesting to me is how hard that guy has to work to get his inventory because he actually changes his menu every single day, depending on what is available. Not only is that stressful, but he’s got a constant flow of purveyors coming through the door. If he receives mushrooms at 3:00, they’re on the menu by 5:00. The fact that he’s doing an exquisitely simple preparation helps make doing that kind of menu easier.

AM: Right, but you have to have the guts to do it…and you have to have the perfection of ingredients.

The other story that comes to mind is, a couple years ago, I took my 80 year old mother to Italy and we’re meandering around the market…it has fruits and vegetables and it has bras and girdles on one end and miscellaneous cookware, whatever. It was one of those outdoor markets that you see in towns all over Europe and we’re walking along and we see this truck and the truck is selling pork sandwiches. And it’s mid-morning but you know…it’s pork sandwiches. It’s a specialty from this region, we should get this.

We go over and here’s this big hunk of pork and it seems to have herbs around it, but he’s slicing it and putting it on the plainest bread. There’s no sauce. No lettuce, tomato or anything like that. He’s putting these sandwiches together with nothing but this meat on the bread and I thought, “We mide as well try it. We’ll get one, cut it in half and eat while we wander around the market. It will be our mid-morning snack.” He gives it to us and you know, I don’t have high expectations –it looks so, so, so plain.

My mother and I are walking along and suddenly I realize, there’s been several minutes of silence. We’re both eating our sandwiches. I look over to her and say, “It’s really good, isn’t it?” She said, “It’s terrific!”

And it was just this wonderful herbed pork that had probably been cooked long and slow and it was just sliced and put on plain rolls and that’s all it was. It was just everything it was supposed to be!

TS: I agree. I had a similar experience in the International District recently. It was nothing but crispy skin pork, but it was fabulous!

One other thing I’m curious about is how you develop your palate?

AM: There are plenty of people with good palates who have been brought up on horrible food. I think it just all adds up and maybe your genes are helpful in predicting what you’re going to be sensitive to and what you’re going to notice and what’s going to appeal to you. I think your palate is about a lot of experiences. Just keep tasting.