Spending every day crafting decadent chocolates is every sweet tooth’s dream come true. While very few make it a reality, Belgian chocolate maker Remco Brigou has forged a thriving career in the mouth-watering industry.
As the Head Chocolatier and Product Innovation Manager at Koko Black, Remco has spent the past four years curating product developments for the boutique stores. Its most recent collection – the Australian Classics Collection.
The new limited-edition range is a nostalgic walk down memory lane for many Australians, however, tasting the delightful childhood favourites of Iced Vovos, Golden Gaytimes, Wagon Wheels or Bubble O’Bills proved to be a new experience for the Belgian national.
“Flavour profiles of people are much different than in Belgium,” Remco tells The CEO Magazine. “You need to adapt to that as well – finding out what are those Australian flavours that people like so much. That’s why the Australian Classics range was a big challenge for me.”
“We had basically a kids’ party here at work,” Remco laughs. “We got a whole bunch of snacks and I had to taste them all, which was really fun.
“I understand why people, as kids, love those kinds of things – gimmicky things like a Bubble O’Bill.”
From experimenting with ingredient combinations, calculating recipes, researching, liaising with suppliers to testing prototypes, trials and first runs, it’s a lengthy nine-month process from brainstorming to production.
As the head of product development, it’s a fitting role for the creator who revels in the ability to transform anything into chocolate.
“I think you can turn anything into chocolate,” he says. “That would be my challenge – if someone gives something to me, I would be happy to take on the challenge to turn it into chocolate.”
Art of Belgian chocolate
Almost two decades ago, Koko Black’s founders travelled to Europe to learn the age-old craft of chocolate making in Germany, and it was in Belgium that they met a talented chocolatier who established the signature Koko Black chocolate.
“The reason why Belgium is famous for chocolate is because we invented the praline – filled chocolates basically were invented by the Belgians,” Remco explains.
Fast forward 17 years since the flagship doors opened in Melbourne and the company continues to hold some Belgian chocolate-making techniques close to its heart while pairing it with inventive and modern touches.
“That would be my challenge – if someone gives something to me, I would be happy to take on the challenge to turn it into chocolate.” – Remco Brigou
While Koko Black’s original range consisted of typically Belgian chocolate (think buttercreams with a walnut inside), the master chocolatier says he still pays respect to the heritage without sacrificing innovation.
“We want to be contemporary and we want to be known as a contemporary chocolatier, but to always stay true to the traditions and the classics,” Remco says. “We want to be a mix and match of the two.”
Breaking the rules
Having grown up in Europe, Remco spent years in the hospitality industry – a field he frequently finds inspiration within.
“Inspiration comes from everywhere, especially these days with social media.” he says.
Passionately striving to translate anything into the indulgent treat, the Belgian chocolate master once collaborated with Dan Hunter (which is now the Native range) to transform Australian bush delicacies – green ants, finger limes, lemon myrtle, Tasmanian leatherwood honeycomb – into pralines.
“I don’t want to be bound by the idea that chocolate is only sweet and you stay with caramel, nuts and fruit, and that’s it,” he explains. “I want to expand the boundaries and see what’s out there.”
“In the past, I’ve done a chocolate praline with capsicum and yoghurt. I did one with celery and peanut butter, and rosemary with milk chocolate goes really well. I like to play with those kinds of things.”
Exploring cacao origins
Sourced primarily from West Africa, Koko Black uses blends for its milk, white and dark chocolates. For its single origins, cacao is sourced from Vietnam, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
“I don’t want to be bound to just one chocolate,” Remco shares. “We tried to get a bit from everywhere, depending on flavour profiles.
“Similar to wine, where different grapes come from all different origins, it’s the same thing with cacao.
“If you taste two single-origin chocolates, it’s a world of difference. Taste a 70% blend and a 70% single origin and you will notice how different the flavours are.”
The origin, roasting and fermentation process of the cacao beans are just some of the variables affecting the overall product.
Striving to change how people view chocolate and its cacao percentages, the Belgian chocolate master hopes he can shed some light on just how different chocolate flavours can be.
“A lot of people see chocolate as milk, white and dark and that’s it. I don’t see it like that. I see there are many more flavour combinations, much more intricate flavours in chocolates.
“When you have single origin, it’s much more complex. There are many more other flavours coming through and it’s so interesting. If you want to flavour match it with something very special, that’s interesting to work with.
“Some people tell me they can go maximum 70% in dark chocolate otherwise it’s too bitter – I like to prove them wrong.”
Setting the standards
Unlike regular confectionary chocolates found in supermarkets, it’s the quality of boutique chocolates that sets them apart.
Cheap chocolates are often mixed with vegetable fats whereas Koko Black’s chocolates are all handcrafted with 100% cocoa butter. Although this pushes the price north, chocolate lovers are rewarded for it.
“The quality is so much better, the flavour is so much better, the mouth feel is so much better,” Remco shares. “One of the biggest parts of our quality is that we are still very much about handmade chocolate.
“We’ve got truffles that are all hand piped, we’ve got the caramel mousse, which is hand piped, so there’s a lot of manual labour in there.”
With about 50 people at the Melbourne-based business responsible for filling the brand’s 15 stores and lounges across Australia, the master chocolatier ensures quality is upheld with every collection.
As the foodie capital of Australia slowly edges out of COVID-19 lockdowns, which were among some of the longest and toughest in the world, Remco says he is looking forward to normal Christmas festivities.
“Christmas is very, very important for us,” he says. “We’re all crossing our fingers hoping everything goes back to normal in Melbourne so we can have a normal Christmas and bring our chocolates to the table.”