A Healthy Obsession: An Interview with Coco Puro's Tom Pedersen

Tom Pedersen's story is not your typical boy-meets-bean. He knows more about chocolate than most of us combined, and we're lucky that he's willing to share the fruits of his explorations in the world of cocoa with us at SFC Farmers' Markets. His signature product, the Kakawa Chocolate Covered Cocoa Beans, are a triple threat of white, milk and dark chocolates surrounding a crunchy cocoa bean, and redefines what it means to love chocolate. Other cult favorites, found only at the SFC Farmers' Market, include Giandua, a chocolate and toasted local pecan spread, and cocoa steak rub. All three of these would be excellent choices for a gift for your honey this Valentine's Day--and if you forgot to pick some up on Saturday, you can still grab a bag at Central Market, or pick up some this week for a better-late-than-never surprise. We don't confine ourselves to Valentine's Day though--as far as we're concerned, any day is a good day to eat chocolate. Read on as Tom shares with us a little taste of the great wide world of chocolate.

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Cocoa Puro.

I’ve always wanted my own independent business and enjoy the creative arts; art, music, writing, and food. When I was a kid, I wondered why some chocolates were better than others, so I fell headlong into the fascinating research. I learned so much then, and I’m still learning about chocolate.

The heart of chocolate flavor is the cocoa bean; the variety, where it’s grown, the soil, weather, harvest, how it’s fermented and dried, then roasted, etc… all contribute or detract from a good flavor. When I received cocoa beans direct from a farm in Venezuela, I was captivated by the depth of flavor. It was a WOW! moment. That’s when I decided to stay true to the source of fine chocolate, the cocoa bean. I experimented with many different chocolate creations featuring the whole cocoa bean and when I came up with a great formulation for Kakawa Cocoa Beans I decided to see if others liked them as much as I did. I got a booth at the Sustainable Food Center’s farmers’ market and on our very first day, we sold out! And when Kakawa Cocoa Beans were selected by Saveur Magazine as one of the editors’ 100 favorite things from around the world, we knew we had a winner.

Tell us about the products you make—what’s special about them?

Kakawa Cocoa Beans are our main and most unique product. We source some of the world’s finest flavor cocoa beans, roast them whole, and cover them in layers of white, milk, and dark chocolates, and cocoa powder. It’s a flavor rich in complexity. The chocolates are some of the world’s best, and the whole roasted cocoa beans offer flavors one doesn’t get in processed, conched, and blended chocolates; more intense and natural flavors. We combined Old World exquisite chocolates with New World intensity. Many of the other chocolates we make feature the intense flavors of the whole cocoa bean and cocoa nibs, and we also make truffles and bars that are a little more conventional, but still intense in flavor. I try to make things you can’t get anywhere else.

Why use local ingredients?

While chocolate doesn’t grow here, I use other local ingredients as often as I can, depending on the seasonal offerings. We use Texas pecans, local blackberries, cream, oranges and lemons, and whatever else we can source. (In fact, we got some of our last Meyer Lemons from Marla Camp’s back yard! She’s the Editor of Edible Austin, a fine publication.) It’s important on many levels to discover the value of buying local. It supports local farmers and their families, it’s good for local food security, it’s more efficient and less wasteful, and we all get much better, fresher food. Buying local supports our community on so many levels.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to make food for a living?

I’ve always studied the creative arts and tinkered with how things work. A small business in chocolate forces me to be always innovative. As payment, I get to eat all the chocolate I want!

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

To me, “sustainable” means “healthy.” When I buy cocoa beans direct from a farmer and pay him more than the bulk market, it allows him to have a sustainable business and I get great cocoa beans for my customers. Win-win. We create a symbiotic and healthy relationship that way. And a healthy or sustainable way of doing business is what I try to do in all aspects. It’s just the right thing to do.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Cocoa Puro?

Every day is different. We wear all the hats: sourcing cocoa beans, making chocolates, mailing out shipments, doing the books… It’s a full plate, for sure, and there’s always a challenge when we wake up to a new day. It’s not for the faint of heart.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

I’m CEO and Chief Bottle Washer.

What do you find most rewarding about making food?

The best moment, aside from tasting chocolates, is the look on someone’s face when they get what we’re doing; making really fine unique chocolates. When they truly enjoy our chocolates and say, “Wow!”, that’s when I know we’ve done something good.

What do you find most challenging?

Every step of this business is fraught with challenge, from sourcing cocoa beans in distant countries, to selling to stores in a choppy economy. And figuring out how to grow the business in all this madness is particularly challenging. I’m just thankful for the support of the good folks in Austin who Buy Local. Thank you, Austin!

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to create good food for a living?

Scale can be one of the greatest challenges a small producer faces. You may make a great product but unless you can compete on the shelves with huge companies that have the economy of scale, a massive marketing budget, and deep pocket investors, you’re whistling in the wind. It’s been a constant challenge for us to position ourselves as a company with superb quality and unique chocolates.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

I shop at the farmers’ market every week and it fills my soul with goodness. All the vendors there, farmers and prepared food makers, are putting their hearts into what they do. It’s real food; locally made and high quality. So, if you support a world with healthy neighbors and good quality foods, then it makes perfect sense. Buy local at the farmers’ market.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

I’m encouraged by the growing support from the City Council and the Travis County Health Department. They realize that supporting local producers who’re trying to make a living here makes Austin a great place to visit and live.

What inspires you?

The people who come to the farmers’ market every Saturday inspire me to make the best chocolates for them. My wife and daughter inspire me to live a better life.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

Shop local! Even though it’s challenging to find parking downtown and some of the goods at the farmers’ market are a little more expensive than off the grocery store shelf, it’s a rewarding experience and the goods are often far fresher, better in quality, and buyers support small farms, families, and businesses.

What are some of your favorite market finds?

Everything at the market is good, it just depends on what you want that day. Just about every Saturday, I visit Taco Deli for a taco or Gardener’s Feast for a tamale. Texas Coffee Traders is always on the list. Cake and Spoon tempt me with everything on their table. Countryside Farm makes some righteous pates and things to make a meal delicious. Indian Hills Farm has some great sausage and jerky. Tecolote and Johnson’s Backyard always have beautiful vegetables. I love the farm-fresh eggs at Smith and Smith or Milagro. The best soap is at South Austin People. And we have a large collection of Will Heron designer t-shirts. There’s temptation at every booth!

What are you cooking this week?

Let’s see… Homemade pizza with Richardson Farms Hot Italian sausage? White bean, tomato, and Kale soup? Mushroom Risotto with Kitchen Pride Mushrooms? The choices are many.

What’s your favorite dish using ingredients from the market?

Last Saturday, after the market, we opened a package of Countryside Farms Oxtail Stew, heated it up, and opened a bottle of wine. Done.

What are some new products lined up for spring?

Springtime brings fresh strawberries and other fruits. That offers the possibility of making Pate de Fruits covered in dark chocolate. Yum!

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: TacoDeli’s Delibelly or Gardener’s Feast’s Costeño.

Favorite comfort food: Cake and Spoon’s Chelsea Bun.

Favorite book about food: Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking.

Favorite cookbook: There are many but my go-to is Joy of Cooking, for general how-to.

Favorite in-season fruit/veggie: Blackberries (for our Pate de Fruits), persimmons (for eating out of hand), kale (for soups and many other uses), blackeyed peas (with cornbread)… There’s something all year ‘round.

Favorite food indulgence: CHOCOLATE!