Chocolate Interview - Karen Neugebauer
Now that the Dallas Chocolate Festival is over, I got a chance to catch up with Karen Neugebuare from Forte Chocolates. She had done an interesting presentation about taste and chocolate, and I wanted to find out more. Thanks, Karen, for chatting with me.
Q: What is the most exciting thing right now about bean to bar chocolate?
A: Bean to bar chocolate has many exciting things happening despite the challenges that the Pandemic brings. One of the best things is the access to open information that has never before been shared globally before. Prior to Covid, individuals had to go to conferences, shows, business summits, and the like to have access to industry information and one on one discussions with peers. Teleconferences and webinars that have sprung up from events turning into virtual affairs and the increased support from chocolate organizations like the FCIA and the Chocolate Alliance have crumbled many of the barriers to accessing industry knowledge. Without the high cost of travel, booth fees, re-arranging schedules, and transporting product to shows, many companies and individual bean to bar makers can participate in discussions like never before, especially when they don’t have to make the choice of attending a class/discussion or manning a booth selling bars to pay for the costs just to go to the industry event in the first place. Access to targeted industry knowledge and being able to personally ask questions/discuss topics with the experts can drastically shorten painful learning curves and save time, money, and frustration, especially when able to learn in a comfortable setting like home or their chocolate workshops.
Q: What did you do before you started Forte Chocolate, and how did you transition into the chocolate industry? Where did you get your passion for chocolate?
A: I had just graduated with 3 business degrees at University of Washington and was looking for what direction I wanted to take after delivering my 3rd of my now 5 children (yes, I attended UW and worked full time while pregnant and raising 2 little ones at home). But I ended up hurting my back bad enough to require me to take a year off of work to rehabilitate. Being an over-achiever and bored easily I decided that I needed to learn something during my downtime. I grew up on bland food and always wanted to learn how to cook so I contacted the Art Institute of Seattle culinary program. While there, I noticed that they also had a baking & pasty program. My husband loves chocolate and complicated pastries like baclava, so I signed up for baking program instead of the savory cooking program to soften the blow of my going back to school. We only touched chocolate twice during the year long program, but making a simple cream ganache hooked me like no other. I was mesmerized by the transformation chopped chocolate took when hot cream was poured over and then slowly stirred in. Not only did the texture turn from hard and lumpy to a silky smooth texture that was like velvet in my mouth, the depths of flavor that were revealed was mind blowing to me! I simply fell in love right there. Up to that point I really did not like chocolate that much as I found it dry and not very flavorful (yes I was not having the best kinds then). I have since learned so much about chocolate and have had the privilege of tasting and working with some of the world best chocolates, but making a simple ganache is still my favorite thing to make and taste in my chocolate kitchen to this day!
Q: How did you get into judging chocolates? Can you tell us a little about what that involves? What is the best part? The most challenging?
A: I can’t remember just how I first became a judge but I do remember having lots of people come to me for taste feedback for their chocolates. I have a distinct way of looking at and describing flavor. I was known for being able to create tasty, well balanced, and clean flavor profiles and somewhere along the way I started teaching flavor development. It helps that I am a super taster as well. The best part of being a judge is I get to see a broad section of the marketplace all at once! There are some amazing chocolates being made today. The most challenging is tasting all of the bad chocolate that is also submitted. Quite often I bite into a sample and taste a large defect that ruins my palate for hours. Chemical taints like bleach and gasoline are all too common unfortunately.
Q: What is your philosophy behind the chocolates you choose to work with, and how you choose flavor profiles to compliment them?
A: I taste a lot of great food and get inspired often. Once I have a favor profile that excites me, I then go to my chocolate library to pick and choose the best chocolates to help me achieve the best melody possible. I work with over 40 chocolates in-house because I don’t like to be pigeon holed into using a great chocolate that is just ok for the flavor I am trying to achieve. I want to work with a great chocolate that makes for an amazing pairing so I need options. It is a sourcing nightmare though.
Q: Tell us about your team. How do you all work together?
A: I a privileged to have an amazing team who are passionate about chocolate! We have a ton of fun together and never know just where this job will take us on any given day. We take the work very seriously but never ourselves.
Q: How do you design a new product?
A: Slowly. There are so many directions to take that are great but they rarely stand the test of time AND make people stop in their tracks when they taste it. We take shelf life tests very seriously. Most flavors just don’t hold meaning the they change too quickly over time. So when you make an amazing truffle or bar today, will it be just as amazing tomorrow or 6 weeks from now? Plus flavors must be so engaging that it steals the taster’s attention from whatever else they may be doing ad let’s them take a moment to truly enjoy the moment.
Q: What is the story behind the business name? What about the different lines of bars?
A: Forte is a musical term the means powerful/loud. I grew up with music and played 5 instruments: piccolo, flute, baritone, bassoon, and tuba. When I was looking for a name, I thumbed through the dictionary looking for something that was easy to spell, easy to pronounce, rememberable, looks great in typography, and one that I could connect personally too. Forte jumped out. It is super fitting because I later realized that I taste with music in mind. Literally. I hear music, notes, and tones as I taste. This led me to the tagline “A symphony of flavour in every bite!”
Q: What is one thing most people don’t know/realize/understand about craft chocolate?
A: That it is just in its infancy. I can not wait for what it will be in 20+ years!
Q: What are some of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do/places you’ve gotten to go because of chocolate?
A: I had a beer made just for me called the Forte Wit. It as made by Farmstrong brewery and sold at a local pizza chain as a way to raise awareness and funds for my self supported bicycle trip (just me and my dad) coast to coast across America celebrating life without limits even though I suffer from MS (multiple sclerosis) where I made it over 7 mountain passes before crashing just shy of half way to Boston. I have had the privilege of visiting and meeting Don Fortunato (of Fortunato #4) in Peru 2 months prior to Antony Bordaine being invited, touring farms that few people ever have access to in Brazil, meeting celebrities, and competing in the National Showpiece Championship (Atlanta Georgia). But that all pales to the best part, which is being included in the most special moments in people’s lives. My products have had the honor of being apart of all types of life’s moments like weddings, proposals, anniversaries, victories, loss acceptance, death bed requests and funerals, and even the first time a person (including grown adults) tried chocolate in their life. These moments big and small are truly precious and move me to tears when I hear about/experience them. Being able to touch someone’s life so profoundly is the greatest part of where chocolate takes me.
A: What is the best chocolate dessert you have ever tasted?
A: The one in front of me, especially if it was made for me out of love and I get to share the moment with someone who appreciates it as much as I do.
Q: What else would you like us to know?
A: Even though I may be one of the highest awarded Master Chocolatiers in the world today and surrounded by some of the finest chocolates available, I still love peanut M&M’s, biting the ear off of my kids chocolate easter bunnies, and eating frozen Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough balls. The point is that life is as fun as you make it, cheap chocolate can still taste good to you because of the feelings and memories it invokes (so never apologize for it even when you are a major foodie like me!), and there is no reason that you can’t let the kid inside you come out to play every day! Join me in Celebrating Life With Chocolate!
Visit Karen at her website at fortechocolates.com