Sam Maruta –
Marou’s Globe-Trotting Madman
Samuel Maruta co-founded Marou in 2010 after a lifetime of eating chocolate and international banking. This interview was conducted in Marou’s workhorse—a Citroen LaDalat wheezed its way up Highway 20 toward a farm in Lam Dong Province.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
Panjas, a tiny village in the South-West of France. I’d guess about 400 people lived there when I was growing up.
WAS IT HARD BEING THE ONLY ASIAN KID IN PANJAS?
No it was totally fine; my Asianness was kind of invisible. The community was so small—I was known as the grandson of Albert Destouet whose dad just happened to be Japanese.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE OF CHOCOLATE?
I remember bread, butter and plain dark chocolate. My grandmother sprinkled a whole bar over a buttered baguette with a cheese grater. It was good….
JUST GENERIC DARK CHOCOLATE?
Well my grandmother just bought dark chocolate in bakeries and grocery stores. But by high school, I’d become a very heavy consumer of Lindt 70%; I went through a bar a day.
I feel like it was one of my first experiences with mass consumption. Suddenly, I was asking my dad to bring home the Lindt as opposed to anything else.
Then Valrhona (a high-end B2B brand in France) began selling tins of chocolate: 18 pieces arranged in little squares. It was outrageously expensive, but my great aunt loved me a lot and would always buy them for me. I still have a lot of those tins because I would eat the chocolate and keep the boxes.
WHAT ABOUT PASTRY?
There was a lot of home-cooking and baking. My grandpa and I were big fans of crepes, which we ate faster than anyone could cook them. On birthdays my grandmother would juggle three or four crepe pans on a single stove.
DID YOUR DAD COOK?
He still cooks! A lot—always Japanese food.
DID HE TAKE YOU TO JAPAN?
I remember three trips…
ANY CHOCOLATE-RELATED MEMORIES?
I left for my second trip at the age of 10. My grandmother made me two of her famous chocolate bar sandwiches. Somehow, one ended up in my suitcase. So after two or three weeks in Hokkaido, I found this piece of really hard bread wrapped up in tin foil with chocolate inside. That moment stands out as one of the best in my life. We’re talking 1984, northern Japan. Chocolate hadn’t become a thing there yet.
SO DOES YOUR CHILDHOOD NOW SEEM, UM, AMAZING TO YOU?
The situation was fairly unusual. I grew up with my dad (who is Japanese) and my maternal grandparents who are French (and born in the 1920s). So I grew up on a French farm in a really old-fashioned way.
WHEN DID YOU LEAVE?
At 18 I went to school in Paris.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN VIETNAM?
In Paris I studied at the Institute of Political Science in Paris.
Five of the last six French presidents went to that school.
I had fun, but there was this culture shock. I was very young and stupid. Growing up, everyone I knew was a farmer; nobody had an office job—no one!
So I hung out with a bunch of people who spent the summer of 1995 in Vietnam with Asie Extrême a student association created by families that had some sort of Indochinese connection. Anyway, I joined this association just for the hell of it.
At the end of the year, they sent me and a bunch of other students to Vietnam to teach English. I took an Antonov (one of those Russian planes on Aeroflot) from Paris to Moscow to Hanoi in June 1996. We were in Hanoi for the July 14th reception.
I remember there was this very serious briefing with the heads of the student association who sat us all down and told us: “guys, you’re representing France; you’re representing the association. You’re representing your school…”
We were pretty young and stupid so we went to the July 14th party and got horribly drunk and stole bottles of wine from the buffet. Then we went back to the house we were renting in Hanoi and invited some young Vietnamese people we’d met on the street to come have some of the booze we’d stolen from the embassy.
We partied on the rooftop until the cops came.
WOW, THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
I took the train to Ho Chi Minh City with four or five other volunteers. Then, I got on the bus to Sadec. It was 1996: I had a room in the school with a thermos of hot water (to drink) and a bucket of cold water (to wash myself) and a mosquito net. Oh I also had a tape player for the language classes.
Every day they brought me tins of braised fish and pork—just delicious.
I have very fond memories of that time.
The director of the school was this old communist who spoke good French. Across from the school was this pagoda. So, one day, the principal told me he’d take me across the road to meet his friend the grand master of the pagoda. He’d brought all this food that he told everyone was intended for me. And the grand master told all the novices to leave us alone so we could speak in French.
The minute they were out of sight, he pounced on all the duck and meat we’d brought—ostensibly for ourselves.
The monk, you see, was supposed to be vegan.
Sadec still looks like it did 20 years ago—it’s still basically untouched.
It was the final summer of my college education and I didn’t know what I was doing in September. Eventually, some faxes managed to make it out to Sadec.
Somehow I ended up with a place to do a Master at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I got back to France in September having lost 15 kilos.
HOW DO YOU LOSE 15 KILOS IN A SUMMER?
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
After coming back from Vietnam I drove from France to England where you couldn’t find good chocolate. I remember the appearance of Green & Black, which was organic and dark but didn’t taste very good.
Anyhow, from 98-99 I finished up my studies and moved to Tokyo to start my first job at a bank.
At the time, if you were half-clever and cared about your material life, banking was a good option. It was like in one of those movies where the kid from the country starts working on Wall Street.
Every day I’d go to a big tower wearing a suit to get paid real money. It was kind of sweet. I met my wife at that time.
So it was like: job, girlfriend, apartment…I even had a big motorbike.
WHAT MADE YOU ABANDON IT ALL AND MOVE BACK TO VIETNAM?
That’s kind of a long story.
I got into a fast-track to be part of what was almost like a secret police inside the bank—conducting internal audits and reports.
It was a horrible job and I wasn’t really cut out for it. I was spun out of the program after two out of six years and ended up back in Paris working for a guy who was trying to develop business in Asia.
He asked me if I’d ever been to Vietnam—I said yeah. In 2005 they sent me back to research the Vietnamese market.
Eventually, we came up with a business plan and applied for a license from the State Bank of Vietnam. In May 2007, we got the license and I moved to Vietnam with my wife and two young daughters.
WAS THAT INSANE?
Yeah, but not for the reasons you’d think. The really insane part was the incredible almost Shakespearean level of in-fighting in this little business we created.
It was really a cut-throat environment.
It took all the fun out of having a well-paying job and being in a place where we really enjoyed being. In 2010 my contract ended and I decided to take a rest after a decade in banking. Then I met Vincent and we came up with our chocolate idea.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE EARLY DAYS?
It was fun; there was lots of breaking down.*
Some farmers had us drive all way way out to them and then tell us “oh, I’m sorry, I sold all my beans yesterday.” We knew what we were doing to the extent that we knew that if there was a mistake, it was our mistake.
The first couple times we bought cacao we couldn’t figure it out. Then eventually we figured it out.
Learning how to make chocolate required a lot of experimenting in my kitchen with a tiny little grinder we still have in the factory. Roasting in the kitchen oven, peeling roasted beans by hand until our fingers were raw…
There was a lot of running around and trying to convince people to gather the money we needed to move into a proper working space. We pressed bars in little cake pans and sold them around town. That was Fall of 2010. In January 2011, Rice Creative finished our wrappers and we had our brand.
DID YOUR DAD EVER COME VISIT THE CHOCOLATE COMPANY?
He comes every year. He’s a frequent visitor.
*The car begins to wheeze as it take a hill. Maruta asks: Does the car sound weak to you?