Q & A with Marou: Makers of fine chocolate
Marou is a young specialty chocolate brand out of Vietnam that has certainly made waves in its short life with its award-winning single-origin chocolate. Recently Seed & Tell was fortunate to speak with one of the founders, Vincent Mourou, by phone days ahead of the new Marou store opening in Ho Chi Minh. As contractors were buzzing around finishing the store fit out he related how he and co-founder Samuel Maruta brought Marou to life. We used excerpts of the interview below for our story on the New Wave of Artisanal Food in Asia.
Q: PLEASE SHARE WITH US YOUR BACKGROUNDS AND WHAT TOOK YOU TO VIETNAM.
A: I worked in Hollywood – in film originally then advertising. I quit my job in San Franscisco and on a soul-searching trip in South East Asia passed through Ho Chi Minh. I returned to the city and wanted to stay. I liked the culture and food. The people are fantastic and dynamic. Very friendly and the climate is good.
Samuel came to Vietnam for a banking role.
Q: DESPITE HAVING CHOCOLATE INDUSTRY BACKGROUNDS YOU HAVE BOTH CREATED A WINNING CHOCOLATE BRAND – MAROU WAS FEATURED AND WON AT THE ACADEMY OF CHOCOLATE AWARDS IN 2013. WHAT HAS BEEN THE KEY FACTOR IN YOUR MANY SUCCESSES SO FAR?
A: Not being from chocolate is important. We had no preconceived ideas about chocolate which opened us up to new ideas on all levels. We learnt by doing.
February 1, 2011 was the night we made our 1st batch in Sam’s kitchen. Those first 9 mths [ahead of launch] were insane. Everything was done in parallel. It was like we had so much to learn and then improve on – it was a rich time for learning.
The key elements were in Vietnam. There is some good cacao to be found. Very few people make chocolate in the country of origin but now people talk about Vietnamese cacao [prior to Marou’s success]. Before it was just being exported.
Q: HOW DID YOU BOTH MEET AND GET INTERESTED IN CACAO?
A: I was looking for a project. I wanted to do something that was good for people and made them happy. Something that was local, rooted to the ground and ultimately I wanted to do something original. My own research showed no one really knew about cacao here and no one was doing anything with it.
Sam and I met in the jungle on a weekend survival trip run by a former French foreign legion guy. We subsequently ran into each other at university classes. It wasn’t until we met again at a charity dinner that we discovered we were both interested in cacao.
Q: PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR FIRST BEAN-HUNTING, MOTOR BIKE ADVENTURE.
A: I had been trying through official channels to learn more about cacao in Vietnam with limited success. I mentioned to Sam that I was planning to just go out on my motorbike into the countryside in search of cacao. Sam was keen to join and the next day we set off. I had never even seen a cacao tree for real. We pulled in and met a farmer, got a tour of his farm, bought 6 Euro worth of beans (a couple kilos) and then at the end of the day headed back into Ho Chi Minh.
Crossing the river I said to Sam, “What’s next?” He said, “Making chocolate!”
We needed an oven, blender and mixer all of which Sam had in his kitchen. We headed back there that evening [February 1, 2011] and used a website as a guide. The result was not really chocolate but a granular paste. It was unshaped and raw. That was our Eureka moment. We knew we had something.
There’s an element of adventure that you need to start something in Vietnam. No one had really done any artisanal food manufacturing at that point.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET FROM SAMUEL’S KITCHEN TO THE PRODUCT YOU HAVE TODAY?
A: We met Hans Wiberg-Wagner, a German agronomist and cacao expert, who was finishing a cacao development project for GIZ, the German aid agency.
He was basically giving us masterclasses over glasses of beer then we’d go to the farm together. We felt empowered with more knowledge – applicable knowledge that we could use to assess farms and select beans.
We kept a scientific journal making notes of different variables in the recipes and documented the journey.
We had a great time. We had no idea of where it was going. After the first 2 months we ended up with a decent chocolate. We still had to improve on the selection of the bean, roasting and the type of sugar but we quickly had something that was pretty fun.
Everything came together in the summer of 2011. It was hot and raining. There were challenges but we had time to think and incorporate the journey.
Q: HOW IMPORTANT HAS DESIGN AND BRANDING BEEN TO THE MAROU STORY?
A: Very important. We spent a lot of time getting it right. We felt if we wanted people to notice it we needed to get the packaging right and spent about 6 mths on the wrapper design with Rice Creative who were also just starting out – we all wanted to get it right.
We had been to France in November 2011 before launching and had met some famous French chocolatiers. They were very positive about it [Marou’s product]. One said if the chocolate is as good as the wrapper I’ll buy it right away.
We did experience a mini viral phenomenon. In December 2011 we released the chocolate as it is today. In March 2012 Wallpaper* went to Milan for Design Week and saw images that Rice had released on their blog then it went everywhere.
We wanted the wrapper to be beautiful, to express place, tradition (art deco) and give the idea of an older brand. And the artisanal element through the hand printing and hand wrapping.
Also the bar is flipped. You open [unwrap the packaging] to the front of the bar not the back like others! People were telling us our bars were facing backward! We wanted the beauty of the bar to be seen right away.
We wanted to express a complete chocolate experience. It [Marou chocolate] stands out on the shelf. You take it in hand and it feels good. Then you unwrap the gold paper and sticker to see the face of the bar so you can appreciate the design of the mould.
The chocolate is moulded in diagonal lines which gives a fun, uneven experience. It’s meant for sharing. It’s a bit playful – you don’t all get them same size piece.
Q: WHAT OTHER FACTORS HAVE BEEN IMPORTANT IN YOUR JOURNEY?
A: We control everything from bean to bar. We work directly with the growers and pay more than the market price. We select bag by bag so we work with something we know. We know what the chocolate will taste like when we select the bean.
Q: FROM ROASTING TO WRAPPING HOW LONG DOES YOUR PROCESS TAKE?
A: 3 days from the time you roast, grind, refine, conche, temper and wrap.
Q: HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE INVOLVED IN THE PROCESS?
A: We have grown from 2 to 50 – there’s been a huge increase with new store opening.
Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW SHOP MAISON MAROU?
A: It’s in center of Ho Chi Minh. People can see our chocolate making and our 80-year-old roasting machine. We also have bars with inclusions, bonbons, patisserie and single-origin coffee.
(Image credits: Supplied by Marou)
About Seed & Tell:
Today it has become a luxury to know intricate details about the food we consume – what it contains, who made it and how. We believe it should be a given and want to celebrate food artisans and help to spread their good food vibes by sharing their stories.