The real Willy Wonka is as experimental as ever

 
Elizabeth Fournier
Think you love chocolate the most? Elizabeth Fournier meets choc-God Paul A Young

IT’S NOT hard to be passionate about chocolate, but Paul A Young takes it to a whole new level. Reviewers and customers alike may wax lyrical about his imaginative creations, which include Marmite brownies and Eccles cake truffles. Get him talking on the subject and you might as well cancel your plans for the rest of the day.

In the basement of his flagship Soho store, the master chocolatier talks at breakneck speed as an assistant brings down a plate of truffles and I try not to drool.

Born in Barnsley in the early 1970s, Young worked his way through catering college and trained as a pastry chef on the local restaurant scene before being poached by Marco Pierre White in 1996.

He landed in London in the middle of White’s reign as the enfant terrible of British food, cutting his teeth at Criterion before moving on to Titanic.

Unsurprisingly given White’s reputation, it was a baptism of fire. “Criterion was one of the most aggressive kitchens to work in,” says Young. “In terms of the pace, the quality of food and the attention to detail, which I just hadn’t seen before.”

Not put off by the prospect of the hairdryer treatment from the fiery chef (“For a week all I did was make puff pastry, starting at 8am and ending at 3am”), Young worked his way through the ranks of White’s empire, ending up head pastry chef for the launch of Quo Vadis, the Dean Street landmark then co-owned by White and artist Damien Hirst.

With six years at chez White under his belt and a coveted spot in one of the capital’s best kitchens, Young’s next career move was a strange one – he joined the food development team at Marks & Spencer.

“I stayed at Quo Vadis for 18 months, but I worked too much and got ill, so decided it was time to stop.” After a few months adjusting to daylight hours and wearing a shirt, Young found himself in charge of oriental ready meals and the children’s and Count On Us ranges.

After a while he moved to Sainsbury’s and began learning about aspects of the food industry he’d never considered before. “I was taught everything I needed to know about starting my own business – packing, quality, cost engineering, how to develop.”

With this knowledge on board, he was tempted back into the restaurant world by some old friends, but soon found himself hankering for more. A stint on UK-TV’s Great Food Live – where he made blood orange and chocolate tortellini in his first live appearance – and guest spots at food fairs and festivals cemented the pastry chef’s affinity with chocolate.

“There was no one working in chocolate at that time who was prepared to be brave,” he says. This attitude won him the attention of luxury brands Rococo and Charbonnel et Walker, who asked him to develop ranges.

Sitting in his well-staffed development kitchen in Soho, it’s hard to believe the chocolate business – which now encompasses four stand-alone stores – began life in a workshop in Kings Cross. Living in his studio, Young worked through the night developing new flavour combinations and entering competitions, scooping up chocolate awards left and right until the next step was just too obvious to ignore.

“It just clicked. I was developing chocolates for other people and teaching people how to make fine chocolates, then I won some awards and the phone was ringing off the hook with demands. We had to keep telling people we didn’t have a shop; we don’t sell them.”

After an eight-hour walk around the whole of London looking at “every location where a shop would work, where we could make chocolate and live on site”, Young and his business partner James Cronin settled on an old chandelier store on Camden Passage in Islington.

“The shop hadn’t been open for years but we put an offer in and got it – then I had to live there without electricity or heating for six weeks,” he laughs.

As with many top chefs, Young’s attention to detail extends way beyond his culinary creations. As well as getting the products ready for the launch a week before Easter 2006, he also took on the interior – “I’m a creative person; what is in my head has to become the shop” – designing everything from the visual displays to the packaging.

Seven years and three shops later the Paul A Young brand is going strong, despite the recession. “Chocolate is an affordable luxury, so we just had to adapt to the situation and we give the crowd what they want,” he shrugs.

Visiting any one of the stores on a different day will yield an ever-changing selection of flavours, alongside the handmade chocolate bars and brownies all wrapped up in his signature purple packaging.

One his fans hold particularly close to their hearts is his legendary salted caramel truffles, which won him a gold medal at the Academy of Chocolate awards.

Other highlights include the London Gent (“very classic but with the fiery heat of rum and pepper, fitting in with a masculine ethos”) and his new “all-time favourite” and a proper taste of home – Yorkshire Tea and Biscuit.

He now regularly runs in-house chocolate making workshops for City clients and has an eye on further expansion, possibly even a shop in the US.

“Americans are great at embracing new, British and seasonal things, so if I had my magic wand I would do it next year. We’ve also got plans to expand in the UK,” he says. “Something a bit secret to diversify the brand and use my broader skills.”

Whatever his plans, the work-obsessed 40-year old is showing no signs of slowing down.

“My brain refuses to switch off, and I think that’s why I stay up so late – midnight to 1am is when I get some of my best ideas. In the evening no one emails you and there are no phone calls, so my brain has a bit of space to process.”

Taste the cigar leaf and caramel chocolate (brought back by popular demand) and you’ll agree it’s a space worth watching.