Meet the man who lives outside chocolate box. Born with a love of speed, Patrick Roger dreamed of becoming a professional motorcyclist. He was destined for a life in chocolate instead.
At 44, Roger is one of France’s distinguished chocolatiers and a master of refined excellence. Driven by the idea of perfection, but never at the expense of taste, Roger sources fair-trade chocolate and exotic ingredients from about 30 countries worldwide, from Scotland to Papua New Guinea. (Is a carbon footprint in the name of chocolate-covered decadence excusable?) He mixes the cacao with flavors such as citrus fruit, ginger root, jasmine, passion fruit, and beer. Arguably, at least some of these are ingredients you wouldn’t typically associate with cacao.
The first time Roger laid eyes on a slab of cacao he knew that he could use it as a sculpting material. Hence, he’s shaped numerous giant pieces of chocolate into sweet and provocative wonders. In 2000, his creativity and skill landed him the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a prestigious national award created in 1924 to celebrate exemplary craftsmen in various fields.
“Patrick is a man who loves to think outside the (chocolate) box,” says Michael Allcock, director of Semisweet: Life in Chocolate, a documentary that highlights three very different livelihoods based around the cacao plant.
But Roger is more than an artist. He’s an activist, too, using chocolate to bring awareness to environmental issues. While he’s fashioned outrageous things like an entire chocolate hotel suite for Karl Lagerfeld, he’s also cultivated a bit of a reputation for sculpting various animals on the edge of extinction, including elephants, hippos, bears, and — near and dear to my own heart — our beloved honeybees.
What drew Allock to Roger was his conscience. Allcock says most of the big-time chocolatiers he’s met are driven by their business, whereas Rogers is conscious of his footprint, his actions, and, ultimately, who he is on the grander scale of life.
“He is also concerned about becoming too big and famous and losing touch with his country roots and the simplicity of life,” Allcock says. “Throw into the mix his healthy ego, his love to ride full speed in his sports car, motorcycle, and helicopter, and you’ve got an intensely interesting subject.”
Chips To Chocolate
Patrick Roger was born in Le Poislay, a small village nestled in the woods of central France. “If you consider that I came from a place of about 80 souls, a life in chocolate-making is utopic,” says Roger in an email to me, composed in his native French.
Le Poislay is just two hours southwest of Paris by car, nonetheless it’s an entirely different world. Roger didn’t see canned foods until he was a teenager. Instead, he grew up eating directly from the garden. Roger has preserved that tradition by tending his own garden, where he grows mint, lemongrass, and basil. Meanwhile, since his grandpa was a beekeeper, and Roger keeps 10 hives that produce honey which he then infuses in his confections. He’s even created a chocolate named “Bee,” made with ganache (cream) and honey.
Despite preserving some of the traditions of his youth, Roger lends the impression that life in Le Poislay wasn’t quite fast enough for him. He was restless and bored. There were no movies to watch or castles to visit, he recollects. The highlight was the annual cross-country motorcycle race that he and his dad attended faithfully since he was a tyke.
At school, Roger was a horrible student. He spent more time in the corner than in his seat. Finally in grade eight, the entire class flunked and his parents yanked him out of class and put him to work at their village bakery.
“So much for life as Easy Rider,” he says nostalgically. With school by the wayside, the road now veered sharply toward a carrier in pastry baking. “I did not have a choice. My parents decided for me.” Roger was 16.
It would be a while before Roger could afford the motorcycle of his dreams, but until then his parents bought him a 125 cm3 scooter and sent him to the neighboring town of Châteaudun for training. “A boost from fate appeared two years later,” he recalls.
Pierre Mauduit, a famous pastry chef took note of his attention to detail, artistic eye, and technical skill. Mauduit hired Roger — now 18 — as an apprentice. Soon enough, Roger’s need for speed overtook him again, and he turned to chocolate.
“I realized chocolate would fulfill all my dreams. It was my passport to the world,” says Roger, who admits to eating between 40 and 60 chocolates a day.
According to the Châteaudun, Americans alone consume an average 11.7 pounds of chocolate each year. The worldwide consumption meanwhile increases at an annual rate of 2 to 3 percent.
But even though chocolate is the world’s No. 1 sweet, it was never meant to be candy. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs worshipped cacao as a powerful food and associated it with fertility. Cacao beans sustained warriors in battle and were so precious, in fact, that they were used as a currency until the peso was introduced in 1886. When science took it upon itself to give the cacao tree a name, it chose Theobrama cacao, which means “food of the gods.” Raw cacao is certainly high in antioxidants, flavonoids, sulfur, and magnesium.
The more modern history of cacao is rich and bittersweet. Today, the majority of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa, specifically the Ivory Coast. Since the pods sprout out of the actual tree, cacao is harvested by cutting the pods with a machete. That’s a lot of backbreaking manual labor. After watching Semi Sweet, I learned that some big chocolate companies have been accused of illegal child and forced labor. Nestlé, Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, and Phillip Morris are the five largest makers of milk chocolate.
It’s because of these abuses that Roger is committed to purchasing only fair-trade cacao. In 2000, when Roger was named “Best French Chocolatier,” it was for creating “Harold,” a life-sized cocoa farmer in a wide-brimmed hat, squatting and handling a cocoa bean.
“Without cocoa producers, we don’t exist,” Roger says.
Roger, who is devoted to creating scrumptious chocolates that seduce and make you fall in love, half jokes that he will be buried in a coffin made of chocolate. Today, the French Willy Wonka produces 6 million pieces of chocolate a year throughout his several boutiques in Paris, as well as in Île-de-France and Brussels. He also has an online store to complement his storefront, where he routinely rotates his edible art offerings.
Meanwhile, Roger’s chocolate sculptures, now cast in bronze, are on display in a new gallery adjoining his workshop in Sceaux and in the latest boutique gallery in Place de la Madeleine.
“I owe everything to chocolate,” Roger says. “It is a means of communication, and it unites people.”