5 Questions with: Pierre Marcolini – on Chocolate, China and Niche Luxury

The recent growth and mouth-watering potential for chocolate brands in China is similar to many forms of luxury. Chocolate is something that was rare (and ‘Western’) even in the early 2000s, yet remains an alluring luxury today – while still subject to distinctly local palettes that generally dislike desserts or tastes that are allegedly ‘too sweet’.

If we start getting into pure overall numbers then, unsurprisingly for China, they are huge and rising. But in real terms, it’s clear that chocolate is seeding its natural brilliance (The Luxury Conversation openly stating a strong positive bias for chocolate) throughout first-tier cities. As with any market, China’s room for growth is where chocolatier brands need to explore.

One brand – one person – who is sowing the beans and reaping the rewards is the beloved Pierre Marcolini, already with three stores and a loyal following in China.

We spoke with the man himself on a recent visit to Shanghai, to hear more about our mutual love, chocolate.

Chinese tastes are known for liking ‘less sweet’ chocolates or desserts. Have you found this is the case or not?

I feel Chinese tastes are as diverse as China itself! China is an amazing country with so many gastronomic cultures. I have been lucky to travel around, from Shanghai to Beijing, to Hangzhou’s Longjing area to the South of China. I have not been to Hunan nor Sichuan yet but I am looking forward to discovering these regions very soon. In each of these regions, I experienced different food culture and tastes – and as a Chef, I love this diversity.

It is true that you may hear a difference in tastes relevant to Western, sweet food, but this is good because it gives us the opportunity to explain what is so unique about Maison Marcolini.

China discovered chocolate quite recently, with industrial brands offering candy bars – and they are indeed very sweet. Way too sweet. If you eat this, actually the main taste is not chocolate, but sugar.

When you taste a Marcolini chocolate, the experience is the complete opposite. Firstly, at Maison Marcolini we select the precise cocoa beans. Chocolate is actually a fruit, coming from a magnificent tree. We select the beans while making sure they are the best quality. We are proud to offer our clients a large diversity of beans: Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario, Chuao and more – all these names refer to different fruits, and they will give different chocolates. Terroirs, origins, everything matters. Each bean brings its own flavours and specificities – the parallel with Chinese tea is very interesting. This is a true journey!

We ship the beans to our Atelier where we roast them and transform them into a piece of chocolate. This is pure craftsmanship, and it is unique as now most brands rely on industrial groups for this part which is, to me, the most important one in the process of creating chocolate. To me, it is really the soul of the chocolate maker.

I have been pioneering the process of decreasing the level of sugar in all of our collection, in order to offer an incredible and healthy experience of our natural ingredients that we have been sourcing so carefully; not only the cocoa beans but also the hazelnuts from Piedmont in Italy, mangos from Brazil, vanilla from Madagascar.

Our Chinese clients really appreciate this approach. Once they taste our creations, they easily recognise the high quality of the chocolates, and they are amazed by the low level of sugar.

How much region-specific thinking goes into the creation of a new promotion or product? What are the challenges in creating chocolate for different countries – or does everyone simply love chocolate?!

I started my Maison 20 years ago in the arty suburbs of Brussels. At that time, I can tell you, I was not thinking about any region-specific taste. I was just trying to create something unique, different. I now feel so lucky to have my creations shared around the world, as we have boutiques in London, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, soon Dubai – yet I am still not thinking about something regional, but rather still the chocolate itself.

Sometimes we are called ‘luxury chocolates’, while we do not pursue any ‘luxury’ labelling. In China, I have even heard that we are nicknamed the ‘Hermes of Chocolate’. I think the reason behind this is mostly our clients understand the craftsmanship and the extreme attention to quality we are putting in everything we do. More than the quality, I believe it is about the creation – I can still feel the magic in creating something new, based on inspiration from art, or by a dish I just tasted in a restaurant in Paris or in Tokyo, or by a novel I read. So I am not creating with the idea to “please” some specific region of the world, but I am creating with my soul and my senses, trying to serve wonderful and rich natural ingredients.

