Photograph by Jon Lee
The bars and powders crowding the shelves at ChocoVivo are about as close as you’ll come to chocolate’s original form, which evolved out of the Incan and Mayan cultures more than 2,000 years ago (well, maybe not the blueberry-lavender variety). Since leaving her corporate accounting career in 2003, ChocoVivo founder Patricia Tsai has been dedicated to researching, crafting, and promoting a rustic, minimally processed style of chocolate that’s “enjoyed in a completely different way,” she likes to say.
Tsai, whose new shop is in Venice, roasts and stone-grinds briefly fermented, organically grown cocoa nibs, which she imports directly from a family-run plantation in Tabasco, Mexico. She then forgoes the controlled heating and cooling process, called tempering, that gives commercial chocolate its alluring sheen. The product is sweetened to varying degrees with unrefined cane sugar and spiced with locally sourced ingredients like nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. The resulting bars have a rough look and a crumbly texture. While artisanal, complex, and nutritious, they’re not exactly Valrhona. To chefs who tend to care more about mouth feel than pedigree, they have been a tough sell.
Los Angeles has had its share of fine chocolatiers emerge in the past few years, but their product is refined and candy box worthy. Tsai doesn’t like to think of her chocolate as candy at all. “It’s a food—it’s an ingredient,” she says. “People say they want whole, unprocessed foods, but then they go and eat Hershey’s.” (Tsai confesses that she was once addicted to peanut M&Ms.) She decided to reach out to consumers personally via a grueling schedule at area farmers’ markets. “You have to educate people in order for them to appreciate what’s so special about this stuff,” she says. The strategy worked. In addition to her Abbot Kinney shop, she plans to launch a full-service chocolate bar elsewhere later this year. “I want the whole process to be transparent,” Tsai says. That means, eventually, a place for patrons to create custom blends, watch their product being made, and sip Oaxacan-style hot chocolate that’s been whipped to a vigorous froth by hand.