May 6th 2019 is the 300th Anniversary of King George I granting permission for the residents and landowners of Chelsea to use his private road, King’s Rd in Chelsea. One of the current residents is Rococo Chocolates owned by Chantal Coady and she speaks to Juliet Bawden about chocolate and her OBE
How long have you been a chocolatier?
I don’t really consider myself to be a chocolatier in the traditional sense. I would call myself more a chocolate designer or a curator of chocolate experiences. My love of chocolate goes back to my early childhood, so at least half a century since I made my first Easter Egg. It was an unbridled disaster, probably why I can still remember it.
You began your creative career studying Textile design at Camberwell School of Art, now part of University of the Arts London. After obtaining your degree did you ever work in textile design?
I have never designed any actual textiles since Graduating from Camberwell. In fact as a student at Camberwell, I split my time between the Printmaking, Photography and Printed Textiles departments, and my final show was my photographic images on silk squares. It was a bit radical at the time. I suppose you could say that my Rococo designs are a reflection of four years studying, so I have put the experience to good use.
What made you change direction entirely and start your own chocolate business ?
The moment of truth was when I went to meet my friend Nicky Cousins at Harrods (who was studying at Chelsea Art School), she was working in the Chocolate department on Saturdays. That job was like a dream come true, especially when I was offered a place on the team, I jumped at it. I could hardly believe that I was being paid to sell chocolates. My very first customer was Michael Caine, though I failed to recognise him.
Today there are many independent chocolate companies but you were one of the first, when you started did you do your own making or did you buy in?
When I started Rococo, NO-ONE was making their own chocolates in store. Most chocolate businesses had factories outside London who made their chocolate and many companies bought chocolate in from Belgium, or France. A famous exception that I have been asked about is Floris Chocolates, in Soho’s Brewer St, founded by a Hungarian émigre, although they had been closed for many years before I opened.
Was it difficult to source delicious chocolates?
It’s helpful to remember that Britain in the 1980s was in the grip of a two hundred year old industrial food tradition: so chocolate meant either ‘Belgian’ or Cadburys. I discovered a great trade show in Cologne, it’s still running although its decades since I visited. Big & small chocolate companies exhibit there, so it was easy to find lots of very good suppliers under one roof.
Where did you go to learn about chocolate manufacturing?
Manufacturing is not the word I would use for it. I spent time in Yorkshire with Alan and Nicola Porter, together we had started the Chocolate Society, so I needed to get up to speed on all the basic techniques of chocolate making. I learned about tempering chocolate and making the perfect ganache on a trip to Varhona’s Chocolate School at Tain–l’Hermitage. That was an eye opener. I learnt about using really top ingredients and understanding the skills needed to create simple and delicious fresh chocolates. After that it was practice, and more practice, and then training a good small team to help.
Had you ever had any experience in running a business and had you been taught anything about business whilst at art school?
At art school they really look down at anything remotely commercial, in fact I was more or less punished because I had a Saturday job, which I needed for the money, instead of attending Saturday sketching outings, so definitely no business classes. I did attend a mini business course that was run by the Manpower Services Commission: a Margaret Thatcher initiative to encourage entrepreneurs. We had three weeks in the classroom, and six weeks to create your own business plan. It was enough to get me my first bank loan, although the bank manager asked for it to be secured with the family house.
How did you find your first premises and why did you choose Chelsea, which even in the nineteen eighties was expensive?
I got a map of London, marked all the locations where there were existing chocolate shops, and looked for a gap in an area that I believed had the right type of demographics for my customers. In fact that bit of the King’s Road was populated by punks, and was pretty rundown although it had a great vibe. I paid for the end of a lease, which with hindsight was probably a mistake, but at the time seemed to only way to get a shop.
I know you design your own packaging has that always been the case? What made you decide to expand and open other shops?
There have been three main design periods at Rococo – the first was cherubs and candy floss pink that matched the decor, the next was a more classical Rococo period design, in black and white with Ho Ho birds at the time of the “Creative Salvage” period, and the enduring one is based on the antique French chocolate mould catalogue, again using my art school training in how to create a random repeating design. That has formed the corner stone of the brand design and other inspirations have been Moroccan encaustic tile designs, as well as my hand paint designs like the Neroli orange blossom Also my own handwriting is very much a part of the character, and features on almost all the labels. We have shops in Chelsea, Belgravia, Seven Dials, Marylebone and Notting Hill.
One of the reasons I am interviewing successful women who are over forty is that they have often had to take a career break, or had to slow down to deal with child care and or aged parents. Have you ever had to deal with either of these of issues and did it impact on your creative life or business?
I chose my path to be self-employed in business, and at the time I had my children I was not even eligible for maternity leave other than the statutory 6 weeks (at about £60 a week if I remember correctly). I did not have a choice, but to go straight back to work after about 2 weeks, and James was very supportive coming to help whenever he could. We shared the childcare in the early months and then got some help, in fact James pretty put his acupuncture career on hold while he came into the business. That was a huge sacrifice for him, and if he had not done that I dont suppose Rococo would have survived those early childhood years. Clearly this makes a huge impact on life in general, and finances were extremely tight. I have a clear memory of my son, aged two weeks, asleep in his car seat among the Easter boxes in the basement of the King’s Road shop and also of having my daughter strapped to me in a papoose aged about 1 week, as we stacked the shelves in a new shop in Bluewater in 1999, that did not last long!
You run events and workshops from some of your shops how long have you been doing this and do you enjoy it?
It takes a particular skill set to run events, and a very good support team. When that is in place it’s a real pleasure to do workshops. My favourites are ones off site in places like Castello di Potentino in Tuscany. It’s even more complicated when you have to take everything with you but lovely to be inspired by completely new surroundings and ingredients. I have also done a master class on a cruise ship in the Caribbean where the air-conditioning failed and room temperature was nearly 40C; that was majorly stressful, although I managed to get my chocolate tempered with some help from the sous chefs and the fridges. Its good to get out of your comfort zone, but probably not necessarily under such circumstances! I do have a great team who do the day to day events, so the responsibility does get shared.
Were you surprised when you were awarded an OBE?
I could not have more surprised to receive an official brown envelope, that looked like a parking ticket, which announced the nomination for the OBE – I actually thought it was a spoof, and refused to even look at it properly. Finally I was persuaded by my husband James to read it and return the paperwork. This bit all takes place months before the actual list is published, so you have to keep very quiet. I was really delighted when it was announced and especially to receive the very first in the category of “Services to Chocolate Making”. I am aware that without the help and support of my long suffering husband, family, and good chocolate people I have met along the way, the OBE would never have happened, so I am humbly grateful to all of them.
The trip to Buckingham Palace was a magical day, and following the advice of fellow honourees, I made sure that it was properly celebrated, with small parties at both lunch & dinner. Prince William was the Royal on duty at my investiture, and I managed to make him burst into laughter over my answer to his question “How did you get into chocolate?”. I can’t actually remember what I said.
It felt very grand driving into the Palace, and made my taxi driver’s day!
Interview : Juliet Bawden