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Our Creatives

Five minutes with Lucy Grace, Grace Chocolaterie

Lucy Grace is a creative culinary professional behind Grace Chocolaterie, a small innovative enterprise on a mission to change how Kenyans perceive and consume chocolate.
Five minutes with Lucy Grace, Grace Chocolaterie

Lucy Grace is a creative culinary professional behind Grace Chocolaterie, a small innovative enterprise on a mission to change how Kenyans perceive and consume chocolate. An educator by trade, Lucy Grace spent most of her adult life in Switzerland, where she taught French while also learning from global professionals the magic of turning cocoa beans into sweet bars, pralines and truffles. Lucy Grace started producing chocolate in Kenya in 2019; a journey of self-education, discovery, trial and error brought her to opening a company that focuses on perfecting the art of chocolate while using local beans from Tanzania, local fruits and local creatives to turn chocolate buying, gifting and eating into an unforgettable experience.

Glitter Trotter: Today, we are finding ourselves in the sweet kingdom of Lucy Grace and Grace Chocolaterie. Lucy, tell us, how did you decide to become a chocolatier?

Lucy Grace: I spent most of my adult life, 35 years to be exact, in Switzerland – and have just recently returned to Kenya with my husband. Everything you have ever heard about Switzerland and chocolate is true. I am not really a sweet tooth, but it’s impossible to avoid chocolate in that country. For every celebration and every occasion, big or small, you always get a box of chocolate.

GT: Sounds like my kind of country.

LG: Yes, yes! Chocolate all the time – for lent, for Mothers’ day, for Valentine’s Day, for Christmas... But there was something else that made me think of chocolate. I lived in a small town called Neuchatel. And there was a chocolate shop next to the market. It was a very special shop, very small – but you get inside, and you are immediately surrounded by those sweet smells. It was one of my favorite places in Switzerland. Every Saturday, I would go to the market and stop by that shop to buy some chocolate.

GT: I think I know where I am going to retire – Swiss chocolate and Swiss cheese are two of my favorite things. But let’s continue with your story – there is still a long journey from loving chocolate and actually making it.

LG: Ok. So, I went to Switzerland to study at the University. My mother had a friend in Switzerland; we discussed and agreed it was a good idea for me to study abroad. I did, and I got a degree to teach French as a foreign language. So, believe it or not – but I am a teacher, and I was teaching French at the Hospitality University, Glion in Montreux and Fribourg. But then, I got married, the kids are grown up, I resigned from my teaching position, and we all returned to Kenya.

GT: Were you planning to teach here as well?

LG: Oh, no! I knew I wanted to do something different. Even though my friends and family were telling me I would do well in Kenya as a French teacher, I was done. I had been teaching my whole life – for more than 30 years! It was time I tried my hand in something new.

GT: It must have been scary to change your career just like that? What made you think of chocolate? Were you learning how to make chocolate all the while you were in Switzerland?

LG: In full honesty, I was not planning to do chocolate, it just happened. Since I was looking for something new to do, I decided to take culinary courses. People say I am a good cook; I was teaching at a Hospitality University. So I said, why not. I had about a year before our return to Kenya, and I made a plan for myself to learn how to cook professionally. I started with pastry-making courses; I went to France to a few prestigious schools, including in Paris; I took a course in bread-making. And then I told myself, “Why not add chocolate?” So, I went to Belgium to learn how to make chocolate.

GT: Hold on! Why Belgium? You were already in Switzerland, the global capital of chocolate!

LG: Funny enough, everyone says that! There is a big difference between Swiss and Belgian chocolate. Swiss chocolate has a lot of milk in it; in fact, they invented milk chocolate – it’s a sort of a variation, a niche they’ve carved out for themselves. But they do not teach adults how to make chocolate as such. You can only learn it in Belgium.

GT: How interesting! So, you went to Belgium?

LG: I did, and it was a great course and a wonderful experience overall. In Belgium, you walk around, and every other shop is a chocolate shop. You can try and learn through real life experience as much as you are learning in a classroom.

GT: And then?

LG: And then we returned to Kenya. At first, I was planning to open a coffee shop. But the process seemed long and cumbersome. I was afraid that with our lack of experience we might just lose our money. I told my husband, “Let me try chocolate.” He was not sure; he saw chocolate as more of a hobby not a business. But being stubborn, I decided to still try. After all, I studied it, I knew how to do it.

GT: What were the main challenges when you were starting?

