Tony Muia, the Brooklyn native who runs A Slice of Brooklyn pizza and holiday lights tours, recently added a chocolate circuit to his repertoire. We spent an afternoon on the bus tour visiting four chocolatiers, returning full of confection (there were samples at every stop) and affection (for the borough). Here are some key points from the trip.
1. Sometimes Manhattan is just a stepping-stone.
Jacques Torres learned pastry making in the south of France and came to the City to work at four-star restaurant Le Cirque, where he gained notoriety for creations like his “chocolate stove.” He eventually opened a chocolate shop in Dumbo, which made him a household name and which serves as the first stop on the tour. Torres originally created everything by hand; he now presides over a mini chocolate empire and has an enormous factory down in the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
2. Manufacturing is back in Brooklyn.
Two stops on the tour—Raaka Chocolate and Li-Lac Chocolates—include on-site chocolate factories where you get to see the chocolate-making process step-by-step. Raaka took over a warehouse in Red Hook back in 2014; Li-Lac, an old-school chocolatier in the West Village, recently moved its production to Industry City in Sunset Park. That complex contains 16 buildings and 6 million square feet of shopping, dining and manufacturing—including two other chocolate makers and a vodka distillery.
3. The only constant is change.
Muia talks about how Jacques Torres’ arrival was one factor in Dumbo’s transition from a drab, industrial area to an upscale commercial and residential neighborhood that draws loads of visitors.
Muia doesn’t pull punches when discussing the ups and downs of that change—as a lifelong Brooklyn resident, he has some harsh words for some of the new luxury construction—but he also embraces the abundance of new things to do and points out tourist attractions like the so-called Most Instagrammed Spot in Brooklyn, where cobblestone streets and the Manhattan Bridge frame a view of One WTC.
4. Brooklynites care.
Muia says that when Ryan Cheney and Nate Hodge first started Raaka—whose name, which means “raw” in Finnish, celebrates their use of unroasted beans and whose chocolate bars come in creative flavors like bourbon, smoked chai and ghost pepper—they were maligned by some as hipsters. Call them what you will; the two are definitely committed to the cause: the company sources its cocoa, which comes from places like the Dominican Republic and Belize, in an environmentally sustainable manner and makes sure to pay its suppliers well.
5. People come to Brooklyn with big dreams—and fun backup plans.
Before they met waiting tables, Jon Payson and Naomi Josepher, founders of The Chocolate Room, had moved to New York City hoping to make it as a drummer and a dancer, respectively. Their backup plan wasn’t to take office jobs, though—instead, they turned their mutual love of dessert into a dessert-only restaurant where chocolate is part of every item on the menu. (OK, fine, you can get vanilla or strawberry ice cream, but please top it with fudge sauce.)
This may not technically be a thing we learned…but, on the other hand, yum—chocolate!