The Bliss Molecule (or the ShopGirl's account of what it's like working for AJ Wentworth)
But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Learning about chocolate is something that AJ Wentworth calls “going down the rabbit hole.” The metaphor is more apt than I can explain, since starting to work in his chocolate shop felt like I was stumbling into a Wonderland of sorts, where all the conceptions I had about chocolate got shattered; everything from the smell and taste to the process of making the stuff. It’s magical, and I’m still not convinced we don’t have a shop Oompa-Loompa hiding in the broom closet--but I’m mixing my metaphors.
AJ, as I am sure most of you know, went down the rabbit hole himself, when he was attending the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York to become a health councilor. The absolutely full story of how he got into making chocolate is one that the customers don’t usually hear. AJ usually just tells them the part about how he wanted to open a healthy dessert shop and eventually just got fixated on chocolate, because it overshadowed everything else with its health properties and superior flavor. The full story includes a familial tie: AJ wanted to make a healthy chocolate bar that his mom would eat.
So he started experimenting with chocolate, feeding what he produced to both his mom and his peers at school. Both his mom and his students told him he needed to sell it, so about four years ago, when he finished school and moved back here to Utah to be close to his family, he did. AJ began producing chocolate from the kitchen in his condo. A year ago, he moved to doing what he thought would be just producing at the 265 South 900 East storefront. But about a year ago, the production facility was opened to do retail, and that brings me to where I come in.
I happened upon the job by chance; or rather, my father did. My father is something of a chocolate fanatic, and, no surprise, the chocolate fixation is genetic. He had stopped in at AJ’s shop and offered to volunteer. AJ told him they were actually hiring for the weekends, and my dad told him I was job-searching, and put me in touch with him. I came in to the chocolate shop knowing not much more than chocolate is my favorite food on the planet. Obviously, in order to work in a specialty chocolate shop, I had to know a little bit more, so when I got the job, one of the first things AJ did was send me home with one of each of his chocolate bars and two books about chocolate. He referred to it as my “homework.” To this day, it’s still the best homework I’ve ever had.
Chocolate bar in hand, I did what I do best: I buried my nose in those books so I could be fully educated on the subject. But I still had an infinite amount of questions, so by the second weekend I went to work in the shop, I had more questions than answered. So I dragged him over to the sitting area in the chocolate shop during a lull in business and started picking his brain about chocolate.
“So, I got that there were three types of cacao. I didn’t really understand the differences.”
AJ has this way of giving you his full attention in a way that no question sounds stupid. “So there are three types. Criollo, which is the rarest, and a lot of people feel it’s the best. Forestero, which literally means ‘foreign,’ is the most common variety, and it makes up about 80% of the chocolate produced globally. A lot of people feel like forestero is an inferior variety. Then there is Trinitario, which is a kind of a mix of the two.”
After this clarification, I went home and re-read the book about the varieties of chocolate, and that was when it struck me. Chocolate is one of the oddest ideas humans ever had, in terms of how. Every once in a while, some modern convenience just strikes me as the oddest thing, and learning about chocolate struck me in that same way. How did some bygone person see pods morphing out of a tree’s trunk, looking something like giant alien footballs, and think, “Betcha I can eat that.” And from there, how did some other bygone person actually decide that the bitter nuts would be worth grinding up and combining with hot water, and from there down through the centuries until it became a sweet mixed with sugar and emulsifiers sold in your local grocery store?
It’s baffling. And yet, it’s delicious.
AJ challenges the routine in chocolate. It’s one of the things I admire most about him. His chocolate is raw, which means the beans are not roasted and the pourable product is not heated beyond a certain point. It’s gluten free, dairy free, soy free, and refined sugar free. Many people think the “raw” concept is an unusual choice, but really, in conjunction with chocolate, it makes perfect sense.
“The healthiest way to eat chocolate is in its raw form,” AJ tells me. “When you roast and ferment the beans, it gets rid of the antioxidants and other nutritional value that is found naturally in the bean. By the way, do you know what an antioxidant is?”
I nod my head in assent. “It’s what we eat so that we don’t turn into little brown puckered apples.”
“Yes,” he says, laughing. “Actually, it’s pretty simple. Antioxidant means color. And when you roast the chocolate, color gets lost. Incidentally, that’s also why we don’t add dairy. Dairy inhibits the body from absorbing the antioxidant value of chocolate.”
I think about all the times I’ve bitten in to one of the freeze-dried beans from Costa Rica, and how the center is a lovely deep purple color, and how--if you look closely--the bar that we make from those beans is still a little bit purple.
AJ continues: “Chocolate as a food source has the highest amount of magnesium, chromium, and iron, which are incidentally America’s top three nutritional deficiencies. It also produces those, what do you call them--feel good neurotransmitters in the brain, like anandamide. So eating chocolate actually makes us loving and nice people.”
Knowing AJ, I definitely believe it. He’s an incredibly laid back person, one who doesn’t really “believe in” competition from other chocolatiers. When I ask him about it, he just shrugs and says “all chocolates are different, and everyone has different taste-buds.”
This principle was exemplified when I breezed in for my shift one Friday. I was greeted by the usual olfactory bouquet--the uniquely rich scent of chocolate with a tiny waft of the tangy smell of kombucha. The tiny kitchen, however, was a little more crowded than normal. AJ was there, and someone else was there as well.
“Brian,” the stranger says, when I ask his name and stick out my hand for him to shake. “We met the other night at the open house.”
Brian. I paged through the faces in my head of the people I met that night. “Ah, right! You’re the head of the Chocolate Society.”
“That’s right!” He said. “Want to try some chocolate?”
“That’s a silly question,” I responded.
He dropped a small brown sliver into my hand, and almost immediately it starts to leave little glossy smudges on my palm. Once it was in my mouth, I discovered that I could tell the difference between the product that AJ makes, and the way this chocolate tasted. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the difference was at the time. The aftertaste lingered in my mouth like a puff of smoke.
“Weird, isn’t it?” Brian grinned as I chased the flavor with my tongue. “I think it tastes like a turf-fire.” He was clearly pleased with his product.
I started my opening routine: sweeping the floor, wiping down the couch in the sitting area, putting out the patio furniture, readying the cash register and the till, and putting out the display case. I pop a pumpkin spice truffle in my mouth and let it melt on my tongue, saying the words cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg in my head like a mantra as I detect each one.
AJ and Brian didn’t say much to me while I worked. They were too busy pouring out Brian’s melted chocolate into molds. I bent my face over one of the trays and inhaled. I can pick up different notes: fruity, nutty, slightly tannic. It never fails to surprise me just how different chocolate tastes. Depending on where it’s from, it can taste more fruity, more nutty, or more tannic (sometimes, the smell of the more tannic varieties reminds me of the bitter-sour smell of green olives).
I wasn’t surprised at all by AJ’s decision to share the space and the equipment with his friend. It’s absolutely just his nature to be giving and accepting no matter who your are, or if your chocolate is raw or roasted.
Whether AJ is Willy Wonka or the Cheshire Cat, there’s no doubt in my mind that the chocolate business is mad. It’s not straightforward. There are so many details and flavors and smells and ideas that I can scarcely keep track, and just when I think I’ve started to understand the paradigm shifts just a little. I wouldn’t be surprised if AJ told me there was a cacao bean that made you grow, or a cacao bean that made you shrink. It’s that incredible. And the best part is, you can experience it yourself by stepping through the doors of our shop. It’s like stepping through the Looking Glass and finding out that the portal is always open (Tuesday through Saturday, noon to seven), and never closes. Well, except on Sundays and Mondays.
I do hope you’ll join us.