Of course, we can observe our Chinese clients will be eager to taste a Rose Macaron or a floral chocolate for instance, while our clients in Dubai, for example, will be more attracted by dates or candied chestnuts. But overall, I think it is a fantastic opportunity to share inspirations from all over the world.

Recently, I created a Limited Edition collection for China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, In the Moon for Love. I twisted the mooncake into what we call in northern Europe a Mellow Cake. I love it; it is a biscuit, a marshmallow and a chocolate shell with different flavours: rose & passion fruit, caramel and our House Dark Chocolate. Our Chinese clients truly appreciate Maison Marcolini’s interpretation of a Chinese classic. We decided to launch it not only in China but also in Europe so that we could celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival in Brussels too!

What is the Pierre Marcolini brand’s specialty in China and Asia? How has it found success in terms of positioning the brand and its message?

We entered the Chinese market two years ago with our first stores in Shanghai. Now, wwe are in K11, Plaza 66 and Grand Gateway, and we are expanding to Nanjing and soon Hangzhou, which I am very excited about.

 We are a niche brand and I believe what is most important is to highlight what we are standing for. With a few other artisanal chocolatiers, I launched the “Bean to Bar” Movement. It gathers people who believe in working in close partnership with cocoa bean producers, paying them well, making sure they are growing the highest quality beans for us, not at all involved in child labour, and without adding chemical products to have the trees grow faster, which is terrible because it damages the qualities of the fruit. So from the very beginning of the process, we are putting effort in to get an incredible raw material, and from there, transform it into something precious.

This is really the message we want to convey, here in China and all over the world; a simple message that says who we are.

Of course, this takes time. Luckily, Maison Marcolini is already very famous in Europe and in Japan, so our Chinese clients who travel around the world know us from our boutiques in Paris, London and Tokyo. We have been visited by Chinese media and Chinese celebrities such as Eddie Peng, Lin Zhi Lin.

On the business side, how have you balanced risk versus reward in China? i.e. the opportunity is huge, but as a fully individual market (with a unique retail/e-commerce eco-system), what are the greatest challenges for incoming luxury product?

Sure, this is both a very interesting market and a very challenging one, sensitive to trends and fast changes. Our approach is similar to other niche luxury brands: offering our quality, our sense of craft and surprising our clients with reinvented collections.

On top of our retail activity, we have been working with luxury Maisons who are key clients to us. We offer tailor made products to them, and also we create customised pieces for extraordinary weddings.

What’s coming soon for Pierre Marcolini in China in 2018/19?

As I mentioned, we are expanding to Hangzhou, which is very exciting for us. We will definitely continue to expand, offline and online to make sure we can offer our collection all over China. I am also extremely happy we will soon offer our new pastry collection in China.

You know, I started my career in pastry. I am a World Champion of Pastry, which is obviously a huge honour. This competition is amazing, very challenging. Though I started my Maison with chocolate at the heart, I never forgot about my first love for Pastry, and this is really a proud moment for me to share my collection of Desires 巧3 to China. They are very unique; the cubic shape, the flavours, and I wanted to create something really new; fruity, floral, with nuts. I love the bright Yuzu one, the Magenta Cherry with the smoked dark chocolate is fantastic, there is also our Red Fruits Creation with a combination of blackberry, blackcurrant, raspberry and vanilla. I wanted to create something really new with an artistic touch, at the intersection of my two passions: pastry and chocolate.

Very soon, we will also launch my most fashionable creation! She might be slightly more famous than I am here! She is a true fashion icon and, well, I love her. I am talking about Victoria Beckham. We have decided to create something together playing around my ‘hearts’ collection. We created a box and named it Les Coeurs de Victoria. Like all Maison products we used rare and exotic ingredients, sourcing premium cocoa from around the world and keeping sugar content to a minimum. We came up with four new flavours: Maison’s Casse-Noisette, Caramel Salted Butter, Rose-Passion Fruit and YuzuI. The collection is adorable … and delicious! I hope you will love it in China too!

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