Vincent Mourou – The Man Who Left Hollywood For Chocolate
Were you to split the pie, Vincent Mourou probably registers as the Yang to Sam Maruta’s Yin—an emphatically enthusiastic borderline hyperactive personality that’s hard to relate on the page. Everything related below was said in a taxi to Ba Ria Province, where the company’s co-founders bought their first beans back. The car is packed with Marou interns and Mourou’s dog, Ella, who sits faithfully at his feet.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
My dad was a laser physicist. As a kid, he watched all these Westerns and dreamed of wide open spaces—the frontier. France only ended mandatory military service in 1997, so my dad had the choice between a few years in the Army and doing a doctorate in Quebec. So I was born in Quebec in 1971. A few months later, we spent a year in San Diego. Then my dad got a teaching position at L’ecole Polytechnique and we moved to a town outside Paris.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR MOM?
My mom was a very talented gymnast—a national champion in the uneven bars—who also loved art and design. She went to this really elite school in Paris.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF CHOCOLATE?
Oh, there’s no first memory. We always had it. My parents loved it. We always had dark chocolate lying around. But I always associated it with my grandmothers.
My dad’s mother would make us afternoon snacks of bread and butter and pieces of milk chocolate. Then I would go an hour away to see my mother’s parents—who’d make the same thing with dark chocolate. Basically, I could eat as much chocolate as I wanted. Those were very tender times.
WHEN DID YOUR AMERICAN CHILDHOOD BEGIN?
At the age of six we moved to the United States.
It was my first bout of depression. I was so unhappy.
In France, we had lived in this small medieval town outside of Paris with a big castle in the center. As a boy you couldn’t have hoped for a more fairytale setting. And then I got ripped from and dropped into cold, gray Rochester. 1970’s condos. Waiting for the school bus in the snow. Nothing about it was appealing.
My parents never considered themselves American immigrants. Every summer, my parents would send us to France to be around our cousins and grandparents. My dad had a two year contract at the Institute of Optics in Rochester. And then at the end of his two-year contract the University of Rochester offered him a professorship. So we stayed; we got green cards and stayed for another eight years.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE GOING BACK TO FRANCE EVERY SUMMER?
It was the highlight of the year! We were so free. I was partying when I was 11 years old. My cousins were all older and they’d take my brother and I everywhere. When I’d go back to the US everything was so restricted. By the time I hit high school, I’d seen it all.
As we got older, we’d spend the summers working for my uncle who had a business selling tractors and things to wine farmers. Basically we just ran around between two little towns where most of my ancestors had lived for generations.
WHAT WAS COLLEGE LIKE FOR YOU?
Well I ended up in Pre-Med at the University of Michigan. I didn’t like following directions, so I finished with an undergraduate degree in neuropsychology—and I was like “What do I do next?” I spent a while catering, bar-tending and trying to make small films. Finally, I decided to go to LA. On a motorcycle. I bought this old beautiful BMW and hit the roads for 8-10 hours a day. I was in a hurry. I didn’t have any money.
WHAT WAS LA LIKE?
I spent my first few nights on the floor of an old roommate’s one-room apartment. I had $200 to my name and I kept meeting all these characters.
The whole first year was crazy. I was working for free or next to nothing for wackos. I was getting editing experience. This guy who called himself a producer had me drive him around for a year—never paid a dime for gas.
I got rear-ended on Hollywood Blvd by this Russian guy driving a Range Rover—the bike flipped over and landed on top of me. I stood up and thought “welcome to the big bad world of LA.” No one stopped to help. The driver tried to take off, so I reached inside and grabbed his keys. Everyone told me to sue the guy, but I was like “that’s not in my culture.”
Finally, my neighbor got me an opportunity to work for free (at night) editing film with Avid. That’s how I got to learn that software. Then a friend called and told me he was quitting an editing apprenticeship on an independent film that paid $1,200 a week. This is 1996. The film had Sean Penn in it. I was 24. That was the big break.
WHAT ABOUT CHOCOLATE DURING THIS TIME?
Trader Joe’s had decent chocolate. The price was great. Back then I lived out in Echo Park and survived on refried beans and larb (the Thai meat salad). A friend taught me to make it.
AT SOME POINT YOU ENDED UP IN ADVERTISING, RIGHT?
After nine years in LA, I went to Paris; spent time in Brussels. I ended up working with this company in London for14-16 hours a day. I had no life and got no satisfaction out of the deal. The job would put me up in these great hotels, but I only got four hours of sleep a night.
My life made no sense!
I’d come to LA and didn’t even have time to have lunch with old friends. I was about to quit when they asked me to open an office in San Francisco. I had no other plan so I agreed.
