by Erin Goldberger
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we Brooklynites are not short on chocolatier options. NuNu Chocolates, Mast Brothers and Jacques Torres, to name a few, will have to move over just a tad bit to make room for the new chocolatier on the block. We had the opportunity to chat with Chocolatier Josh Altman, founder of WHAT AM I CHOCOLATE. If you need a unique sweet for your “sweet” this holiday, Josh may have the artistic creation you’re looking for.
BE: When did you start making chocolate? Did you study cooking? How did you get into this trade?
JA: I have been making small-batch confections for friends, family and colleagues for the past 6 years. My professional background is in Contemporary Art, and my training is in Art History and Museum Studies. My first real “aha moment” with chocolate came in 2004, while working at PS1/MoMA on the Dieter Roth retrospective exhibition. There I witnessed an immediate and visceral reaction from the public when they encountered the performative and reactive properties of chocolates. Placing an emphasis on smell and texture, it highlighted the politics of chocolate and the process of such an important German artist with Swiss roots. I was also been informed by Edward Ruscha’s Chocolate Room, 1970/2004 and Janine Antoni’s Lick & Lather, 1993. From these and other seminal works, I discovered that the performative potential of chocolate is endless!
BE: Any special processes involved that you use to make your creations?
JA: I hand temper all of my chocolates via the double-broiler method. I source only the best organic ingredients. All of the Cacao is organic, fair-trade and single-origin from South America. The only sweetener used is pure Agave, which interacts exceptionally well with the rich dark chocolate. Aside from vanilla, salt, spices and/or fresh herbs or special inclusions, there are no other ingredients added to the chocolates. I start with pure Cacao Mass and work each batch to highlight and enrich the subtle nuances and characteristics of that particular bean.
BE: Where do you make your chocolate?
JA: I make all of my chocolates in my home kitchen in Williamsburg (image above), where we live adjacent to the Graham Ave L train. For larger patches, I have utilized commercial kitchens in Brooklyn, but I enjoy working at home primarily for the time being, where all of my batches get my full attention. As things progress, I will eventually need to utilize commercial kitchens more and more, and I am looking forward to the challenges of processing larger and larger batches. I have also worked in artists’ studios, which always makes for an interesting learning experience.
BE: Where can your chocolates can be purchased from?
JA: The chocolates are currently available on my website. I hope to place them in local shops within the next 1-2 months. Interested retailers and boutiques can contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.
BE: What are your price ranges?
JA: Prices range from between $5-7 per bar depending on the inclusions and the origin of the beans I have access to. Boxes of assorted chocolates start at $10 per box of 6.
BE: How do you feel about the established chocolatiers here in Brooklyn?
JA: Brooklyn has a rich and informed community of chocolatiers, from high-end boutique shops to Bean-to-bar producers. The range and superior quality of chocolate being produced here makes this an exciting time for all of those involved. Even more important, Brooklyn is home to an informed and passionate community for small-batch artisanal foods.
BE: What are your Valentine’s Day specials?
JA: We are offering limited-edition batches of spiced A Fire in My Belly chocolate bars ($7/bar), made in response to the Smithsonian’s decision to withdraw a film by the late artist David Wojnarowicz titled, A Fire in My Belly (1987); from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. A percentage of the profits from these sales will be donated toward furthering freedom of speech. For those who are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian’s decision to withdraw this work, please visit http://www.hideseek.org. Also, our Sweet-Talkin’ cardamon infused bars will be $6/bar as a special for the month of February. We also have petite versions of all bars available for $4/bar.
BE: I recently saw the censored Fire In My Belly video at the New Museum. Can you tell me about the Fire in Your Belly Chocolate? Do you often use pop culture and news as a source of inspiration? What else do you use for new creations?
JA: Yes, a key inspiration for WHAT AM I CHOCOLATES is the potential for artistic collaboration. Coming from the art-world, there a great number of visual and performing artists who are constantly looking to new media as a way to execute their concepts. My hope is that I can re-introduce chocolate as a viable and valid means of artistic expression. I see no reason why fashion designers, web designers, musicians and visual artists cannot expand their practice to include chocolate. With the Fire in My Belly chocolates, I saw an opportunity to participate in and give visibility to such an important free-speech issue. I suggest those that are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian’s decision to withdraw the David Wojnarowicz film A Fire in My Belly (1987) from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition entitled Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, visit http://www.ppowgallery.com for additional information.
BE: Where do you hope to see WHAT AM I CHOCOLATES in the next year?
JA: I see WHAT AM I CHOCOLATES up to our elbows in chocolate! On the immediate horizon, I see collaborations with artists, resulting in limited editions of chocolates, as well as growing our website and twitter site. I would love to see the fruits of these collaborations available not only on our website, but also in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in both traditional and non-traditional retail outlets, boutiques and galleries. I would personally really love to see us at international art fairs such as Art Basel, Art Basel Miami, and Frieze, as well as at local artisanal food and craft fairs and markets.