So you thought that the Start-up Nation mentality was all about advancing high-tech? For me, it is all about indulging taste buds.
They told me in culinary school in America that nobody, apart from the huge producers, actually makes chocolate from the cocoa bean to a finished product. Bakers and confectioners buy it in. And even most “chocolatiers” source ready chocolate and concentrate their energy on shaping and filling it.
But I did not stay in America. I moved to Israel, where people throw caution to the wind. And today, I run one of the world’s smallest bean-to-bar chocolate-making operations.
I was in the middle of university in New York when I fell in love with confectionery. My future was actually headed in a very different direction at the time. I was planning to join the rabbinate. But in 2009 I took some time off from university to attend pastry school.
At that time, I was only intending to get better at my lifelong passion of baking, and it was while I was there that chocolate-making became an obsession.
After pastry school I returned to university to finish my studies, fulfilling a promise to my parents. But after graduation, it was straight back to chocolate-making.
In 2012 I made aliyah. I knew far more about chocolate than about Hebrew and Israeli taste buds, as I was to discover. I opened a shop in Zichron Yaakov, where I was living at the time. Even though it was clearly a chocolate shop, a linguistic quirk meant people kept trying to order plates of hummus.
My slogan was: “Come see us make chocolate from the bean.” In English, the slogan works well. Dropping the word “cocoa” from “cocoa bean” doesn’t change the meaning. But the Hebrew word I used for bean was “ful”. In theory it is a correct translation, but in day-to-day life in Israel, the word refers to a particular bean, fava, in cooked form, served hot over a plate of hummus. Needless to say, I had some very confused customers.
As my Hebrew got better and I became more comfortable interacting with customers, I began to learn to adapt what I was producing to make it more palatable to Israelis. I thought the bitterness was just right, but it was too much for sweet-toothed Israelis.
So I adapted, and made most of my chocolate 60 per cent dark instead of 70 per cent. It still was nowhere near the sweetness of the ever-popular Elite chocolate, but at least customers were beginning to enjoy what I was making.
I was also making a salted caramel praline that I absolutely loved, but Israelis would look at me like I was crazy for mixing salt and sweet. Israelis want sweet to be sweet.
For me, my Zichron shop was full of trial and error, success and failure. Sadly, being new to Israel and new to business, it had too much error and too much failure.
But it was my building block. I have since moved on from having a shop, and have opened a proper chocolate-making factory.
Whereas before I had a single four-kilogram chocolate grinder that I would use every few days, I have just ordered a 150-kilogram chocolate grinder that I will be using four times a day.
My path has most definitely been a rocky one, but I have never once wavered from the reasons why I first entered the chocolate business. For each batch of chocolate that makes its way through my factory, the steps of chocolate-making — sorting, roasting, winnowing, grinding, and tempering — are done with as much care as possible to ensure that the customer always gets the best product possible.
And as I work, I am grateful that Israel’s “start-up” mentality and its willingness to take a chance on the “little guy” has enabled me to do what my teachers in culinary school said nobody should attempt.
Justin Fine’s company, Just Justin Chocolate, is based in Hadera.