I slowly saved up money and quit to travel the world. I just folded everything up. I went to Japan and travelled around Southeast Asia for a couple months. When I got back to Ho Chi Minh City, I just decided to stay.
Nine months later, I met Sam. I saw this Facebook post about a jungle weekend in Lam Dong and signed up for it. There was ten of us in this group and we spent the weekend without any food. A liter and a half of water. The whole point was to scavenge and fish for food in the jungle.
HOW DID THE FOUNDATIONAL FORAY TO BA RIA PROVINCE COME ABOUT?
Sam had already worked at a State-Owned Cacao company. We googled around and found this cacao farm in Ba Ria. That was about it. Sam made a map and took off on motorbikes. We didn’t know where the cacao was going to be. We’d stop on the side of the road to check out plants and find out they were coffee—or something else.
WHAT WAS MAKING THE FIRST CHOCOLATE BAR LIKE?
Amazing. February 1, 2011 we got our first beans and made our first test together. The previous Christmas, I’d bought some beans from a guy I knew who worked at an agri firm. I threw those in my mom’s oven in France and roasted them during Christmas. I didn’t know what I was doing; I just ate ’em.
WHAT WAS ASSEMBLING YOUR FIRST CHOCOLATE APPARATUS LIKE?
Well. First test we made was using Sam’s oven and a blender, which we quickly burned out. I’d started conducting research on different machines and things.
It tasted very acidulated, very raw, very rough. But full of potential. We didn’t know, but we thought with time, some tools and some technique…
The first thing we figured we needed was one of those wet grinders used to grind lentils and chickpeas for Indian cuisine. I went to Ganesh (the Indian restaurant on Le Thanh Ton) and talked to the manager and asked if I could run a test on the machine. They used it every day. So sam and I flew to Singapore on our first business trip and found the wet grinder we needed in Little India.
DID ANYBODY HELP YOU FIGURE OUT HOW TO MAKE CHOCOLATE?
Well we met this German agronomist who was finishing a development project here and he told us what to look for as far as trees, fermentation. But not much in terms of chocolate-making.
In the beginning there was no shape, nothing. We started feeling good when it stopped tasting like shit. Then, at some point, it started tasting like chocolate.
We learned as we went; we weren’t steering anything; we were just trying to make something good.
It took at least six or seven months of constant experimentation with different beans.
The idea of single-origin chocolate came later as we continued to find beans. We were discovering everything at the same time. We started to realize what we could do, what we couldn’t do and things started to take a shape.
DID YOU JUST, UM, YOUTUBE IT?
Last night we told everything about our process to a talk show host.
There’s a company making kits and small machines for bean-to-bar makers.
But back then there wasn’t anything on YouTube! There wasn’t any single source on how to make chocolate from raw materials.
We were just trusting our palates. We cracked the beans by hand at that point—the two of us, working for an hour, could produce half a kilo of finished chocolate.
We finally built the Crankenstein—a grain grinder used by home brewers powered by a handheld drill. Then we made our first winnower out of PVC pipes and a hairdryer. At that stage we were still experimenting with the roasting and the recipes all at the same time.
The last step was hiring a chocolatier named Arnaud, who we found on a French jobs board for pastry chefs. Arnauld was a trained chocolatier but he didn’t know, then, how to make chocolate from beans. They don’t teach that at pastry school. Anyway, Arnauld agreed to help us set up a hygienic production process and train staff.
WHAT WERE THOSE FIRST SIX MONTHS LIKE?
We made 53 small batches of chocolate. Our production process took three days and only yielded a kilo at a time. The chocolate wasn’t great. There were issues; there were problems.
And people told us we were crazy.
Then we started producing something that wasn’t bad at all, but it wasn’t interesting. We took the chocolate to Hong Kong where we met Willie Harcourt-Cooze at the Asia Food Show. He was giving his presentation on Willie’s Chocolate and we gave him a little sample and he told us to stop covering up all the cacao flavor with raw sugar.
THIS YEAR HIT A LOT OF MAROU’S FARMERS IN THE MEKONG DELTA WITH A LOT OF UNPRECEDENTED DROUGHT AND HIGH TEMPERATURES; AS MAROU GROWS, WHAT WILL IT DO TO GROW CACAO PRODUCTION?
To be honest, things are not rosy.
There needs to be greater cacao development in Vietnam and we need to be more involved. Cacao’s not that hard to grow. The issue is the cost of the land and having the cacao properly cared for.
We’re facing a lot of those challenges in our agro-forestry project in Madagui. It’s a beautiful project, but not an easy one by any measure. The future is not that certain. At the moment the cacao is acclimating. If it works, we’ll plant more.