Good chocolate has the ability to take you places. To lift your mood or perhaps make you feel a certain way. Sometimes it only takes one good song to bring back thousands of old memories. This phrase is true for Ether Atelier’s chocolates as well.
The brand’s founder Chef Prateek Bakhtiani approaches chocolate differently. He creates collections based on his inspiration and transverses these feelings to his customers through his chocolates. His first Autumn/Winter 2019 collection had chocolates inspired by jazz, wood, petrichor and Japanese minimalism. Keep a look out for his next collection Ultramarine which is evocative of summer by the beach.
Having had the privilege of trying chocolates from the yet to be launched collection chocolates myself, I’d say that it packs a punch. It will have you reminiscing the sand, cool sea breeze and the highs and lows of being at the beach. Chef Bakhtiani graduated in chemistry from Washington University at the age of 20 and began teaching at the University. While pursuing his Masters, his professors asked him to take a year off. That’s when he discovered his love for chocolate and found his way to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He has worked with Michelin star restaurants in France, Belgium and the United States and has trained under celebrity chef Rachel Allen.
The 26-year-old chef talks to Luxebook about his year-old atelier and why fine chocolate should be treated like wine.
What is Ether Atelier?
We are an artisanal, small-batch chocolatier, which is different from a chocolate maker. We source a lot of single-origin chocolate and work with companies that make sure that they get us the most vibrant representation of the terroir of these farms. The chefs and I, at Ether Atelier, break down the nuances of the chocolates – the underlying notes, scents and aromas. Once we have a comprehensive understanding of each origin, we try and use these chocolates to benefit the inspiration we are trying to create.
For example, our Clover Club collection is all about jazz. I use a Madagascar origin chocolate paired with passion fruit so that the Madagascar chocolate doesn’t give you a lot of acidity and the mild red and yellow fruit flavours come through. This makes it bright and exciting, but jazz has underlying sexiness, so we added some burnt caramel to it. We layer these flavours and use the nuances in the origin chocolate itself to portray the inspiration that we have in mind.
Have you always wanted to work with chocolate?
I started the atelier about a year ago and launched my first collection in October 2019. I didn’t plan on opening something of my own. When I moved back to India in 2017, I didn’t find anyone who was doing what I wanted to do. There are a lot of good chocolatiers in India but the way I approach chocolate is different. I told myself, if starting my own thing is what it takes, then so be it.
Tell us a little about the Spring/Summer collection that you are working on.
This time, instead of five collections (like in the Autumn/Winter edition) we are doing three collections under one thematic umbrella called Ultramarine – all the flavours, textures and emotions are inspired by the sea. It encapsulates the dichotomy of summertime on the beach. It is this very happy, exciting, juvenile feeling; it is also about being alone and sad on the beach. The salt stings your eyes but there is this refreshing quality to it. There is sunburn and numbness of the ocean and the fear of being very alone in the vast never-ending water…
We are experimenting with different salts and how they work with different chocolates. We have got Kelp Sea Salt from Iceland, grey salt from Guerande in France, and black salt from Hawaii. We have got three different types of seaweed – Wakame, Kombu and Nori,
lime and lemons, pineapple, coconut, kalamata olives from Greece, passion
flowers and Kona coffee from Hawaii as chocolate infusions.
Why do you plan your creations based on collections? It is it driven by the seasons?
Seasonal is a tricky word to use. With chefs, it means what’s available right now and for chocolate, it needs to sit on the shelves for six months and a minimum of two weeks in your fridge, so it is not about bringing freshness forward.I am looking at inspirations that speak to the seasons.
The reasons I do collections because everything changes and evolves. Change is difficult and if I set a time limit to it then I have to change. I don’t want to fall into the rut of doing the same thing. As a creative brand, it also conveys that we are trying to innovate. If there is one chocolate that you really like, enjoy it knowing that you
don’t have the luxury of eating it forever. This joyful feeling is momentary just
like being on that beach. Right now, enjoy this and tomorrow will be a new day.
Do you source chocolate from India?
India, as you know, is new in the chocolate game and cocoa is very difficult to treat and grow. There are a lot of chocolate makers who are trying to refine not the chocolate making process, but the cocoa growing process – such as making sure that things don’t rot and that the crop is not infected. Currently, they are focusing on the health of the cocoa and not on the intensity of flavour. It is just like what Sula was doing with wine when they first started in India.
When I buy chocolate, I am not buying it just because it is from a particular country, for eg,
Madagascar. I am looking at the flavours of the soil, the nuances and the notes. That’s what I want from chocolate. The fact that it has come from Madagascar is just an artefact. Right now, people are selling Indian chocolate means that that it is grown in India and not that it tastes like the soil in India. We do source a fair amount from Naviluna because they don’t roast their cocoa, they preserve some of the nuances. But, because it is made in small batches, the taste many not always be the same and that is a concern for a chocolatier who is using it as a base to create a new flavour.
What does chocolate pair best with?
If you want to eat chocolate as a dessert, you don’t need to pair it with anything. Just enjoy it. Fine chocolate, on the other hand is so nuanced that you cannot go wrong in pairing it with time and attention. Sit and think about what you are eating. Refresh your palette. If you pay `40,000 for a bottle of wine, you are going to sip it slowly and you are
going to think about it. Pay that same courtesy to fine chocolate.
In an earlier interview you had spoken of setting up a retail store in Bandra. Is that still on the cards?
It is not. I pursued that for a while and realised that I was following that because that is the narrative that chocolate shops and pastry shops are meant to follow. I started working on it but realised that I did not have any more time for the kitchen. I don’t have that kind of managerial bandwidth. I don’t want this company to feel that it needs to meet sales goals and that profit margins are important. Just thinking about the margins the store would need, would affect my time in the kitchen. It would also affect the quality day by day, which can be fixed, but more importantly, we would need tweak the chocolates as per the customer’s taste.
Currently, I decide when the taste of something is too strong, say perhaps
seaweed. If I had to sell it in a retail store, I would have to tone down the flavours.
How has the response been?
Our chocolate is a niche product for a niche clientele. Sales are slow but steadily rising. Most sales are from repeat customers who see value in our products. Currently our packaging is designed for gifting and not self-consumption, but we are working on it. We also make two-three different cakes per season.
If you were not a chef, what would you be?
I was a research scientist, I loved it. People generally say that they became a chef as a second choice or that they hated their first job. That’s not my case. I loved it. I just took some time off and found that I love chocolate better.
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