The sleek modern headquarters of star chocolatier Patrick Roger—“chocolate’s enfant terrible”, as the daily Le Figaro calls him—stand on a quiet residential street in Sceaux, a leafy suburb of Paris.
Intoxicating fumes of high-grade chocolate waft out when you open the double doors to the workshop. Chocolate dust hangs in the air. Young men in black are toiling at marble-topped tables, meticulously fashioning the exquisite praline squares, truffles, single-source bars and other temptations that make Patrick Roger famous among chocolate addicts.
Roger himself is easy to spot, working alone at a table at the far end of the vast space, a compact, bearded figure in a white chef’s outfit and white clogs. His collar is trimmed with the blue-white-red insignia of a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the prestigious national award given to craftsmen who excel in their field, which he won at age 32, in 2000.
Adding a wacky, surrealist note to the scene, Roger is surrounded by remarkably realistic, life-sized chocolate chimpanzees, set on stands and looming over him. Gripping a large knife in his cocoa-stained hand, Roger is busy sculpting yet another one. The emerging chimp is on its back, limbs outstretched, jaws wide open, showing all its teeth, lying in what looks like a large chocolate bowl. “He’s in his nest,” explains the artist. “It’s not finished yet.”
Chocolate apes are simply one facet of Roger’s varied repertoire. He sources chocolate from some 30 countries around the world. He concocts inventive flavors like thyme-lemon, Szechuan-ginger and oatmeal infusion. He packs his assortments in chic blue-green boxes, and he also sculpts colossal chocolate models for the windows of his shops.
Penguins and hippos
In the last few years, strollers passing by his shop windows have been stopped in their tracks by supersized Easter chickens, a replica of the Berlin Wall (almost 50 feet long, nearly 2,000 pounds of chocolate), a naked rugby player holding a strategically placed ball, and Fanny, a plump ballet dancer in a tutu showing her Botero-esque derrière, in honor of Valentine’s Day. As for the 33-foot Christmas tree Roger built for the 2010 French Téléthon, Guinness World Records has officially recognized it as the world’s tallest chocolate sculpture.
Recently Roger has been dramatizing the plight of endangered species, with penguins, bears, orangutans, gorillas, hippos: “I’m from the country, so I’ve always been conscious of nature. I owe my living to the plant world—no plants, no chocolate. Animals depend on plants, just as we do, and today their habitats are being destroyed by humans—that is a macabre subject, but real.”
His sculptures are made from edible chocolate, but not for dégustation; this is art for art’s sake. Favorite creations are later cast in bronze. He displays them upstairs on the workshop’s top floor; he’s even shown some in Paris’s Grand Palais. “People compare my things to Brancusi, Giacometti,” he scoffs. “They always need a reference. But no—it’s me. I never set foot in a museum until I was 26.” As he continues to sculpt and chat convivially, he checks his iPhone. “Sorry, it’s about our new shop. Lucky I can do several things at the same time.”
Suddenly, disaster. The chocolate cracks and the chimp’s arm falls right off. Roger expresses his dismay: “Putain! Merde!”
He starts repairing, dipping into a tempering kettle full of warm melted chocolate. “It’s complicated sculpting with chocolate. That’s why no one does it but me,” he grumbles, pointing to his head and spinning his index finger. “Crazy.”
Bakery, bikes, bingo
Insanity seems to work for him. The chimps are destined to adorn his new shop, opening November 15, replacing an older one on the Place de la Madeleine, an elegant location where his neighbors are confectionery bigwigs Fauchon and Ladurée. He now has eight boutiques, five in Paris and three others in Sceaux, nearby suburb Saint Germain-en-Laye and Brussels, Belgium. And there’s also an online store. Roger’s company now produces six million chocolates a year and employs some 30 people.
Not bad for a country boy. Roger was born in 1968 in Le Poislay, a sleepy rural village of 80 inhabitants in the Loir-et-Cher département, where his parents ran the bakery. It’s only a two-hour drive southwest of Paris, but another reality. “We ate directly from the garden. The garden is the source of taste, so I acquired that, although I didn’t know it then.”
An annual cross-country motorcycle race was the only thrill available in Le Poislay, and it ignited young Patrick’s passion for big shiny bikes, like the red Ducati now parked outside his headquarters. He credits his upward mobility to his lust for motorcycles: “When you have no money, you have to work. And the more you work, the better you get.”
