Artisanal chocolate producers, for all their great work elevating quality and enlightening the public, have sloughed off one of chocolate lovers' great pleasures: the box. Single-origin bars represent a lot of work, and demand the consumer's attention, and so are sold alone. That's fine, but it precludes grazing.
I have found something that satisfies both sides of this problem. Askinosie Chocolate, a singular bean-to-bar producer in Springfield, Mo., has the Chocolate Library (www.askinosie.com; $140), a pine box with 15 single-origin bars, including white, dark and flavored versions. It represents their broad range handily, with several unusual offerings like a malted milk bar made in collabaration with Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams.
The man behind this barely decade-old company is Shawn Askinosie. As with many American chocolatiers, this is a second act. In his previous life, he was a criminal defense lawyer, and not just any criminal defense lawyer.
"The stakes were very high in many of the cases I handled," he explains. "Many of them were cases that carried life in prison and sometimes the death penalty. You can't get much higher stakes than that. And I loved my work. I loved it and felt called to it."
Askinosie excelled at defending people in stomach-churning, headline-grabbing cases. And he only worked for people who he believed were innocent. His goal was to serve justice, not simply to win. He was very good at his job. As he writes in his new book, Meaningful Work, "I never lost a criminal jury trial. I am one of a handful of lawyers in the country who have successfully obtained a not-guilty verdict in a death penalty case."
But the job wore on him, and he realized he needed a new vocation—a word he uses a lot. It essentially means the overlap of what you're good at, what the world needs and what you're passionate about. For a lot of people, combining two of those would be good. Askinosie went for three.
He is religious in a fully integrated, thoughtful, even intellectual way. Faith informs just about any topic he touches on, as do deep commitments to fairness and helping or simply comforting others. He has spent time at a Trappist monastery and volunteered at a palliative-care ward, to give just two examples. So when he needed to change his life, he began a simple daily prayer: "Dear God, please give me something else to do."
About five years later, his next act began to take shape. He was casting about for other interests and settled on his love of food and cooking. A thought came out of nowhere: "Why not make chocolate from scratch?" He explains, "This was in the early 2000s. I feel kind of dumb even admitting it, but even then, I was working with at that time Scharffenberger chocolate without even a clue where it came from. Didn't know that it came from a bean or the equator. Nothing."
He came from a farming family, so that side appealed to him, and he had had the simple revelation that he liked working with his hands. Within three months, he was in the Amazon in Ecuador visiting with farmers. Waking up the first morning in the forest, he knew what would fulfill him emotionally and spiritually: "I had this sense that this whole thing is bigger than I am. I can't control it. It felt really good."
Two years and a number of sourcing trips later, in 2007, his first bar was ready.
While he is in the business of chocolate, that kind of misses the point: "The fundamental principle behind the company is connection. My pursuit has been developing relationships with people." The idea is that building a business on friendship and partnership is more fulfilling and leads to a better product.
"Who we are, how we treat people, how we behave is inseparable from the end product and therefore will impact quality, flavor and enjoyment of the chocolate. I believe that with everything I have," Askinosie says.
He skipped cacao brokers; he wanted a direct link to the source. He recognized that many of the farmers in question were very poor. So he has built partnerships with farmers in Ecuador, the Philippines, Madagascar and more. He puts portraits of them on their bars. He has always returned a profit share to the farmers, and through open-book management, he claims that they get on average 48 percent more for their produce than they would using the conventional broker system. Askinosie also sells other local products and returns all profit to the source, where it is used to provide thousands of school lunches.
Closer to home, he runs a program called Chocolate University with schoolkids, culminating in a trip to Tanzania, the source for the dark chocolate and tannic nibs in the Dirty White Chocolate & Vintage Cocoa Gravel bar (Note: Not currently available in Feb. 2020), with bright white chocolate from the Philippines. Release is limited to 1,098 bars because that was the year of the founding of the Cistercian order. Askinosie is a Family Brother at Assumption Abbey in the Ozarks, where monks sewed the bag the chocolate is sold in.
The creative force behind that bar is Shawn's daughter Lawren, who has joined the company, and co-wrote his book. He says, "She's the person behind the storytelling of our brand and messaging of who we are as a company." But I get the sense that at Askinosie, everyone has a voice and can do whatever they're good at.
One wonders what they might do with the trappings of a larger company, for example consumer-testing the products before selling them. Shawn says, "We don't do market research. I wouldn't know how. Sounds cool though."