While other kids bought football stickers, Stefan Bruderer collected chocolate wrappers. He was born to be a master chocolatier, says Esther McCarthy.
Stefan Bruderer knows the way to your lover’s heart. Sometimes it might involve a hint of chilli, on other occasions, the zest of lime.
Or maybe your loved one’s a traditionalist, for whom nothing beats the smell and crunch of freshly-roasted hazelnuts.
One food brings vibrancy to all of these ingredients — chocolate. And Stefan is the king of chocolate.
As master chocolatier at one of the world’s best-loved premium brands, Lindt, he is to chocolate what a great sommelier is to wine — he has the palate to develop new combinations and the curiosity to source the ingredient that will make them great.
He’s the man behind some of the most successful flavour combinations that have induced joy in chocoholics worldwide.
Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest for chocolate sales, though Stefan and his team spend two years or more developing new products before they come on to the market.
In a sense, his job was his destiny. He grew up within sight of the Lindt factory in Switzerland. His parents would send him to school with the traditional Swiss lunch of an apple, bread and chocolate.
When other children swapped football stickers, he collected chocolate wrappers and catalogued them in an album.
He looks much younger than his 40 years (“it’s the cocoa butter”, he insists).
And he freely admits that his is every bit as much of a dream job as it sounds.
“Everyone loves chocolate. Chocolate makes people happy and it’s the best job in the world because you can make people happy with something. There are ingredients, especially in dark chocolate, that can change your mood.
“At the age of six, I discovered for the first time that chocolate must be something very special. I was collecting chocolate wrappings when others were collecting coins or stamps or stickers.
“In Zurich there was an exhibition of extraordinary collections, and my mother borrowed the album to exhibit at the museum.”
The inspirational seeds of a career were sown, and Bruderer has worked in this creative side of food ever since, working initially as a pastry chef and studying food technology to help develop the knowledge and the perfectly honed palate that are essential to his job.
“First I did an apprenticeship as a pastry chef in a small town close to Zurich. It took me three years, you have to go to school one day a week and in addition to that I visited chocolatiers, because chocolate was the thing that fascinated me most from the beginning.
“I went to the college of art and design which is not directly to do with chocolate, but the creativity I learned from there.
"I studied food technology and one of the classes was all about tasting and sensory management. A lot of it’s about training.”
He worked as a pastry chef for a decade on the wealthy Gold Coast on the eastern shore of Lake Zurich. Creating cakes for wealthy clients for whom money was no object meant he could stretch the limits of his imagination.
“I had a lot of possibilities to do exciting things. Once, with a birthday cake a father brought for his son, there was a Ferrari on top.
"That was his birthday gift. The one on the cake was made of marzipan but he got a real Ferrari as well.”
He moved into his favourite medium, working for an industrial chocolate maker before being head hunted by his current employer. Because of the culture in which he grew up, it always seemed like a career possibility, he says.
“Chocolate is a daily food in Switzerland. Going to school you’d get an apple or banana, bread, and chocolate. You can do almost anything but you need to consider a few things working with chocolate.
"Temperature is very important — it’s difficult or almost impossible to work with chocolate if room temperatures are over 25 or 26 degrees celsius.”
Working in exploring and developing new products, he is responsible for a team of sixty master chocolatiers, and is fixated on finding new tastes and flavour combinations.
Different ranges are created for different countries and tastes and trends vary greatly — mint chocolate, for example, is extremely popular in Ireland and the UK, but virtually unheard of in Switzerland.
“I eat chocolate all day! I’m not kidding, because tasting is the only way I can know which ingredients work best together. When I travel I’m always visiting local markets to try and find new ingredients. I’m always chasing for new ingredients, which is an important part of my job.
“I try everything and imagine when it can work with chocolate.”
He loves how what he does brings an almost giddy pleasure to others. The actor Jack Black, for example, requested a tour when in Switzerland, and behaved with all the wonder and enthusiasm of Charlie in the chocolate factory.
“He came for a tour with the producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. We went to the factory with him as well, and he was able to visit where we make the Lindor balls.
“Afterwards, he came back in looking for his lab coat. He had stolen some Lindor balls — he only came back to pull them out again! We were all laughing, he’s so fun.”
Bruderer’s attention to detail is immense. He recently spent months trying to find the right flavour of a specific fruit for a potential combination. For one of his recent creations, Excellence Cherry Intense, it took two years to develop from concept to customer.
“During my time as a pastry chef I know that the most popular cake was the Black Forest cake, and there are some cherries in there. But there are a very special type of cherry — not too sweet, not too sour.
"I was looking for a specific type of cherry and it took me over six months to find cherry pieces of the right quality and the right taste. Then we have to do tastings — I might love the recipe, but we have to make sure the consumers love it as well.
“We tried five different ones in the consumer testings and picked out the best. Then I thought: ’It’s a little bit boring’ and came up with the idea to add some slightly roasted almond slivers to add a little bit of crunch.”
And he’s got a tip if you’re trying to woo your loved one for Valentine’s — a combination so easy and effective, he’s made it over and over for his wife and her girlfriends.
“Most women love chocolate. It’s quite easy to surprise my wife and her girlfriends with chocolate. This is one of my secrets.
“It’s so easy and I’m always the hero of the evening,” he smiles.
“Sometimes my wife has these girly nights where she invites over her girlfriends. I usually go out and I always prepare a dessert for them before I leave, so there’s no need for me to be back early and I can hang out with the boys.
“I always get fresh strawberries, some Excellence Chilli chocolate. I melt the chocolate, dip the fresh strawberries into the chilli chocolate, serve it with a glass of prosecco.
"You have to try it, it tastes amazing. The sweetness and the fruitiness of the strawberry works so well with the chilli chocolate. If you wait until it gets spicy, then you have a sip of champagne or prosecco, it’s like fireworks in your mouth. Everybody loves that. It’s easy, and it looks delicious.
"Since Pretty Woman, everyone knows that champagne and strawberries go together. Add in chilli chocolate and it’s even better.”
For all Stefan’s inventiveness, he’s a traditionalist when it comes to his own favourites. While he admits he’s unlikely to open a bar of chocolate at the end of a day of tasting, opting instead for savouries in the evening, he remains a chocolate fan.
And nothing, for him, beats the combination of chocolate and hazelnut when it’s done just right.
“Sometimes, to develop a product takes about a year, to bring it to the market another year, so you have to plan in advance.
“One of my favourites is milk chocolate with whole roast hazelnuts. I love it. The secret behind that is that you have to do the roasting of the hazelnuts, fresh, every day.
"It would be easier and less expensive to buy them already roasted, store them in the warehouses until they’re needed. They’d be still good, but the roasted flavour would be gone.
“We roast them every day and add the freshly-roasted hazelnuts to the chocolate. We can preserve the roasted flavour in the chocolate. This makes a huge difference.”
He agrees that consumers are becoming more experimental and knowledgeable about the styles and flavours of what they eat. “I guess that people are more focused now on quality chocolate and that’s good for us. It’s good for our business.”
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