The Chocolate Tricks of Chef Rix
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everything you put in your mouth should be this carefully constructed.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Please join us on Saturday, July 23, in New York City’s Central Park to hear chef Phillip Ashley Rix — in person — along with other intellectuals, artists and “trend-makers” who love good conversation, a rich mix of food and great music. Welcome to OZY FUSION FEST, and enjoy this special encore presentation.
Plenty of people make chocolate. But chef Phillip Ashley Rix is elbow deep in some sort of mystical combining of flavors for chocolate like nobody’s business. Delightful, improbable concoctions of the sort the high-class joints now love: mango, figs and pomegranate molasses, cranberry horseradish, bleu cheese, Thai lemongrass, bacon caramel, oil-and-vinegar chocolates — heady mixes of sweet and savory.
You see, the 35-year-old Memphis native made the sort of artistic leap of faith you wouldn’t expect from a guy with zero formal culinary training: He quit his successful corporate sales job to try making designer chocolates designed like not many others are or had been. And today the married father of four finds himself doing business with Westin Hotels, Verizon and Churchill’s Port, shipping his product worldwide, plus boasting a celebrity clientèle that includes Tom Brokaw, rap producer/performer Rick Ross, Debbi Fields (of cookie fame) and actor Morgan Freeman. Which means that since its opening in 2013, his store has doubled revenues and he’s turned a gimlet eye to opening new locations.
But in his early stage explorations of how chocolate goes from bean to bonbon, Rix learned something sort of curious: culinary academies only focused on chocolate as an afterthought. “Paying $40,000 for one week of study on chocolates didn’t make sense,” said Rix in a phone call from his kitchen. Much as he wanted to take that interest in chocolate to the next level, this route seemed cost-crazy. But the obsession gnawed, waking up the marketing and finance Middle Tennessee State University grad from a sound sleep on more than one occasion. It was 2007, and the craze for luxury dark chocolates was on the rise in the United States. Rix saw nothing but supply-side upside then, and now: By 2017, Statista estimates that chocolate sales in the U.S. will be in the $22.4-billion range.
Rix put in two-plus years of exhaustive research, talking to any chefs he could, tugging on coats at culinary schools, all while employed full time at FedEx, UPS and eventually Apple. “You know, I mostly had to figure out how to learn. That part was as daunting as any kind of rocket science,” Rix says. But since few chefs specialize in chocolate, he didn’t find an excess of folks who could advise him on the kinds of things he wanted to do with chocolate. “I wanted to learn the rules so I could break the rules,” says Rix.
After consulting with a Montreal chef who gave him a greater sense of where to go and how to source the raw product, the mix started to manifest itself in Rix’s head, evolving full-force into his crazy flavor fusions. “Off the beaten path, this is not necessarily that new,” says Cambodia-based food writer Richard Sterling, whose food and travel writing has seen him circle the globe in search of great meals and even greater stories. “Limited options sometimes breed limitless combinations.” But on the mass market, chocolate innovation has stalled, Sterling says, possibly because now that everyone is accustomed to high-quality chocolate, they don’t crave new flavors: “They’re just happy no matter what because, well: chocolate.”
… Thai lemongrass, bacon caramel, oil-and-vinegar chocolates, a heady mix of sweet and savory.
Rix spent several years with this idea bumping around in his head though, thinking, planning and actually tinkering in his parents’ kitchen, until he was faced with one of those rock-and-roll fantasy moments when the phone rings, and you’re either ready for showtime or not. “FedEx called,” Rix laughs, “and asked me to show up with 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of chocolate for a big community charity event called Soup Sunday.”
He pressed everyone into service that he could. “We just said, ‘Let’s dive in and we’ll sink or swim.’” So in the kitchen at the home of his mother, who had a medical practice, and his father, who was a teacher and basketball coach, Rix stayed up several nights in a row and delivered his first offering called “Mama Jean.” Named after his grandmother, the treat was signature Rix: sweet potato chocolate. Which, lo and behold, was a hit.
Enough of a hit that between working his day job at Apple and filling chocolate orders, Rix was still getting by, two years later, on very little sleep and maximum effort. In 2012 though it was time to “crap or get off the pot.” He had hired employees (five at last check), bought an airbrush and taught himself how to use it to add designs to his chocolate, and things were coming to a close with his gig as a corporate sales manager at Apple. It felt like “perfect storm time,” he says. Rix took the leap, leaving the corporate life and opening his own chocolate boutique in midtown Memphis.
“Everyone’s been supportive,” finishes Rix. “Or at the very least, no one’s asked me, ‘Are you crazy?’”
“He might be crazy,” Sterling said. “Just because there’s lots of cash in chocolate doesn’t mean boutique operators are going to get their hands on it.” And looking at Zurich-based Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer, and getting a gander at how their 6,000-plus employees generated $4.9 billion last year — compared to Rix’s $400,000 — you might think Sterling is right.
Add to this real ground level market concerns: “Cocoa is a really sensitive crop and it takes 3 to 5 years to bring a cocoa bean to market,” says Katie Gilmer, Senior Sourcing Manager at TCHO, a San Francisco chocolate company who sees one of the biggest threats being? “Beans with diminishing flavor.”
But Rix is pretty philosophical about his chances. “No one is making what we’re making. It’s that simple. You want chocolate? Sure. Everyone else makes that. But chocolate with cranberry horseradish? Good luck.”