For Fiamma Chocolate's first ever 'Meet Your Maker' interview, I caught up with Cynthia Leung from SOMA Chocolatemaker in Toronto, Canada. Cynthia and her partner David starting making bean-to-bar chocolate in 2003, and they were instrumental in the rise of craft chocolate throughout Canada and internationally. SOMA is arguably one of the best chocolate makers in the world and I'm personally a huge fan of their incredible creations, so it was amazing to catch up with Cynthia and learn more about this amazing business...
What were you doing before making chocolate, and what led you to it?
I was working in architecture and David was a pastry chef. We were both working crazy hours and never saw each other, so we took a leap of faith and decided to start a small chocolate business together. Our initial business plan was ambitious - to make chocolate from the bean, make bars, truffles, confections, hot chocolate, gelato, bake... we wanted to do it all from the get go because we were so excited about starting a business together. I'm happy we did.
You were one of the earliest craft chocolate makers on the scene. How has the chocolate industry changed since you first started?
In the beginning we would call up cacao bean suppliers and they would say, "You're from Canada? And you only want one bag of beans?" - laughter then click, ha ha. Bertil Akesson was actually the first to take a chance on us by selling us a couple bags of his Madagascar beans.
Now the industry has evolved and with the explosion of makers around the world, there are more small farms growing fine flavoured cacao from more countries, plus more makers of small-scale chocolate making equipment, and generally more community, which is very nice.
Compared to the beginning, I imagine you now make chocolate on a larger scale with bigger machines. How has that affected your process and products?
Gone are the days of making our own Frankenstein winnowers. Our first purchase was a melangeur, which is still in use now. The capacity of the machines is not that much more than our first line, but we have saved up to be able to buy better machines. The process is more organised now and our chocolate tastes better.
I believe you paint the artwork for your chocolate wrappers. How do you decide how to visually represent the chocolate?
Yes, I do. I let the story of the cacao (people, place, emotional centre, genetics, history) marinate with the tasting notes of the chocolate and fuse them together into a painting. This involves research, talking to people linked to the origin, and eating A LOT of chocolate!
How does your location affect and influence your business?
We started out in an architecturally beautiful old Whisky Distillery. Initially the landlord filled 30 buildings with artists and makers, so it has a nice feel to it. The area attracts a lot of tourists - it's fun meeting people from around the world and peeps are super relaxed because they're usually on vacation. We make most of our confections here and we have a small gelato kitchen.
Our King Street shop is in the middle of the city in an old fashion district warehouse. We built out a sunny bakery to bake in, and that's also where we make all our truffles. It has a nice inner city vibe. A lot of regulars at this location live and work in the area.
Our newest factory location is in the middle of a residential area. It's more intimate; we love saying hi to our neighbours and feeding the dogs coming into work. This is where the cacao beans are made into chocolate for everything at all three locations. We have a moulding line here that makes all our chocolate bars. The factory is designed so that all the chocolate making steps are in full view. There's a very chill small factory shop and a place to do tastings and tours. It's where David and I work from, coming up with seasonal and new products.
We are deeply proud to be Canadian chocolate makers.
What would be your core piece of advice for a new chocolate maker?
It's ok to make mistakes, but don't release your mistakes - the value is in the learning. Start small and learn all the intimacies and nuances by doing things over and over. Be patient with the process - it takes time.
Which of your chocolate bars are you most proud of?
Porcelana, Guasare, Old School, and our fruit chocolate. All these bars signify breakthrough moments for us.
The Porcelana and Guasare both won best chocolate bar at the International Chocolate Awards, but more importantly it was the journey of finally working with these rare beans. The Porcelana we waited 12 years to finally get a single bag of, and the Guasare because of what it meant for cacao farmers in Venezuela, a country at its peak of turmoil. The first time working with both beans was treated with the utmost reverence. Very precious.
When we set out to make a raspberry bar in 2015, we really wanted the experience of eating a handful of raspberries in a chocolate bar. We did a lot of tests and experiments and were not totally happy with the results, until one day we thought 'why do we need the milk component, it's interfering with the flavour.' The test without the dairy made the flavours sing and thus our fruit collection was born. There wasn't any bar like that out at the time (it was before Valrhona).
The Old School was more simple. We were always snacking on the chocolate paste coming out of the melangeur, so we thought 'let's release this as a bar so we can snack more easily!' Old School has a very interesting and fun texture.
What's the best chocolate bar you've tasted in the past year?
David really loves the licorice caramel bar. We just came off Easter and I've been eating a lot of grapefruit brown sugar chocolate.
If money and logistics were no obstacle, which cacao origin would you love to work with?
It's amazing how many new little farms and growing regions have popped up in the past 10 years. There's a very vibrant array of beans being offered - we have some very cool samples we are testing now.
What's your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
People!! Our team, fellow chocolate makers, cacao growers, educators. We love this community. We also love how chocolate is endlessly fluid - it lets us time travel to the future, to the past, and to other countries every day. It's a crazy, wonderful world.
Thanks so much to Cynthia for taking the time to answer these questions. Be sure to check out SOMA in our online store.