Keller + Manni team

K+M Extravirgin Chocolate was created by three superstars—Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon, and Ad Hoc fame; Armando Manni, creator of the same organic extra-virgin olive oil used in Chef Keller’s restaurants; and Chi Bui, pedigreed pastry chef, chocolatier, and pioneer in “bean-to-bar” chocolates. They spent the last five years fastidiously perfecting their chocolate together, so you can imagine how exquisite this chocolate might be and why we had to have it. What’s truly remarkable, though, is how healthy it is, too. Read on for the remarkable story behind K+M as told to us by head chocolatier Chi Bui (pictured above, in between Chef Keller and Armando Manni).

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Ayla: What led you to join Keller + Manni? 

CHI: Before I started exclusively making chocolate, I had worked as a pastry cook in some of NYC’s most esteemed restaurants. Elwyn Boyles, the Executive Pastry Chef of Per Se and The French Laundry, introduced me to Thomas and Armando. After I learned what they were trying to achieve with chocolate, and the work they’d done with the University of Florence on the science behind it, I was very intrigued. The concept and approach were very compelling and I felt I had to be involved.  

 

Ayla: How does your cocoa bean selection process differ from the typical bean selection process you find with other chocolate makers?

CHI: Traveling to remote areas in search of uniquely distinct beans, visiting growers, evaluating the post-harvest handling, and connecting with our local partners on the ground – these are the first essential steps in our chocolate making process. 

Our approach to chocolate making places great import on the quality, purity, flavor expressions, complexity, and diversity of the cocoa beans. It is also very important to us that the beans are sustainably farmed and the work is economically sustainable for the farmers. I understand that this has become a marketing catchphrase, but Thomas and Armando have long recognized the importance of great ingredients as well as great partnerships with farmers and providers throughout their careers as chef and artisan. Therefore, we have very stringent criteria for sourcing. Developing lasting, direct relationships with growers and partners on the ground is an essential characteristic of our approach.

After we collect beans that pass my organoleptic evaluations, they are sent to the University of Florence to be tested for their antioxidant and volatile compound potentials. If the beans pass this scientific evaluation process, we move on to purchasing directly from the source.

We have also been fortunate in some of our partnerships to have exclusive access to beans, and in some cases the ability to customize the post-harvest processing to conform to our flavor and aromatic preferences.

 

Ayla: You work with beans from exclusive growers in Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Peru. How did you select these growers and beans?

CHI: The criteria we use in bean sourcing are sustainability, transparency, quality, customization, and complexity in flavor profiles.  We are fortunate to have strong relationships with providers and exporters as well as with an experienced logistics partner.  Also, we’ve received inquiries directly from producers looking to have us evaluate and buy their beans.

 

Ayla: How does your bean processing method differ from that of typical chocolates?

CHI: Our beans must pass a scientific test for antioxidant and volatile potentials before selection. They are then made by hand into chocolate using a proprietary process, developed in collaboration with the University of Florence, on customized machines. This helps retain the high antioxidant levels inherent in the beans.  

Our chocolate is then aged to balance out all the aromatics before it is molded into bars with a small addition of Manni Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Manni Extra Virgin Olive Oil is very high in polyphenols, the antioxidants present in extra virgin olive oil that have been scientifically proven to be heart healthy. These polyphenols work synergistically with flavonols, the antioxidants in cocoa beans that we work hard to reduce the loss of in our chocolate during the production process. This makes the antioxidants more bioavailable. 

Finally, to minimize oxidation and deterioration of the olive oil, and of product as a whole, the bars are wrapped in a special film before they’re packaged in their boxes. 

 

Ayla: Wow. Does anyone else process their cocoa beans this way?

CHI: We are unique in the way we approach and make chocolate.

 

Ayla: How does the olive oil impact the chocolates' taste and texture?

CHI: All our chocolates have a unique velvety mouthfeel, and it is quite dramatic in our 75% darks.  This is due to the high polyphenolic presence in Manni Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This helps cleanse the palette of fat that would normally coat it with other chocolates, thus allowing you to better detect all the aromatics and more significantly experience a satiny mouthfeel.

 

Ayla: Do you have a particular favorite among the K+M chocolates?

CHI: For the dark, 75% Peru. For the milk, Nicaragua Dark Milk.

 

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Needless to say, these are some impressive chocolates. Shop the Keller + Manni collection here, and click here to watch a beautifully made documentary featuring Chi Bui going through the bean selection process in Peru.