Thierry Muret is not your typical chocolate-maker. For more than 20 years, the native Belgian has been the executive chef of Godiva, dreaming up luxury bites to go inside little gold-bowed boxes. But that sleek chef's uniform he wears day in and day out—a white jacket with a hat, and detailed golden embroidery—was almost the plain, practical lab coat of a scientific researcher.
Muret stumbled into making chocolate purely by chance. Before setting foot into kitchens, the artisan confectioner studied industrial chemistry, physics, and molecular-level crystal formation at the University of Belgium. In a profession where temperatures run high for traditional know-how and gastronomy, Muret's left-brain thinking is an outlier.
He's passionate about aromas and flavors like any gourmand, but the chocolatier's creativity also comes from a different place—calculating chemical compounds and making those flavors work based on molecular makeups. The two worlds actually blend better than a rich ganache. Muret is an expert in crystallization, which is the essential and most challenging final step in the process of making chocolate.
The chocolatier has developed hundreds of recipes for Godiva over the years, and is currently developing a set of 30-some new flavors for 2018.
"Sometimes in life you strike with luck, like how some people win a million dollars," he said. "I won the jackpot by just being able to combine what I studied and my new passion. That it would be chocolate was absolutely not intended."
We talked to Chef Muret about the science of sweets.
MUNCHIES: How does one end up studying crystallography right after high school anyway? Thierry Muret: I've always been a maths nerd and crystallography is a blend of two sciences, chemistry and physics with a very strong focus on mathematics. So in university I studied the field of natural and artificial crystals, but after I graduated, my sister said she was emigrating to the US and wanted to start a Belgian chocolate shop. It was the '80s and you could see this big artisan trend starting up—gourmet bread, coffee and all of that. So that's how she got the idea.
So chocolate already held some interest for you? I was 22 at that time, so the attraction was really going to a new country—especially the US—and starting a business with my sister.
Being truly passionate about it didn't happen until I had to go to a formal apprenticeship in Antwerp. The first thing my boss told me was, "OK, I'm going to teach you how to temper chocolate on the marble." It was all about crystal formation! And I said, "Hey boss, why don't you show me and teach me, but I can tell you what's going on here scientifically." That's where the symbiosis between him and me started very quickly, because he was a pure artisan and I was more of a science nerd. He was a big influence on me and we worked together very closely for two years.
What does the chocolatier world think about molecular gastronomy and the scientific approach overall? Many chefs in the culinary world are going down the molecular gastronomy path, but the majority of chocolate-makers will find inspiration in tradition and creativity. Those of us who look at developing candy by understanding the making and purpose of ingredients and reconfiguring them are pretty rare.
I try to look at it both ways for a balanced product. It's really two stages: find the harmony of flavors, and when that's established and we've found something that's pleasing, then we start to look into the science and say, "This is the target of how we are going to make this."
If a composition makes sense chemically, does that mean it will inevitably taste good? Chemical and flavor are always combined. Basically what you need to realize is your ability to taste food comes from 80 percent aromatics. So when you're chewing on food, it releases those aromatics. Your tongue can only taste five basic tastes. When you start melting food, chewing the food, you're releasing aromatic compounds. Complexity comes from those aromatic compounds. Science is directly related to the flavor composition of all the food that you're eating.
Was there a chocolate that you knew could work from a molecular standpoint, but didn't make any sense in terms of flavor? The blood orange tablet is a good example. Blood oranges contain higher levels of anthocyanins than conventional varieties. These anthocyanins are pigments that provide blood oranges with their crimson color. Blood oranges may also contain vitamin C in more concentrated amounts than conventional oranges. These fruits—native to Italy and Spain—can typically provide between 150 to 200 milligrams of vitamin C per cup of juice. This increase of acidity is perfect to cut the sweetness of chocolate and provide a very sharp citrus flavor.
What is the most complex chocolate you've ever created? Midnight Swirl was a big challenge. It's a ganache made with 85 percent chocolate, which is extremely bitter, so the difficulty was to control that bitterness. Bitterness in nature is something humans do not like—it's associated with poisoning so we're wired not to like it. But by combining it with the other ingredients, I knew I could get some of the flavor components that come from the genome of the [cocoa] tree—so, full depth in flavor and personality.
For that particular piece, I had to go back and look at that 85 percent multiple times, decompose it, and then recompose on a level that's palatable with powerful chocolate flavor. The composition was very mathematical because with cocoa mass you have two things: cocoa butter, which is the fat, and cocoa powders. In the final product, the cocoa powder gives astringency and bitterness, but the butter gives you fatty notes. Chocolate liqueur adds depth. So it was a difficult combination between these three notes.
I hear you are growing tired of people referring to chocolate as an aphrodisiac. Chocolate is a sensual product to be sure, but not an aphrodisiac, at least according to the medication standpoint or molecular standpoint. An aphrodisiac is a substance that increases the libido when it is consumed. Pure chocolate contains anandamide, which is a psychoactive, feel-good chemical, and phenylethylamine, which releases dopamine. So chocolate is more of an energetic food. It's one of the only foods where you have energy, carbs, and fat in the same little bar. That's why soldiers are often given chocolate during battles.
So according to your scientific knowledge, would you say chocolate is a great workout food? If you're doing sports and you really exert yourself a lot, it's the perfect food. It's a food that is made for high, fast, or slow consumption.
Thank you for speaking with me.