“Once you start with our chocolate spread you never go back to Nutella,” confides operations manager Romain Schmitt (pictured below). “It’s one of the best sellers. My daughters ate a small pot in twenty-four hours; at least I saved on bread, and didn’t have to make pancakes.”
Originally hailing from France, Romain has a background in fine dining. After breaking his arm in an accident, a change of direction ensued. “I eased back in at the bakery [chain] Paul,” says Romain. “They expanded to London in 2003; I was young, fresh, single and wanted to travel.” Since then he’s worked for Ping Pong and Bill’s – and now here, at three-Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Alain Ducasse.
The diminutive store where we talk all things cocoa is sleek and inviting: sitting proudly in the middle of the arched room is a temperature-controlled unit containing handmade pralines and ganaches – a striking centrepiece. To the side, tablets of single-origin chocolate from The Americas and Asia sit alongside choccie-coated candied fruit and nuts. “You won’t find anything gimmicky,” says Romain.
Whatever you opt for, the flavour is hugely affected by where the pod grows. “The bean absorbs everything in its environment,” says Romain. “Our wild cacao from Bolivia is harvested in the Amazon; it’s floral and vegetal, delicate and feminine.” By contrast, their Vietnamese offering is spicier and slightly acidic. “That one’s about street markets, star anise, cloves and cardamom,” says Romain. The bars and blocks – designed by Pierre Tachon and visually super-stylish – are for enjoying at leisure, not for gorging.
Every aspect is controlled by an A-team handpicked by Ducasse. “Our role is to do justice to the product by providing guidance and an experience,” says Romain. “It’s all about understanding people’s needs.”
The same applies next door at Le Café. “The idea is not just to be a coffee shop,” says Romain, “it’s about giving visitors the opportunity to try different things. We’re also really pushing the retail side of the business.”
Inside, it’s industrial-chic, with a zinc counter, Italian-imported stools to perch on, specially made glassware and bespoke La Marzocco machinery. The smell of freshly baked madeleines wafts through the space; customers are offered one to nibble on with their cup, or a small piece of chocolate if they’d prefer.
They stock four types of espresso and seven filter, ranging from signature blends combining beans from Brazil, Laos and Ethiopia to prestigious single-origins from Panama and Yemen. The cafeliers – a more interactive position than that of a barista, says Romain – prepare each order with great care and attention to detail: there’s a lot to take into consideration, from the temperature of the water and size of the grind to the pressure placed on the puck. “It’s quite technical and precise,” he says, “small changes make a real difference.”
Educating guests is key: by asking questions about the sort of equipment they have at home and what they like to drink, a picture is built and the team can accurately advise clientele. “It’s not about arrogance or pretension,” says Romain. “We’re creating a Michelin-starred coffee experience at an affordable price.”
Le Chocolat: Romain’s Top 3 tips
Madagascar, criollo bean, 75%: “Rounded, with a hint of goji berries; if you’re giving this as a present, you won’t disappoint.”
Peru, trinitario, 45%: “This milk option is sweet and comforting, it’s the perfect treat for a cold Sunday afternoon on your sofa with a duvet and Netflix.”
Java, trinitario, 75%: “Coming from a volcanic island, it’s very smoky and earthy and makes you think of Scottish whiskey; we call it our Marmite.”
Le Café: Romain’s Top 3 Tips
Réunion Island: “One of our rarer single-origins: imagine pineapple rings caramelised in a pan, that’s the flavour that comes through.”
Cascara: “We make an infusion with water and dried coffee husk, it’s very fruity with cherry notes. I really enjoy the sourness of it, it’s been an eye-opener.”
Hot chocolate: “Made with a selection of our dark varieties and milk from Normandy, this is one of our top products, the feedback has been exceptional.”
Le Café & Le Chocolat are both open daily, chocolate bars £6+ (more info here). Bagley Walk Arches, Coal Drops Yard N1C
Main image: Pierre-Monetta