LG: The main problem was and now still is the equipment. All the machinery is very very expensive. I decided to go the “artisan way” – I do pretty much everything by hand, just the way people used to do in the olden days – before they had the big machines. This is how I was actually taught to do the chocolate: you get the mass, you warm it to a certain temperature, you tamper it with a special spatula...

GT: And now?

LG: It’s still the same. I have not bought any big machinery, which means most of the work is done by hand. That’s why I can only make about 60 bars a day – the truly artisan chocolate takes a lot of time. And it’s not just about the work itself. You have to understand the environment around you because chocolate is very sensitive to temperatures, humidity, the weather overall. The first time I made chocolate in Kenya was a total disaster; I was very stressed and almost cried – and all because I did not realize how important the temperature in the house was. The second batch was better. But it took me for some time to get the temperature right. It’s the same as in bread-making: the temperature, the water, the flour you use – all of that affects the bread you get at the end.

GT: Sounds a bit like a food science of sorts.

LG: It actually is science! You have to do a lot of calculations. For example, when you get the mass, you melt it to about 39-42 degrees; and then you have to temper it down to break the crystals to 29 degrees, so that the chocolate is shiny when you finish. If you do not get the temperatures right, the chocolate oxidizes, it gets soft or crumbles. Have you ever tried cutting supermarket chocolate? It crumbles because it’s not high-quality chocolate. Another difference in making chocolate in Kenya versus in Belgium, when you put chocolate in the mold you are supposed to tap it once or twice to get rid of the air bubbles. Here, I usually just shake it a bit and that does the job; that’s what I’ve discovered myself. In fact, making chocolate in Kenya is always a trial and error for me – I never realized how important a difference in the climate might be!

GT: Where do you get your ingredients? Kenya?

LG: No, unfortunately, we do not grow cocoa beans in Kenya, although we could because the soil and the climate are very favorable. But that’s a different story. I get my chocolate mass from Belgium which they source from Ivory Coast and Ghana, and beans from Tanzania; and I am hoping to get some from Uganda too. I really like the Belgian mass – smooth, tasty chocolate. With the Tanzanian beans, I make my own mass for my signature 70% dark chocolate bar which is the real bean-to-bar chocolate with only two ingredients – cocoa beans and sugar.

GT: How is it different?

LG: Well, it’s dark chocolate and not everyone likes it because we are so used to milk chocolate. But this is how the true chocolate should taste. For this bar, I do the entire process myself. First, I roast the beans and remove the shells; the beans break into smaller pieces while deshelling - this process is called winnowing. The nibs – small pieces of beans - go into the grinding machine for 48 hours, so I get this smooth-textured mass before sugar is added. You can even grind them for 72 hours if you want a better mass.

GT: Why don’t you add sugar before grinding? So, everything gets mixed up together?

LG: The Tanzanian beans have this unique caramel smell, which would be lost in the bar if I add sugar too early. In addition, adding sugar too early will make chocolate feel very grainy. Once the mass is ready, I tamper the chocolate to 29 degrees and put it in the mold. The whole process takes between 48 and 72 hours; the longer the process, the smoother the chocolate. And remember, I only use a very basic grinding machine, which grinds with stones. You have to watch it to make sure it doesn’t stop. It’s a very engaging process.

GT: And after you put the mass in the mold?

LG: It rests at room temperature and then goes to the fridge. And voila -- the chocolate is ready! I have different molds in my house – some are for the chocolate and others are for pralines.

GT: What are pralines?

LG: Pralines are stuffed chocolates. It’s the best thing ever. I developed a whole menu of pralines – different shapes come with different fillings which we call ‘ganache’; a person can buy a box of chocolates and choose the types they want. The way you make pralines, you pour melted chocolate in the mold and then pour it out to get a chocolate shell. You let the shell harden, then add the ganache you have, and cover with melted chocolate on top. For my ganaches, I try to use local produce – for example, gooseberry, tree tomato, local fruits that are in season.

GT: How do you make sure the chocolate doesn’t stick to the mold?

LG: You use good molds, preferably made of polycarbonate. And you let the chocolate dry. If the chocolate sticks, there is something wrong with it: it hasn’t been well-tempered, the temperature was too high. I keep checking my chocolate as it sits in the fridge – to make sure it has the gloss.

GT: Now that we’ve learned how to make chocolate, how do you find the market here in Kenya?

LG: The market is definitely slow. Partially, this is due to COVID-19; people are cautious about spending money on what they perceived as luxuries. But in addition, in Kenya we are used to bar chocolates. It is not easy to motivate people to try something very different. Some venture to try white chocolate because it’s nice and sweet. By the way white chocolate is cocoa butter, milk and sugar – not really chocolate.

