Q&A with Chantal Coady

The Journal interviews the founder of Rococo Chocolates. 

The founder of Rococo Chocolates on cocoa, creativity and the brand’s 40th anniversary.


Q: Forty years ago, when you founded Rococo Chocolates, you went from being a textile design graduate to an artisan chocolatier. That’s not a well-trodden path. What took you down it? 

A: I suppose I just loved chocolate. I really loved it. I’d been obsessed since I was a child. But as I was getting older I was becoming a bit more sophisticated – it wasn’t just about Cadbury’s Creme Eggs anymore. I worked in Harrod’s chocolate department when I was a student, so that gave me a pretty good idea of what was out there. They were importing from France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Holland. They also had some very traditional English chocolates, like Bendicks Bittermints and rose and violet creams – those English classics that have been around since Victorian times. Those felt a little bit dusty to me, not so exciting. It was French chocolate that excited me. I loved this idea that you could go into a small shop in France and someone there would have actually made the chocolate themselves. For me, that was the pinnacle.


Q: When you opened your first Rococo shop on King’s Road in 1983, were you making your own chocolate right from the start? 

A: No. It took me a few years to become a chocolate maker. At that time, very few people were making chocolate themselves in this country. There might have been moments where the odd person did something, but then Health and Safety would come and close them down. I won’t mention any names! But I could get very good chocolates made for me by people just outside London and I could import things. At first that’s what I did. 


Q: What led you to start making your own? 

A: A couple of Belgian guys who were doing these beautiful bars for us, flavoured with things like black peppercorn and chilli, announced out of the blue that the chocolate had just been a side hustle for them while they were studying to do something else. They told us that when they qualified, they wouldn’t be doing this anymore. “But you can buy the moulds and the recipes and you can do it yourself,” they said. “It’s easy.” So that’s what we did. 


Q: How would you summarise your approach to chocolate? 

A: We came up with the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘provenance’ quite early, and I think that still sums it up. Chocolate should be a joy for every sense: eating it, looking at it, even the sound of it. But you also need to know that it’s come from the right place. That’s the first priority: to find out where the beans came from, who grew them, and what the flavour profile is. Like with wine, different varieties grown in different places have a different flavour. Then every step of the process makes a difference. After being harvested, the beans need to be fermented very carefully. After that, you dry them, then roast them. That’s where it’s a bit like coffee. If it’s a really good bean, you don’t want to over-roast it, you want to bring out the really lovely, mellow characteristics. And then it gets ground up and that, again, will affect the texture and the flavour. Every part of the process is important. It all needs to be done with love and care. 


Q: The name of the brand is very evocative – particularly with The Wallace Collection, a treasure trove of Rococo art, just moments away. How did the idea come to you? 

A: I did this mini business course – maybe three weeks in the classroom and then seven weeks where you write your plan. I was asked what the business was going to be called, but I was a bit paranoid, and I didn’t want to tell them the name I’d planned. So they said: “For god’s sake, just make something up for this purpose.” At that moment, it literally just came into my head: Rococo. And they all went: “Well, that’s brilliant. You have to call it that.” Afterwards, I looked it up in my dictionary and it said: French word, derived from ‘rocaille’, which means shell and scroll work, and the last thing it said was, “florid to the point of bad taste” and I thought, well, that gives me license to do exactly what I want, to have fun and be a bit irreverent. 


Q: The visual design of Rococo’s shops and chocolates is anything but bad taste. The look of the brand clearly shows the influence of your training as an artist... 

A: There have actually been three distinct design phases. The first was quite punk and new romantic, when I had pink hair and the shop had a sugar chandelier, stippled walls and cherubs on the ceiling. Then after that we went in more of a creativesalvage period, working with people like Tom Dixon and André Dubreuil. And then for the final phase, a bookseller brought me this old catalogue. It was blue, printed on paper which must have been cream originally but had gone quite yellow. I took the pages – and this is where my textile design comes in – I cut off the edges and the page numbers and laid the pages out in this random, repeating design. I spent four years learning how to do that at art school and then it took me about 10 minutes to actually put it together. It was very instantly distinctive and wrapping it round almost any shape works really well. It’s been an enduring thing. 


Q: You’ve always been highly inventive and a little subversive with the flavours and shapes of your chocolates. Is there something about British food culture that lends itself to that kind of creativity? 

A: I think the difference between us and continental Europe is that we had an industrial revolution which spread across every sector, but particularly food. It’s about producing as much food as cheaply as possible to feed people. You look at somewhere like France, there’s always been much more of a tradition of farm-to-table, buying at markets, not processing things in the same way. As a result, tradition is so much more important to them. I once had a debate with a French chocolatier that I knew. I gave him a box of fresh chocolates and he said: “I have to tell you. They’re too acidic and this is not right with chocolate.” He was coming from this very traditional French place. And I said: “Actually, that’s how I want them to be.” For him, it was like, no no no, you’ve crossed a line there. There are lots of problems with British food culture, but one of the good things is that we’re free to be a bit more experimental. You can have a bit of fun. 


Q: Where does inspiration for those creative leaps come from? 

A: It can come from anywhere. I’ll taste something – it might be a flavour in a Thai restaurant – and I’ll think, “Yes, let’s try that with chocolate.” It doesn’t always work, but often it does. In 1998, I was walking along the beach in Cornwall with my little boy, and we had ice creams. And as I was licking the ice cream, I got these little salt crystals that had just formed on my lips and I thought, wow, that’s an amazing sensation, the sweetness and creaminess of the ice cream and the salt. Back then, no one did a milk chocolate with sea salt. As soon as I got back, I made the recipe and put it into production. I can date it exactly because I didn’t know I was pregnant at the time, and I think that perhaps heightened my senses as well. That chocolate is still one of our absolute best sellers. 


Q: In 2019, you lost control of Rococo to an investor and were edged out of the business. Now the brand has been bought by Gruppo Illy, the Italian coffee and food group, and you’re back as creative director. How did that happen? 

A: A few years ago, the Illy group bought Prestat, which is one of the really old-fashioned English chocolate shops, started by a Frenchman 120 years ago. I met the young woman, Micaela Illy, who was running the business and we had a nice chat. Then one of my friends sent me this Italian newspaper clipping which said that Micaela had now bought Rococo. Immediately I reached out and congratulated her and said: “I’m really, really pleased that it’s in safe hands and if there’s anything I can do to help just let me know.” That progressed into a conversation about joining the board of directors. Now I’m creative director and brand ambassador. To be honest, it’s a bit unbelievable to be back doing the role that I was doing before. I love it. 


Q: How are you finding working within a large organisation rather than running a small one? 

A: It’s very different! Of course, there are a lot more people now with very specific roles – the finances, health and safety, compliance. I don’t get involved in any of that; I leave that to the experts. To be honest, it’s quite nice to be involved in the way that I am now, doing all the parts that excite me without having to worry too much about the other bits. It’s about new flavours, new collections of chocolate, new collaborations. I’m free to be creative. We’re working with some exciting couvertures like Domori, which was started by a young guy who was going to Venezuela and finding fantastic cocoa – very, very rare varieties. He has some of the finest flavoured cocoas in the world, perfect for turning into truffles with not too many ingredients. The flavour profile can really come through.