He learned that lesson early. Roger was such a slouch in school his parents packed him off at age 15 to start as an apprentice pâtissier in the nearby town of Châteaudun. There, at pastry boot camp, he proved so proficient that when Paris pastry chef Pierre Mauduit went looking to hire the best apprentices in France, 18-year-old Roger was among them. Then, when Roger’s boredom with pastry began to show, Mauduit banished him to chocolate. Bingo. Roger had found his calling.
“Chocolate is creative,” he explains. “It’s an exact science, but with freedom.” His skill and precision landed him some tricky projects, including his first chocolate sculptures—a giant tennis racket for champion Yannick Noah, and jigsaw puzzles for designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Later, after his military service, Roger’s quest for chocolatier expertise took him far and wide. He created his first chocolates for his parents’ bakery while working in a restaurant near Lausanne—made in Switzerland, sold in Le Poislay. Back in the Loir-et-Cher, he entered competitions to build up a reputation in the exclusive chocolate world. In 1994, he scored the Grand Prix International du Chocolat with his Amazon, a green halfsphere filled with a surprising blend of caramel and Brazilian lime.
With a loan from his parents and credit from the bank, Roger opened his first shop in 1997 close to Paris in Sceaux. Three months later, he’d hired 18 people to help him satisfy the local bourgeoisie’s voracious desire for his praline-filled petits rochers, or little rocks, named Instinct. The business has been expanding ever since.
Winning the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award provided the impetus for opening his first boutique in Paris, home of “le beau et le bon”, he says, in 2005. Roger’s winning entry was Harold, a chocolate statue of a Colombian cocoa farmer wearing a widebrimmed hat, crouching over his cocoa beans; the 143-lb figure was balanced only on his tiptoes.
Sixty a day
“Chocolate saved my life,” he says, now that he’s created his own Patrick Roger universe. He moved to his present 7,500-square-foot workshop in 2007, doing it up in high-tech style and his favorite colors, black and emerald. He enjoys showing visitors his gastronomic library upstairs, and the big kitchen garden where he picks mint, lemongrass and other herbs to put in his chocolates. He also keeps ten beehives that produce honey for his recipes.
“Want a chocolate?” He grabs some from an assistant’s tray. One square falls to the floor. He pounces on it and pops it in his mouth. “Plain ganache, 80%. Powerful, no?” He eats maybe 60 of his creations a day, he says, for quality control.
Roger may make sophisticated, expensive chocolates for educated gourmets, but he remains close to his country roots. “I like nature, simple authentic things. Those are the values I try to transmit in my creations. I work with what I know and what suits me.” That includes his family. He met his wife Véronique at school in Le Poislay (their two daughters, Céleste and Camille, are 9 and 3); she runs the boutique in Sceaux. His younger sister Corinne is in charge of corporate gifts, and his parents still supply homegrown ingredients for his confections.
When Roger isn’t sculpting—projects like the chimps and his giant “vegetal” Santas for Christmas take months to complete—he’s dreaming up new bonbons, like orbs with a black-and-white aboriginal motif, a limited edition for the Quai Branly museum gift shop. The filling “will revolve around licorice,” he says. He is also experimenting with Japanese tastes, using rice, sake and yuzu.
A fine romance
Roger travels the world to find the best raw materials. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out an almond, a basic praline component. “It’s French,” he says of the almond, “but that’s not enough to make it good! Like with Bordeaux wine, you have to know your way around.” He shows his iPhone photos of the Languedoc-Roussillon orchard his almonds come from. As for his Sicilian pistachios, they cost €70,000 a ton.
“The trick to making chocolate—it’s the process. There are 15 to 25 different steps. Here,” he gestures at the workshop, “we do what I say. I impose my taste—French taste—but the transmission is very complex. You give people the same chocolate recipe, everybody does it differently. Making chocolate is like making love. When you change lovers, it’s a new experience.
“Chocolate is a means of communication,” he sums up. “It brings people together. The idea of pleasure is crucial. Chocolate is completely consensual.”
3 pl de la Madeleine, 8th; 108 blvd Saint Germain, 6th. For more addresses and information: www. patrickroger.com
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of France Today