The Chocolate Life

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Why the Academy of Chocolate is garbage

For full disclosure sake, we did enter this year and we did not win anything. However, we did not expect to win anything and my only desire was non-American feedback from people who don’t know me. (I only sent them my aesthetically imperfects as we don’t need feedback on looks and saw no reason to waste good product)

Devil in an Apron is a nonprofit organization, yes we do offer a few products, for cost, that demonstrate new concepts in chocolate and confection: fat based marshmallows, the use of UV-C instead of boiling to sterilize, using ultrasound to form emulsions and control crystalization, and generally deconstructing items as physio-chemical systems to rebuild them in new wasy. Some of these are novelties and some are technological advancements in the field.

Now that you know who I am, on to what is wrong with the Academy of Chocolate

Nepotism and Judgment
There was a recent post on the ethics of publishing reviews of your competition, which raised some interesting points. What about the ethics of reviewing yourself and your friends? Although it is claimed that entrants, who are academy members are not allowed to judge on their own products, the judging process is highly flawed. Secret ballot using a contained point system is ideal, using an open table system might be the worst possible. Guess which the Academy of Chocolate uses? It is very, very easy, even if unintentionally to drive the table when a product you know is up. Think, Ouija board, where an individual is capable of subverting an entire group through unspoken communication.

Even the most casual glance at the list of winners, special awards, and members reveals that judgment is not on the level.

The Academy of Chocolate is run by members of the Academy of Culinary Arts. The Academy of Chocolate, does not list sponsors, the Academy of Culinary Arts does. Yes, Amedei is listed right at the top. I’m sure that had no bearing on their winning of the Golden Bean eachand every year for a different product.

Oh yeah, let us not forget that William Curley uses Amedei and they even produce a special blend just for him.

Attitude of the Entrants
William Curley… assuming that your awards are legit, why do you keep entering the same products? Is this all you make? Is winning so important to you that you only submit previous winners? How boring would the Oscars be if the same winning movies were entered year after year? I’m not going to comment on the deservedness of the awards; just seeing the same products, year after year is hardly sportsmanlike.

Unofficial/Irregular Communication
Several judges wrote me directly with comments about my entry before the results were made official. Each gave high praise and then wanted to know if the product was available retail in the UK (must products be available for retail in the UK to be valid entires?). The really bizarre thing about this was that each judge contacted me well after the judging was supposed to be completed, and informed me that they had just had my product (“I tried your product yesterday/a few hours ago/earlier today”). How could it be that several judges liked the product enough to go out of their way to contact me about it without even placing a bronze? I would like to say that I really appreciated these judges contacting me directly and offering their feedback but, it seems like the quality of judges might be in question when so much variance occurs. Are they voting on quality or their personal taste? Why were these judges trying my product after judging was completed?

No Feedback
The final kicker, I have not received official feedback! Not even, “why did you throw all the products together into a bag without individually wrapping them for overseas shipment?” Nothing. This part pisses me off as I made it very clear to everyone I spoke to that I was only seeking feedback, you’d think they might have mentioned that they don’t provide feedback.

Ultimately, I feel that non-sponsoring, non-academy members merely pay for a bunch of friends to get together and enjoy lots of free chocolate. Am I bitter? Yeah, I thought I was buying expert feedback and instead I merely contributed to artificially boosting the delicate egos of William Curley and Amedei.



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Comment by Art Pollard on February 15, 2009 at 12:34pm
Wow! I didn't intend on my previous post being as long as it turned out to be! So much for "weighing in what little I can" huh?


Comment by Art Pollard on February 15, 2009 at 12:31pm

I can understand some of your concerns about the AoC. As a long time "lurker" (but not poster), please let me weigh in what little I can on this.

First, I have never tried William Curley's chocolates. From what I have read online, they are phenomenal. Also, from what I have been able to read, I do think that he does have an advantage that most chocolatiers in the world do not have. He is local. William Curley uses water ganaches for most of his bon-bons. Water ganaches will carry flavor in ways that a cream or fat based ganache simply can not match. Of course, the downside of water ganaches is that they make the shelf life almost negligible. So while chocolatiers throughout the world who send their bon-bons in for judging have to worry about having enough shelf-life that they will last throughout international shipping (including an unknown amount of delay in customs), William Curley can simply drive his bon-bons over and drop them off -- potentially on the same day that they were made. When I go to London in a few months, you can bet that one of the places I intend to stop first is William Curley's studio and taste his work. At that point, I can probably speak more to his flavor and innovation than I can now.

