Romain Lebrun strikes you as immediately tall and suntanned and smiling–perennially stretched-out and enthusiastic. Like so many before him, Lebrun started at Marou as a starry-eyed intern wandering through our factory in Thu Duc District. Now, he runs the place. You can usually find him shuttling between jute sacks of cacao, thinking about how he might prove a link between taste and terroir or how he can double Marou’s output, while maintaining its soul.
What was your first experience of chocolate?
I grew up in a small town in a small town in Normany called Rouen. You know Joan of Arc? That’s where the British burned her.
We had horses, sheep and cows all around the house. We had a small garden, but we weren’t a farm. My grandmother and my great grandparents were farmers. My parents managed a supermarket.
I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother. We were surrounded by apples in Normandy, so she pretty much always made apple tarts, you know?
When I was 7 or 8 we got our first computer at home. There was a game on it. There was this little boy named Adibou who taught you how to make chocolate cake. I printed this recipe out and made it probably every week.
What did you study?
I went to university in Tolouse where I got a degree in Agronomy and food science engineering. I also did a five-month exchange at a dairy in Finland.
I really loved physics, chemistry and biology. But I also love food.
My family always considered making food and having big meals together very, very important. My parents also loved food and cooking. We visited a lot of different restaurants.
When I got this opportunity to combine science and gastronomy, I combined everything I loved into my work.
Did you do anything with that dairy internship?
When I came home I got hired by a big industrial yogurt factory. As a young guy, I’d worked at a small winery. I got my start during the autumn harvest in the beautiful vineyards of south-western France. And then we would process the juice. The product was changing in front of you: from a bubbling, fermented thing into wine. I loved this first experience.That’s what made me want to keep on working for a small food company where you can deal with living products.
DId the yogurt factory ruin yogurt for you?
No, I barely even saw yogurt–just piping and tanks and machinery. My job was to manage a production team and to work on improving the process, to decrease losses.
It was my first experience in a big super-complex factory dedicated to making this very simple think you can make at home. It was really interesting to see how you could scale that up.
That factory supplied six different countries in Europe. All the yogurt was the same all year long. So the experience was interesting, but I honestly hated the product.
How did you feel going from a big factory to a little one?
That’s precisely why I wanted to work with Marou. It gave me an opportunity to make a living chocolate bar that’s not pasteurized or standardized. It’s alive!
We don’t prime or inoculate our cacao harvests. So the fermentation is entirely shaped by the natural yeasts in each location. If it’s windy or hot or rainy, that affects the kinetics of how that fermentation will occur. We don’t really manage the content. It’s all up to mother nature and the terroir.
What does terroir really mean?
Every bar is made from a different cacao. So if you focus on one origin, you’ll find different farmers working different plots. Every plot has different environmental conditions that place constraints on the tree, on all the life around the tree.
This is what we call the terroir, a combination of the weather, the soil, the climate and the variety of the tree. Terroir gives you a different cacao each time you harvest the cocoa pods. It affects the terroir of the fruit.
We don’t try to make the same chocolate bar every time; we just use the same process and get something different every time.
Does that mean soil and location determine everything about chocolate?
It’s so complex. Just consider climate. Rain, humidity, wind–everything that can affect the tree. That all affects the biology around the tree. And, for sure, that affects the fruit. And it’s very difficult to distill all that into a link to a certain flavor and aroma.
Right before I finished school I was working with a winemaker in Champagne who was really passionate about his terroir. He was convinced that each plot on his farm yielded a distinct grape. To prove it, he made different batches from grapes grown on the top of his hill, on the slope of his hill and at its base.
He was right!
You could really taste the difference between the batches. And so he asked me if I could highlight any scientific fact that could prove a direct link between taste and soil. I did the experiment, but I found no proof of a connection.
When I came to Marou, I decided to try again.
I was convinced that mineral content in the soil could affect the taste of the cacao. The tree absorbs minerals from the soil and then passes it to the fruit. Just think of salt. Take it out of your soup and the flavor changes. So I thought that the mineral content in a given soil might leave a kind of footprint in the fruit.
So my job was to see if the mineral content in the soil affected the mineral content in the fruit and if that affected the taste of the cacao.
How did it go?
We used beans from the same varietal of cacao planted in three different locations about 50km from one another. Same variety. Different locations and mineral content in the cacao.
Our first hypothesis: does the mineral content in soil affect the flavor of cacao?
Our conclusion was: apparently not. Plant variety affects the mineral content in the cacao more than the soil.
Did any problems arise in the execution?
Everything went well until fermentation.
We fermented the whole thing in a small batch so we didn’t waste too much cacao. Unfortunately, the small batch idea didn’t work so well. You need a lot of fruit to get the good microorganisms cooking. If you don’t have enough heat, you end up with a lot of microorganisms that bring a lot of off-flavors.
Are you still running these experiments?
Right now, I’m working on expanding our factory. We’re getting bigger and I’m working on designing a new production process with new machines.
One year ago we were super craft–scrambling to meet our very small demand. Now we’re talking about expanding to a second cafe and participating in pop-up shops all over the region. We’re doubling and possibly tripling our output. And it’s crazy to be in this company. To be able to add my touch to it.
If Marou doubles or triples its output, will it still be special in any way?
Well, the world is full of single-origin chocolate makers, but we’re making that chocolate here, in Vietnam.
Being at the origin allows us to know a lot more about where the cacao comes from, what practices the farmers are using. We work really closely with them all year long, up until we come and purchase their harvest. Most of our competition is far from where they get their cacao. They visit once, twice, three times a year to select the cacao and I think that’s what makes us original.
Why does Marou chocolate taste so good when it’s warm and near-melting?
Well bars straight from the fridge are basically tasteless. All the flavor compounds bind to the fat and when things melt a little, I think those flavors become more volatile. Wine is the same. Take a glass of wine from the fridge and it’s awful. Leave it out and it may get better.
A lot of people compare Marou to fine wine and whiskey. What is that link?
Well, you’re taking a fresh crop and fermenting it. Fermentation brings you all the complexity of those products (chocolate, wine, cheese). They all share that process.
Are you sick of chocolate yet?
Not yet. We have all these chocolates from all over the world. And it’s exciting to taste them all against our product. I love that. And I’m always excited to taste our next cacao harvest to see what it will add to that world.