I first fell in love with Paul A Young’s sea salted caramel chocolates while I was living in Islington, dangerously close to the London chef’s first chocolate shop.
Walking past the sleek and inviting store each day, it was almost impossible to resist the small dark igloos of chocolate filled with salty sweet caramel that oozes across your tongue as you bite through the crisp casing.
Several years later, and with the offer of an interview, I was excited to be meeting the man behind the chocolate.
We’d arranged to meet at Young’s newest shop in Soho’s Wardour Street - a big corner space in a prime location in the gay district of the UK capital, endless arrays of chocolate neatly displayed to entice the passing shopper.
The smart young shop assistant was expecting me and soon Young came bounding up the stairs from the production kitchen below the store.
We chatted over coffee at nearby L’Eto Cafe - it was my recommendation as I thought it would be quiet. Young looked dubious.
'It’s better than you’d expect!' I insisted, over-riding his suggestions of local hotspots Flat White and Princi.
As I’d promised, L’Eto was quiet which was perfect for an interview, however Young had to send his decaf latte back to be heated up - my café credibility was shot.
Small, ginger, and smartly turned out, Young talks quickly and energetically - clearly passionate about his business and surprisingly driven and ambitious.
When did you first realize that chocolate was your thing?
It was really 10 years ago that everything started.
I began my training as a chef in 1989 and eventually became head of patisserie for Marco Pierre White. From there I moved into product development for Marks & Spencer and then Sainsbury’s.
After 12 months back in the kitchen as head pastry chef for a restaurant in Mayfair, I then went freelance - consulting, teaching, writing, television cooking shows, and demonstrations at food fairs, and it seemed that everything I was doing was somehow coming back to chocolate.
It was around 2002 that I entered the world chocolate awards - I entered a sea salted caramel, a raspberry ganache, and a classic truffle - all entirely hand made and no artificial anything. The chocolates won awards and that started to generate a lot of commissions for chocolates.
How did you then make the move into opening the retail outlets?
After the publicity generated by the chocolate awards, my business partner James Cronin and I started looking at opening a shop, but it took three years to find our first location - which was Camden Passage in Islington. We opened there in 2006, but during that period I was doing about four different jobs while also trying to set up this business so it was pretty intense.
Since then we’ve grown to three shops.
During the last 10 years, of establishing and building the business, what’s been the hardest phase?
Right now - managing people is the hardest thing.
When we started it was just me, my business partner and friends and family. Now we have a core team of 25 staff, and during peak periods that increases to 30.
I have a real emotional commitment to our staff, a duty of care.
The first four years was incredibly hard too - I was working seven days a week. It’s only just now that I’m starting to take weekends off but I feel guilty about taking time off. I thought working for Marco Pierre White was hard, but working for yourself and starting your own business is a completely different level.
Where do you recruit your chocolatiers from?
We’re the only people making hand-made chocolate in London, hand-made at every stage of the process. We’ve only got one chocolatier that had had any chocolate experience before joining us - everyone else we’ve trained, so it’s about finding the right people.
We get three to five applications each week from chefs who want to come and work with us and learn how to make chocolate.
You’re known for your creative flavor combinations - what process do you follow to create new chocolates?
I’ve always been good at product development, and the experience at somewhere like Sainsbury’s was invaluable as you’ve not only got to innovate constantly, but you’ve got to come up with something new that most importantly people will buy.
I generally need peace and quiet to create new chocolates.
Right now we’re working on a whole new collection for Valentine’s Day - there’s not going to be any chocolate hearts or rose flavorings, there’ll be chocolates designed for men to give to women and of course chocolates designed for men to give to men - it’s all about the flavors.
With enough time and experimentation you can make any flavor combination taste good - even Marmite is a winner, although surprisingly I can’t get Elderberries to work.
Product development is the part of the business that I really love, it’s just having the time. One of my goals for this year is to free myself up from the day-to-day operations of the business to allow more time for product development.
For Valentine’s Day we’re creating 15 new products, but for Easter we’ll create more than that. Of course we’ll still have core products such as sea salted caramels and champagne truffles - I think our customers would kill us if we ever stopped selling those!
Given that you’re working with chocolate every day, do you still enjoy eating chocolate?
Of course! I generally have a salted caramel each day - just one. It was the first chocolate that I ever made for the business and it’s still our best seller.
I think we have an opportunity to change the way that people in this country see chocolate - you shouldn’t feel guilty about having some every day, if it’s good quality and fresh then it’s not bad for you. With good quality chocolate you also don’t need to eat as much.
But I think you also need to have a sense of humor with chocolate, I still eat Kit Kats, and I love chocolate digestives.
What’s next for the Paul A Young chocolate empire?
One of our jobs for this week is to sit down and look at where our investment needs to be. I definitely want a new development lab so that we can continue to push our innovation.
We will also open another shop at some stage - maybe in London, maybe overseas. Our limit is four or five shops and we definitely want one of those to be in New York.
There might be options for us to distribute our products wider, but we’re not going to open a factory or start to expand on a high street scale.
My first book was published in 2009 and I’m just finalizing the contract on my second book.
We’re also looking at a television series and have been working on a range of ideas for the last two years - this year is the year I get a TV series if it kills me!
I want to become known as a world expert on chocolate, to share and pass on what I’ve learnt. I also want to travel more this year - I’ve hardly had a holiday since the business started, you definitely get inspiration and fresh ideas from visiting new places.
You know, it’s weird seeing your name on a shop, but I get a real thrill when I see someone on the tube carrying a bag of chocolates that they’ve bought from one of our stores - that’s a huge vote of confidence and makes me feel really special.