GT: I suspected that was the case.

LG: Yes, so people like white chocolate and maybe milk chocolate. But for my signature 70% dark chocolate bar the market is very small for now. Same for pralines – it’s been slow. I think the name and the concept are not very familiar to us, Kenyans. So, selling my chocolate has been difficult. It’s so new and unusual. And we also have the conversation about the right price.

GT: I think this is one of the most important aspects when it comes to entrepreneurship, how do you price your product. Price is truly a very subjective thing; people would say something is expensive but then will go ahead and buy something for double the money if they believe this something is an investment. Items from famous brands are a perfect example – nobody complains that Louis Vuitton’s bags are too expensive.

LG: That’s exactly the case. The price has to match your expectations of the value you get. And many of us grew up to associate chocolate with local products – certain taste, certain price. So, the way to change the perception would be to change the culture around chocolate, to educate Kenyans on what good chocolate tastes like – pure chocolate made of Tanzania-grown beans, with no additives, the artisan hand-made chocolate. Once the culture is right, then the price will not be seen as excessive. It might be a journey, but I have not given up!

GT: I am glad to hear that! I actually really like your chocolate!

LG: I am in it for the long run! I started making a catalogue for my chocolates. I will try to do something like “made to order.” You pre-order your pralines and have it delivered to you within 24 hours. Very exclusive, very unique – just for you or your special person. I think this will be a step in the right direction.

GT: That’s a very cute catalogue! And I like the idea if tailor-made chocolate, feels very haute couture!

LG: That’s exactly the culture I want to create – haute couture chocolate. I am still working on finding the right packaging, so the presentation also feels very exclusive. I have not been able to find the right packaging in Kenya yet, which is unfortunate because I want to do everything, or as much as possible, locally -- in Kenya.

GT: Maybe this is something you can mentor local craftsmen on – high-quality packaging? I think this might be a good course to teach young kids who would like to start their own small business.

LG: Yes, I would sure like to have locally-made boxes for my locally-made chocolate. I want them to be presentable but also hygienic, you know, so the packaging not only looks great but is also safe. Same for the catalogue – I would be happy to produce it in Kenya one day.

GT: Since we started talking about your hopes for the company, tell me more about what you would like to see happening with Grace Chocolaterie in the future?

LG: As I said, the market is slow but I am not giving up. I have big plans for the future. For example, we talked about the beans that I buy from Tanzania. There are big companies from Switzerland that buy beans all over the world, and you know what they do? They go to the farmers and give them specific instructions on how they want their cocoa beans dried and fermented. For example, they can say, add mango to this barrel and passion fruits to this one. The beans absorb the taste and smell of the fruits they are fermented with. So, I hope one day I will be able to also control more processes that affect the taste of the beans and the chocolate. I would love to say that I would be producing cocoa beans in Kenya, but you need millions to do that. But Tanzania is close enough, and I can do something unique and beautiful there.

Image courtesy Lucy Grace

GT: Do you only buy beans from Tanzania?

LG: Well, there are a number of countries that produce great beans. Ecuador has the best of them, they are called Criolo – very rare and expensive, like gold. I bought about 3 kilos years ago but have not yet had a chance to use them – I need a special occasion to roast them. But in Africa, there are good beans in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Tanzania, DRC. Ghana and Ivory Coast are fine, by me. But I think it makes sense to work with farmers in East African countries, where I can do more – including impacting the entire value chain, as we discussed. I also really want to work with individual farmers and farmer collectives, not with big farms and processing companies that are owned by foreign enterprises and are controlled from abroad. I really hope my company can go far in changing the industry and changing the local chocolate culture. I think there is a niche for my chocolate – I have great quality, I do it locally, I take a lot of pride in doing things right while also doing them differently. You know, unlike big companies that use expensive machinery, I can only make 60 bars a day. Not 60 thousand, not 60 million, just 60 pieces. But I put a lot of skill, a lot of thought, and a lot of love into each bar. And I really hope one day, Kenyans will recognize the value and the creativity that I am offering in each of my bars. This is what you would call ‘fresh chocolates’.

GT: I am already convinced! Best of luck with these fantastic plans. I am sure one day I will say “This is Lucy Grace on TV talking about her big chocolate company. I knew her when she was just starting, and now look how far she’s gone!”

LG: Thank you for believing in me!