“You never know when a small decision will have a profound impact on your life.” – Clay Gordon, the world’s first international chocolate critic
Clay is the author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, and founder of TheChocolateLife.com, the largest community focusing solely on chocolate in the world. The Chocolate Life is probably the most valuable resource I’ve used as I make my foray into the world of chocolate making.
Clay’s philosophy is to do what you love, keep it light, and support your family while doing it. With this guiding principle, he went from a corporate lifestyle to becoming a full-time chocolate consultant, critic, and machinery designer and salesperson. And he made this change not in the past decade when Tim Ferris of Four-Hour Workweek and other lifestyle proponents have popularized this notion, but back in the 90s. Clay’s chocolate expertise goes back more than 20 years. It is clear, when discussing the ins and outs of chocolate, that he knows what he’s talking about.
Yes, I had the opportunity to chat with Clay about his life, chocolate, and advice. In this two-part series, I’ll start by expounding on his entry into the world of chocolate and the community he’s organized and inspired. Then in the next segment, I’ll dive into his advice both for making chocolate at home and for starting a chocolate business.
The quote at the start of this post is Clay’s introduction for how he got into the chocolate business. Concluding a business trip to Cannes in 1994, Clay found himself with a few hours to spare and some extra francs to spend before heading to the airport. As he wandered around, he found a small gourmet chocolate shop and bought 6 Bonnat chocolate bars. Upon returning home, he held a dinner party and pulled these out for dessert. Everyone had a different favorite for a different reason, similar to our recent tasting party. Little did he know, this was the first of many single-origin chocolate tasting parties he’d hold in the next few years.
In a flash of marketing genius (which was his area of expertise), he realized that while there were professional critics for almost everything, there were none for chocolate. He delved into research at local libraries, took on an apprenticeship with Michel Cluizel, found a mentor in Gary Guittard, and finally started chocophile.com in 2001, which was a professional review board for fine flavor chocolate. Having found chocolate in a function of entrepreneurship rather than initial passion for chocolate, Clay quickly realized his luck.
Chocolate is an amazing career! The industry is full of happy people who know how to have fun, and his place in it all allows him the lifestyle he was hoping for. He told me, “If you’re working with chocolate and not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. There are very few real jerks in the chocolate business, which I think is fabulous.” He believes that the true health value of chocolate is when people eat it, they sit down, relax, and destress for a few minutes. Plus, this career is “something I want to do until I’m not able to get out of bed. I need to be able to support myself and my family and I want to have fun doing it.”
This leads us to the next chapter in Clay’s contributions to the chocolate industry: TheChocolateLife.com. Its original purpose was to get enough people together, so between all of them, they would know all the answers that people want to know about chocolate.
From my own experience, TheChocolateLife.com has been an incredible resource. I’ve posted questions and received answers from experts all over the world. I’ve read the details of other people starting to work on their own “home brew” chocolate and of people making moves on starting their own company. I’ve even been contacted by farmers and organizers in cacao-producing countries to discuss building a relationship longer term. I’ve connected with bean-to-bar producers here in the Bay Area and even toured a factory. And my overwhelming response is to agree with Clay – there are very few jerks in the chocolate industry. It’s an incredibly welcoming environment where people share “open source” ideas and suggestions. I can’t recommend it highly enough for those serious about chocolate!
The title of TheChocolateLife.com was inspired by Ricky Martin’s Living La Vida Loca, which evolved into La Vida Cocoa, which translates to the chocolate life. The philosophy behind the chocolate life is that the ability to “connect to people with passion will inspire others to connect with theirs, regardless of whether that passion is chocolate or not.” His new goal is to help other people succeed. He gave an example of international pastry contests, where the chefs are some of the best in the world, but they are not there just to win. Instead, most of them get to a point in their life when they’re professionally accomplished. And the next step of what they’re doing, the way they ensure their legacy, is about how many people they’ve mentored.
Clay is taking on the international pastry chef mentorship equivalent in the chocolate industry. He provides consulting services to chocolate start ups, manages TheChocolateLife.com where chocolate-makers and chocolate-loves share their passion, and serves as a mentor and motivational speaker. He’s living the chocolate life!
Check out our next post on Clay’s advice for making chocolate at home and starting your own chocolate business.