Laurent Gerbaud, renegade Belgian chocolatier, places a tray with 14 handcrafted, mouthwatering pieces in front of me with a warning. “I can’t guarantee you’ll love them all, but I promise that after my workshop, you’ll never eat chocolate the same way again.”
The other participants at Gerbaud’s weekly class break out into an excited chatter, but I stay calm. I’m just not into chocolate. To me, it’s an excessively sugary treat that gets you through an afternoon slump—not a decadent delight. Despite that, Gerbaud is confident he can turn me into a choco-gourmand.
He starts us off with a small wedge of a mass-produced bar—instructing us to chew half of it now and save the rest for later. As I expect, it tastes kind of meh. The next two pieces, made with high-quality Venezuelan and Madagascan cacao, fare better. The fourth one, circle-shaped with a Chinese design, proves rich and smooth. But it’s the next next two—one topped with salted pistachios and another with strange red sour berries—that truly surprise me. They’re piquant and intricate without a hint of that boring sweetness.
“These are zereshk berries from China, where people use them to cook chicken and rice,” Gerbaud explains. “Now it’s getting really interesting, isn’t it? It doesn’t taste like your usual Belgian chocolate at all.”
Whether dipped in cream, tossed in sugar, or infused with liquor, Belgian chocolate is an ultra rich combo of sweet and smooth, perfected by the country’s artisans for decades. There are reasons for it, Gerbaud explains—fat, sugar, and alcohol work as preservatives keeping the treats fresh and tasty. But chocolate wasn’t always a confectionary item. Way before Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus first described the plant as Theobroma cacao—which means the food of the gods—Mayans and Aztecs consumed it as a nutritional and medicinal substance. The creative chocolatiers added all the other stuff later.
Gerbaud’s unique flavor combinations are the result of a pivotal journey he took some years ago. In the late ’90s, when he was a college grad with a diploma in medieval history and a passion for making chocolate, Gerbaud went to China with his friends. Shanghai’s hot and humid weather wasn’t at all conducive for chocolate experiments, but Gerbaud became inspired by Asian flavors—salty nuts, bitter herbs, and sour fruit. He was curious about these flavors and started browsing local markets, buying new spices and experimenting with them.
He began making his unconventional treats in his apartment, flavoring them with sea salt, sprinkling on sesame seeds, and mixing in the tart zereshk berries, known as barberries in the West but rarely used in sweets. To traditional chocolatiers, these flavors might have been a heresy, but they became a hit with Belgian expats in Shanghai—and suddenly Gerbaud was delivering daily packages all over the city. This unconventional training gave him a competitive edge back home, in the country famous for brilliant chocolatiers like Leonidas, Neuhaus, and Pierre Marcolini. Rather than breaking into the mass market, Gerbaud made small batches for special clients and opened a chocolate tasting and making workshop in Brussels. His own tastes changed completely. “I no longer liked the sweetness,” he says. “I found that salts, seeds, and fruit make more complex and interesting flavors.”
At the workshop, Gerbaud directs us to try a chocolate-wrapped orange peel and a chewy, long-lasting and satisfying apricot, before serving a crème-filled ganache infused with coriander leaves and mango puree. As we eat one delicious morsel after another, we learn to notice the faint aromas of herbs, sense the cocoa ooze on our tongues, and let the bouquet of flavors tingle our taste buds. This way of indulging is healthier, Gerbaud says. Fat and sugar intensify your cravings, but bitter and sour notes amuse and satisfy you rather than kick-start a binge. In theory, anyway. When the tray is almost empty, Gerbaud instructs us to drink some water to clear our palates—and then try the remaining half of the mass-produced wedge. The scrap crumbles into powder in my mouth. “It tastes like cardboard dipped in dust!” I tell Gerbaud.
That makes him happy. “I like to get people addicted to the good stuff,” he says with a satisfied smile. “Now you can’t go back to eating that dust. You’ll want better quality.” But he can’t let me leave with the dusty taste in my mouth, so he saves the last and best bite for the end—a little rectangle sprinkled with sesame seeds. Rich and buttery, it melts in my mouth to the faint crunch of the seeds. Gerbaud was right—I will never look at chocolate the same way again.
As I leave, I’m already missing the flavors. It will be a challenge to find chocolate this diverse and daring anywhere else. But it will be a fun challenge to master.
Laurent Gerbaud hosts demos and workshops every Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.