I've always been a huge fan of desserts and chocolate. Being Indian, we don't eat eggs, so I was always interested in desserts that didn't contain eggs—they're usually so critical to desserts. That got me into the science of desserts and baking, and chocolate is like the crown in the baking world. If you can get that down, it's a great skill to have. That drew me into chocolate and the science of tempering and flavour combinations.
I did a maths degree and then studied philosophy in India for two years, where I had a class on the philosophy of economics. One of the things that stayed with me was, "Why spend your whole life doing something you hate to earn money to be happy? Just do something that you love or makes you happy in the first place." I decided to follow my chocolate dream for a year and see where it went. My business built up from there and I now run The Chocolatier, selling truffles, chocolate bars, and also creating one-off sculptures for events.
Like painting the Mona Lisa with chocolate.
For the "Choco l'ART" gallery at The Chocolate Show [a three day chocolate festival in London], I chose to make the Mona Lisa because it's so iconic and famous. It's so recognisable and I think if you're going to do something, then you want people to understand and realise what it is that you've done as an artist. I think with art, if it hasn't got that meaning, it's not as enjoyable for me as an artist to do it and also the viewer.
It was daunting approaching such a famous piece of artwork. All of way up until we actually started it, I felt that way. I kept it until the last minute to start. But once you start, it's not too bad. I don't paint, I'm a terrible painter. But once I get chocolate on the canvas, the adrenaline takes over and you're halfway there to creating it.
Firstly, I printed out an image of the Mona Lisa and did a rough outline in chocolate. Once I had the outline and the shape, it was about trying to get the right definition in the face, the strokes in the hair, and the movement in the clothes. Once we had the general outline, it was recognisable. Then it was about how good it was going to be.
I found the best way to paint was using sponges and by finger painting—using hands, fists, and side of hands. I can't really give you any secret tips about how to paint the Mona Lisa in chocolate other than I went for it and hoped for the best! Carefully, I etched away and refined it constantly. Every couple of strokes, I looked back at the picture and compared it. It took about three hours to make. It was just me working on it and then there were a couple of people giving their critical opinions, constantly (which was actually very helpful).
I painted in normal chocolate except I untempered it, which means the crystal structure is destroyed completely. Then it behaves a bit more like paint. When you have tempered chocolate, it sets and becomes rigid. It would peel and crack off, a bit like plaster rather than paint.
The chocolate is quite viscous, it's more like a wall paint than an artist's paint. But it can solidify quite quickly so we kept a hairdryer on hand to keep things fluid. In that respect, it's different because while paint does set, it takes a long time. Chocolate can set within five to ten minutes. In terms of application, it feels the same but you've got to make sure the temperature is right.
I've done other sculptures for events, like a six-foot-by-four-foot dinosaur sculpture that I created live for a show. I've also made Boris Johnson's head, which was originally modelled on my mum's head. Painters might say that when you draw someone's face, you start off with pretty much the same shape for everyone. So I started Boris by modelling off my mother. Doing 3-D faces was a first for me, so it was interesting creating the different angles and layers and shapes and curves. It literally was a replica of David Cameron at one point. It was uncanny how similar we found it to be. But as soon we started chiselling just some tiny curves here and there, suddenly Boris Johnson popped out.
You never want to eat the sculptures after you've worked on them so much. But day in, day out as a chocolatier, you don't often get the opportunity to do artwork like that. When we get asked to it, it's nice.
I think understanding how chocolate works is quite scientific. I use a technique called water ganache in my truffles, which replaces the traditional cream or butter with water. It's inspired by a French chemist called Hervé This. His life's work is about molecular gastronomy among many other things. He's also the inspiration for Heston Blumenthal. Hervé This studied things like should we put milk in tea or tea into milk—all these subtle things. One of the things he did was make a mousse using chocolate and water, whereas previously it was well known that chocolate and water should never be put together but here we see it being put together.
Once you've understood the scientific part, it falls to the side a little bit and you don't think about it too much. Once you've got it, it's a fantastic skill to have. We still use science in flavour combinations but that's also where the art comes in. The flavour combination is a bit arty and a bit science. And when we finish the chocolates, it's purely to do with aesthetics and art. It's a wonderful combination of all the elements.
I hope that the sculptures inspire people to get in the kitchen and work with chocolate more often. I don't expect people to paint in chocolate or sculpt in chocolate. But we're such a large chocolate-consuming and chocolate-loving nation, yet nobody makes it at home. I think it would be wonderful if people got in their kitchens with some chocolate and spent an evening making truffles or a chocolate cake, or even something as simple as dipping strawberries in chocolate. Just once in awhile. It's a wonderful ingredient—so therapeutic, loving, warming, and rewarding. It's something that everyone should experience more often in their life.
And if I inspire the next chocolate artist, I will take full credit.
Aneesh Popat is a London-based chocolatier and founder of The Chocolatier, a business selling truffles, single origin chocolate bars, and chocolate sculptures