Ecole Chocolat is celebrating its 18th Anniversary in January! Ever wondered how Ecole Chocolat was founded? Pam Williams, our Founder and Head Instructor, shares her story about her career as a fine chocolate maker and how she was inspired to open a chocolate school.
It all began with a simple chocolate cake…
It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been in the chocolate industry for 35 years. My family loved chocolate as a child, but not to the extent that it was an obsession. After baking my first chocolate cake in high school, I discovered that I was a foodie. I was more of a Julia Child fan than Audrey Hepburn. However, I had never intended to be in the culinary world. My hobby was food, not my profession.
Chocolate shop opening
All that changed in the spring of 1981 when I moved from California back to Vancouver. And I was looking for a way to start a business. A lightbulb went off when I read an article about Li-Lac Chocolates, which was founded in New York, in the (now defunct) Gourmet Magazine. Six months later, we opened au Chocolat with the goal of selling only the best chocolates I could “curate,” such as truffles that we made ourselves.
My storefront in Vancouver, B.C.
I became a chocolatier and taught myself how to make fine chocolate. There were many experiments with great successes (B52 truffles) and failures. (House-made gelato, before anyone knew the word ‘gelato.’ Of course, there was also a lot of fun and laughter! We worked all night to make products for our first holiday season, only to have them sold out by noon. Then we had to start over! Do not get me wrong, selling out is a good thing. As with other lessons I’ve learned along the way about business, I quickly realized that I needed to streamline my recipe development and production. I bought a tempering device, duh!
In 1985, we published a book called Oh Truffles, which was a collection of the truffle recipes used at au Chocolat. The book became a Canadian bestseller, which helped us reach people all over Canada. There are still a few copies available on Amazon. I had so much fun writing the cookbook and communicating with customers after its publication.
From a chocolate store to online education
In 1992, I sold my business to a close friend and began teaching writing and new venture startups. This period also included a contract to redesign the Vancouver Museum’s retail operation. On my way, I came across the Internet and was enamored with its potential. I was so enamored with the possibilities of its future that I went to college to become (what they called then) a multimedia expert. This led me to a job at the University of British Columbia, where I created award-winning educational platforms and programs.
As I wrote articles and kept in touch with my chocolate colleagues, chocolate became my life. My writing led to many readers asking me where they could go to learn how chocolate was made. Only two places taught chocolate work, and they were mainly for technicians at large confectionery companies. These two places did not have a curriculum that was helpful for someone who wanted to start a business or become an expert in fine chocolate working.
Bringing my past to a halt at Ecole Chocolat
In 2003, Chocolat Ecole began with the Professional Chocolatier Program. In the first five years, my life was slowly and completely taken over by the school. I was able to combine my knowledge of chocolate techniques, running a small business, and my experience in developing online education programs into an online platform that allows students to access the program anywhere on the planet.
When I founded Ecole Chocolat, my goal was to (and is still) teach students all they need to understand and work with fine chocolate, as well as open a chocolate shop if they desire. This includes modern chocolate production and techniques, as well as all other knowledge and efficiencies that go into a chocolate-based business. Many people don’t realize how many details are involved in this type of business. As a chocolatier or chocolatier, you may have to stand for long periods. When choosing a space for your business, you should consider a lot of storage space to store your packaging. Over the past ten years, I’ve learned a great deal about running my own business. I wanted to pass on all of that knowledge to my students.
In 2007, we also wanted to create a change in the fine chocolate industry (the tiny 3% of the enormous chocolate confections industry). So, in 2007, we made the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. The FCIA was designed to offer educational and networking opportunities for its members. It has been my privilege to serve as the Association’s past President. The Association is flourishing and growing under the leadership of the President, the Board of Directors, and the Executive Director. In 2012, I became one of the founding members of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which grew to be a 501c3 nonprofit focused on global pressures such as environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences that threaten the world’s supply of high-quality, flavorful chocolate. Even more importantly, we want to improve the lives of farmers who work with us to preserve cacao diversity. We know we make a difference, one farmer at a time, by ensuring that the fine flavor cacao they produce is recognized and rewarded for its quality.
In 2012, we also wrote our second book, Raising The Bar – the Future of Fine Chocolate. We have already published a second edition of the book, and we plan to post a new one every few years.
Raising the Bar – The Future of Fine Chocolate
During the 18-year journey of Ecole Chocolat, we’ve met many new friends and colleagues in the chocolate world. The people I have met in my life have enriched it beyond measure. It’s a blessing that I get to spend my day talking with students, answering consumer questions, and updating the curriculum of our programs by staying up-to-date on the ever-changing chocolate world. I hope we can make a positive impact on our student’s lives by providing them with the tools to succeed.
It was a great decision to open Gourmet Magazine and begin this chocolate adventure. I am excited to see the future of our school and the fine chocolate industry. I look forward to contributing to an industry that I love.