What are your first memories of chocolate?
My relationship with chocolate is, first and foremost, an unwavering astonishment about the product itself. When I was young, my mother would buy me chocolate in the shape of a pair of boots and I would sit and contemplate them for hours.
When did your journey in the chocolate industry begin?
The trigger was the birth of my daughter. I wanted to set an example for her as a working mother who is happy with her job. At the time, I was a teaching assistant in a school and although it was a comfortable job, and I had a lot of free time to take care of my family and friends, deep down I knew something was missing.
How did you change career?
I had thought about making chocolate before, but I didn’t allow myself to believe I could do it. I consider myself to be very clumsy and to be a chocolate maker, you need extreme dexterity. In addition to that, I was already 30, so I thought it was “too late” to start a career in that industry.
You learned your craft with Michelin-starred chef Michel Portos and Thierry Lalet, chocolate master at the prestigious Saunion chocolate factory. How did this happen?
At the time, Michel Portos was chef at the Saint James luxury hotel and he was known for his generosity. I called his secretary and asked for an appointment. I told him that I was hesitant about whether to dedicate myself to traditional cuisine or chocolate making. I also wanted to see beyond the theory and immerse myself in that industry, work within a team and see if it was the right environment for me. I had a two-day trial, then stayed with chef Portos and his team for 15 days. I learned so much in those 15 days and I wanted to learn even more. Then, I was lucky enough to intern for Thierry Lalet at the Saunion chocolate factory and I ended up staying there for three months. After that experience, I knew I was ready to do the six-month programme in Rouen.
Could you tell us a bit more about that experience?
It was a tough decision to make because my daughter was only 18 months old at the time, and being away from my family for so long was not easy. I was coming back to Bordeaux every Friday late at night and leaving early on the Monday morning to get back at the school in time. It was very intense. In addition to that, my husband challenged me to graduate as the valedictorian. My husband, Vincent, plays a huge part in my career and I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for his support. I took the challenge and did it, which was really satisfying and made all our sacrifices worth it.
Did you have discouraging moments?
I remember celebrating my 30th birthday alone with a book and eating an apple, and thinking that I should be with my family. But I was very determined to make the best of that time. There was a library at the school and my friend and I became members and read every book available. I was so thirsty for knowledge and took every opportunity to learn more.
Why was that?
I knew that what I would learn in class would not be enough for what I was aspiring to do, and that I had to be more curious and search for more in order to succeed. One of the life-lessons I learnt from that time is that you should never wait for people to give you information, but go out there and look for answers yourself.
Your curiosity and originality shows in your chocolate recipes. Is that deliberate?
I am not trying to be different or follow trends – my inspiration comes from the people I love. I often create recipes based on the tastes of the people close to me. And I am always eager to do and learn more. For instance, I recently met a chef who introduced me to a person who makes the best citrus-filled desserts in the region. Being fond of citrus-based foods myself, I think I will soon develop a chocolate recipe inspired by that.
There are a few high-quality chocolate companies in Bordeaux. How do you cope with the competition?
It’s quite simple; I don’t focus on it at all. The main reason is that I don’t want people to say that I am copying someone else and be labelled as a “copycat”. Also, I believe that focusing on your competition can disturb your initial intuition and affect your own work.
What do you think about people who are inspired by your work?
I actually find this very flattering, especially when you have started from the bottom like me!
Is chocolate a luxurious product?
Yes, I really believe so. My core intent with Hasnaâ Chocolats Grands Crus is to give chocolate back its nobility. The words “Grands Crus” (highest ranking or best quality) link to this philosophy, and it was also a way to distinguish myself from other chocolate factories.
Is there a right moment and a right way to taste chocolate?
Actually, there is. My advice is to be in a calm environment because it will allow you to appreciate it more. Then, make sure to do your tasting well before or after meals (mid-morning and late afternoon are great times) because your palate is clear and not influenced by what you’ve eaten. Finally, allow the chocolate to melt in your mouth a bit longer than usual to taste and inhale all the aromas while taking a deep breath.
Where does the chocolate you use come from?
The chocolate I produce comes from Madagascar, Costa Rica, Sao Tomé and Cuba. I have visited three plantations and I am also making sure to eliminate intermediaries, so the cocoa producers can be paid fairly for the tremendous work they do. They are the ones who carry the heavy pods and their role is crucial in the whole process.
What keeps you motivated?
My family is my biggest motivation. I can never thank my husband enough; his support was and still is very important when I doubted myself. I want to make sure that I earn enough to live and I am proud that I can make a living from my passion.
Who are the people who buy Hasnaâ Chocolats Grands Crus?
Most people are foodies, especially from Paris – they are very knowledgeable about everything concerning the chocolate industry. For my foreign clients, we have worked quite a lot with Japan recently.
Are the Japanese different from the French in how they consume chocolate?
Yes, in the sense that when they taste chocolate, it’s a ritual in which the visual experience is as important as the taste. They also have fun traditions such as during Valentine’s Day, women are the ones who offer chocolate not only to their partners, but to every man who plays an important role in their lives.
When you started this adventure, how did you manage to juggle the business side of things while living your passion?
I had no choice but to become an entrepreneur. When I finished the programme, I thought I would work for a chocolate master, but I quickly realised that no one was hiring me, so I decided to start my own business.
Can you walk us through your first steps into the entrepreneurial world?
The first year was difficult, as we didn’t really have an idea about what we took on. Luckily, I joined the Cercles des Jeunes Dirigeants (a network for young entrepreneurs) and won a two-year mentoring as a prize at a contest organised by the Réseau Entreprendre (a well-established network dedicated to entrepreneurship), of which I am a member, too.
How was this mentoring helpful to your business?
It was very beneficial. We received great advice from seasoned entrepreneurs and experts. In addition to that, we had an expert coming once a month to check how we were doing and give us feedback, which was wonderful when we were feeling overwhelmed with admin tasks. This is something I want to emphasise: you can start a company tomorrow, but you must surround yourself with people who know what they are doing to help you along your journey. Too many businesses fail because they lack knowledge about administrative things and ignore important details. On top of that, you need to constantly try to learn more and sign up for training whenever you can.
What are your next projects?
I really want to open a place in which people will be able to have a full experience around chocolate. I have not found the right location yet in Bordeaux, but I really hope to make this dream come true soon.
Any advice for our readers?
Never give up and always believe in yourself. In my moments of doubt I would tell myself: “Keep going so you can prove wrong all the naysayers and show people that it is possible to achieve your dreams”.