As to Amedei, yes, there appear to be some ties. I have not looked into this too closely so can not speak one way or another to that. However, I think we can agree that Amedei makes some really good chocolate. I think that through care and craft, that this small company in Italy has truly taken the world of chocolate to the next level and has shown what can be done. Wouldn't it be great if Amedei's quality was the norm -- not the exception.

As a chocolate maker myself, I may not always agree with their "vision", after all, I have my own to follow. Even so, they have followed their vision in ways that few others have been able to do for whatever reason. My personal feeling is that they have deserved their "wins". At the same time, I would love to see other chocolate makers give them a run for their money. This will both improve the chocolate being made in factories throughout the world and potentially improve Amedei's quality as well. I know for speaking for myself, we certainly intend on continuing to improve our vision and at each and every step keep improving what we make.

The chocolate world is huge. However, as we all know it is also a very small world. Since many of the members of the AoC are also chocolate professionals, you can expect that they would have unavoidable professional ties. Since the AoC members are also the cream of the crop and are most dedicated to the very best fine chocolate, they would be likely to have ties to companies that are also cream of the crop. (You would not expect Chloe for example to be found working a packaging line at Hershey's for example.)

Last year, we one one bronze award. This year, we have done even better. At the same time, we do not have any commercial arrangements with any of the members of the AoC. I have personally met one member of the AoC once (though we have corresponded via e-mail and chat online on occasion). I have never met Chloe though I did see her from a distance at an event in New York about three years ago. Our chocolate is not available in the UK though you can bet that I sure would love to open up distribution there. (Any distributors / importers listening?)

So as to your point about AoC judges wanting to know whether you were available in the UK, I would take that less as to a slight against you if you were not in the UK and more as a huge compliment that they enjoyed your work and would like some for their personal enjoyment. I'd lay odds that if this is the case and you keep improving (as we all should) and submitting (as we all should), that you'll be up for an award at some point. It sounds as if you have some unique techniques that potentially could make some wonderful flavors and textures. (I looked on your profile and could not find any information on your shop as I know I certainly would like to know more.)

Your point about feedback, I believe, is a good one. I know I sure would love to have feedback on our entries. I would love to be able to know in what ways they believe I need to improve our quality further. (As always, I'd take any feedback with a grain of salt and simply another point of view. Perhaps it could improve my vision, perhaps not.) This year there were just over 440 entries as I am sure you are aware. The logistics of providing feedback on this number of products would be enormous. Especially since multiple judges are involved in judging but only a single judge can actually write feedback. One possibility and the only one I see is simply to release the various "scores" on say texture, flavor, etc. that they judge the various pieces on to the individual entrants. Of course, the problem is that this doesn't say very much. (What does getting a "5" out of "10" on flavor really say about how something needs to be improved.) Perhaps the judges who e-mailed you can provide some feedback with some serious thought given. You certainly have the contact information for more judges than I do and thus have more potential for feedback than I. (An enviable situation.)

Clearly there are some issues that the AoC needs to iron out. But with time, I believe that many of the issues that you raise will be addressed. I'm sure that after each AoC awards cycle that they reassess how it may be improved. Especially since they seem to be getting more entries each and every year. How the awards will be handled when there are two, four, or eight times the number of entries will really be a challenge for them, I'm sure.

While I may not be as privy to some of the intricate details as some (my life is too busy to follow this sort of thing), my personal take is simply that the AoC has bitten off a huge job -- judging the work of professionals many of which are at the top of their craft and certainly all of whom are very protective about their creations. Clearly there are going to be quite a few people who are unhappy about the results just as their will be a smaller minority who are pleased with the outcome. One piece of advise that I received a long time ago that I have found to be true is simply not to blame something on a conspiracy when it can be just as easily explained by the foibles of human nature. I think that this holds true here. We have people who are put in the unenviable position of not being able to please everybody and who I believe are simply just doing the best that they can however perfect or imperfect their efforts may be.

Comment by Robert Shea on February 15, 2009 at 2:56am
Yeah, I read that post Samantha.

Previously I had a similar view as yourself and assumed that the outcome was predetermined... it wasn't until speaking with several judges and following the trail back to the Academy of Culinary Arts that the picture became clear as to the accuracy of these assumptions.

I still felt that feedback from an organization assured to dislike me, would have been valuable. The lack of narrative on any of the winners or my own stuff really cements the utter uselessness of this organization.


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