Patrick Roger, the artist of French chocolate10-07-2015
Patrick Roger, artist and entrepreneur, the master chocolatier, Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2000, has 9 stores in France and Belgium.
Portrait of the chocolate lovers, for which French cuisine is an art.
In the small, closed world of chocolatiers, Patrick Roger has acquired a reputation as an “enfant terrible”… He may have a loud mouth, but he is also terribly talented. Surrounded by his life-sized sculptures, he pirouettes, chocolate in hand, to bring his inspirations to life. An artist and managing director, this master chocolatier earned the title of Best Craftsman in France in 2000. Today, he owns nine shops in France and Belgium. Here is the portrait of a chocolate-lover who takes French gastronomy as an art. His laboratory is located in the sleepy residential suburb of Sceaux, in the town where he started out more than 10 years ago. You reach it by following a remote little lane with a countryside feel. In front of the building – a former print works renovated into a studio – turquoise and chocolate-brown vans are being prepared for a delivery. From the other side of the property’s large black doors emanates a warm and familiar smell – the smell of hot chocolate. Inside, it’s filling every corner of the huge chocolate-making room. Further on, behind large transparent windows, workers are busy putting the chocolates in boxes. As for Patrick Roger, he is at the back of the warehouse, in the full flow of creativity.
From class dunce…
An artist? Patrick Roger does not call himself that yet, although he has become a master in the art of monumental sculptures, some of them weighing several tonnes! His studio contains a pond, where hippopotamuses are enjoying a swim, alongside huge and frightening gorilla heads. In the middle of this jungle, Patrick Roger is preparing new sculptures for Valentine’s Day. A couple of weeks from now, they will be in the windows of his shops. “It requires precision and the highest standards… excellence is a must! ”
Excellence was not always part of his daily life. “I was a real dunce in school. The worst of the worst. I didn’t pass my school-leaving certificate, like three-quarters of the class. After that, they didn’t ask us what we thought, they put us straight into vocational training “, recalls the chocolatier, who does not mince his words. So he started off in pâtisserie, not because he was passionate about it, but “because [he] was put there “.
Back then, the working day was tough. “You wake up really early and you work like crazy. ” But this is what “saved [his] life “. Within two years, he went from bottom of the class to second. “I ended up the second best apprentice out of 100 and that’s only because the first one was the teacher’s pet ,” he jokes. From there, he was spotted by a Parisian caterer, who hired him. “I started working as a pâtissier at 18. I wasn’t bad at it, but it didn’t particularly interest me. ” Making the same cakes all day “was boring “. Suddenly, he was transferred to chocolate-making, “a dead end “. But for him, it was a revelation. “I discovered chocolate. I realised everything that could be done with it. I could make anything with this material .”
… to a rising star
To begin with, he heated, moulded, mixed, created and gradually mastered chocolate from his parents’ kitchen in Normandy. “I commandeered the kitchen table. I had to make hundreds of kilos of chocolates! And as my parents had a small bakery, they sold them there. It worked incredibly well! ”
He only stayed for two years with the Parisian caterer who had given him his break. There, however, he made his first sculptures. “Really small ones, to begin with. You have to start somewhere. ” He recalls having worked for Gainsbourg, Yannick Noah and Jean-Paul Gaultier. “I made sculptures of Father Christmas in the form of a puzzle for one of his fashion shows. It had to be absolutely precise! ” Gaultier had chosen the right man. Even if he was “rubbish ” at maths, Roger was able to “master ” geometric proportions – thanks to his maths teacher, who, he smiles, was “quite well-proportioned herself “.
In 1997, he opened his first shop in Sceaux, selling the chocolates he had created in his parents’ kitchen. Within a few months, he already had hundreds of customers. “I was popular with the public before I won the recognition of my peers “. But this soon followed. In 2000, he was named Best Craftsman in France, a prize that “crowned [his] work at that particular moment, but did not change [his] approach, ” he emphasises. He opened his second shop in 2004. Today, he has nine.
The craftsman and company manager…
Holding a spatula and pouring chocolate into a wave-shaped mould, Patrick Roger runs his company with an iron fist. “It took me a while, but I ended up becoming the thing I was made to be – the boss of a company. ” He wants to be free, “free to use the best products in the world. ”
His company employs about 30 people, one-third of them chocolatiers. “My sister is in charge of the sales side, the shops. I don’t understand any of that. ” His role is to oversee the quality and creation of sculptures and chocolates. “I want the best cocoa beans. ” That is why he has visited about 40 countries, meeting local producers and seeking out undiscovered gems.
He does not always have to go far to find the best ingredients, however. Some of them are located in the vegetable garden next to his studio! Mother Nature provides him with all the herbs he needs (mint, thyme, basil, etc.). “No preservative! ”
Nowadays, nearly 50,000 chocolates per day leave Patrick Roger’s studio. Almost 50 tonnes each year, all of it handmade.
In one room filled with sweet warmth, chocolatiers are busy creating little figures out of marzipan. Eyes, mouths, hats… it is painstaking work. Alongside them, two people are covering whole slabs of praline with a thin layer of chocolate. Next, they cut the praline into little cubes and place them on a conveyor belt that carries them under a fountain of chocolate.
At the other end of the conveyor belt, in a room where the air-conditioning is on full, the chocolates emerge, ready to be packaged. “Watch the temperature, lads! ” shouts the boss. “That’s the key to controlling the chocolate. ”
… who achieved worldwide fame.
For this lover of French gastronomy – “it’s the best in the world! ” – the profession of chocolatier is a combat sport. “It’s like playing football for Barcelona – you need to be tough and to be under 30 to keep up with the pace. ” And “even though I eat chocolate all day, I never get fat! ” he adds, laughing.
Keep your head down, move forward, gain experience – those are the three pillars of success according to Patrick Roger. But his extraordinary success as a chocolatier is due, above all, to his ability to make the most of his know-how and talent.
With his first shops, he developed a delivery service, using vans and mopeds, the company’s “lifeblood “. Today, his website allows him to sell chocolates all over the world. “People can order online and receive the delivery a few days later. Most of the orders come from Europe and Asia. ”
How does he explain his extraordinary fame? “First of all, you have to understand that your best salesmen are your customers. If they’re happy with what they buy, they will tell other people about it. The second thing is the documentaries I’ve been in. Two film crews have come here, one German, the other Japanese. And my chocolates are hugely successful in both countries. ” The Germans have just named Patrick Roger Best Chocolatier in the World 2012.
However, it is in Belgium that he decided to open his latest shop, “purely by chance “. An ambitious choice, given that Belgium is known for its chocolate-making tradition. “I was given the idea by a colleague, a former Best Craftsman in France who is now retired. ” Nestled in the heart of the Belgian capital, his shop is surrounded by numerous other well-known chocolate shops. Not that Patrick Roger cares. “I just seized the opportunity when it came up. ” As for whether he will open other shops in other countries… his eyes sparkle as he says: “We’ll see! ”