As master chocolatier at one of the country’s artisanal chocolate brands, Fantasie Fine Chocolates, Zeba Kohli is to chocolate what a sommelier is to wine.
She's endowed with the ability to play with flavours—spicy chillies or tart berries—they effortlessly submit to her pairings. It's in her genes, she says. “Well, the chocolate business was in my family even before I was born. My nana always dreamed of setting up a chocolate shop in Mumbai, it was his ‘fantasy’ and so he built the Fantasie chocolate shop and brand in Mumbai,” says Kohli. who spent a memorable part of her childhood at the chocolate factory.
The time spent at the factory helped Kohli gain a deep understanding of chocolate, and develop a palate essential for her job. "Others thought it was because I liked helping out, but if you ask me, it purely was for the love chocolate. I would sneak in under the pretext of picking up and dropping off my mom.” That’s how the master chocolatier was introduced to the world of chocolate. “I started learning the aromas of chocolate, experiencing it with all my senses," she says speaking passionately of the smells, sounds and sensations that are part of the chocolate making process.
She recollects some of her fondest childhood memories associated with chocolate: “Most of my friends studied at boarding schools. Before their term would begin, they would come over to Fantasie Fine Chocolates requesting for more than just chocolates, treats that would last longer in their ‘tuck boxes’—a box of snacks that each boarder would was allowed to keep. I remember, my granddad and I developing macaroons, brownies and cheese straws for this sole purpose. All of which were a big hit with my friends.” Kohli’s earliest memory of creating something chocolate-y was the chilli cheese straws and walnut macaroons.
Working with her grandpa, Kohli learnt the nitty-gritties of the chocolate business. “Chocolate melts easily and in those days there were no cold chains. I learnt how to pack chocolate—airtight, watertight—using newspapers so that they wouldn’t get too hot or too cold. I might’ve been around 12 or 13 years old when I started discovering the nuances of chocolate,” she adds. By trial and error, she realised that chilli cheese and chocolate tasted good together and that chocolate is a very versatile product.
Kohli’s fixation for finding new tastes and flavour combinations led her to introduce Swiss chocolate brands Lindt and Sprüngli and Belgian chocolate Côte d'Or in India. Sharing her inspiration behind coming up with amazing chocolate flavours and combination, she says, “I get bored very easily. And when it comes to making chocolates, there were only that many that I could make. Today, I develop chocolates as per the mood, the moment, the requirement. I customise chocolates, I develop chocolates as per a cuisine.”
Kohli is the third-generation entrepreneur at the helm of a 70-year-old brand and is aiming for the stars. “The western palate has known chocolate forever. Whether it is because of the climate or a well-developed cold chain, chocolate retail in other countries is simpler, compared to India.” While Indians love their chocolate, our palates are attuned to the sugary mass-market brands. “Artisanal chocolates are a niche and known to only a small number,” she laments.
Fine chocolate is like fine wine, it needs to be appreciated in order to be enjoyed better. Thanks to social media, artisanal chocolates that combine organic ingredients and unconventional flavours are drawing attention. A handful of small, homegrown brands are setting themselves apart from the sweet, milky, mass-market favourites.
Commercial chocolates will always be the first option for people, they're easily available and cost less. However, Kohli is optimistic that sales of homegrown artisanal chocolate brands will see an upward growth. Fantasie Fine Chocolates currently has six stores, and expansion plans are in the pipeline, “but I believe the future is about selling online, and therefore I'm focusing on building and strengthening my online presence,” says Kohli sharing her company’s vision.
When asked about other artisanal chocolate brands that she loves, Kohli, who's been an Indian honorary ambassador of Barry Callebaut in Belgium and worked with Fabelle chocolates of ITC, says, "I love Fabelle, La Folie, all the chocolate items made by Kainaz Messman of Theobroma, and also the chocolate items made by Pooja Dhingra.”
According to her, the journey of chocolate in India has just begun. There's a long way to go and Zeba Kohli believes in leading by example.
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