Interview with L.A. Rising Star Artisan David Menkes of LetterPress Chocolate

by Caroline Hatchett
June 2017

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
David Menkes:
I started with my blog, Little Brown Squares. I always had chocolate at my desk, and I started with simple stuff. What happened is, I collected so much chocolate, my supervisor came by and commenented on it. So I started a blog and DreamWorks Chocolate Society. I was working for DreamWorks Animation at the time. We photographed chocolate and people sent it to us. I charged $5 per for head, and we sampled six bars per week. We tried stuff from all over the world—always bean to bar. I visited a cocao plantation in 2011. I started writing for Chocolate Connoisseur in 2013, and went to Seattle to cover the craft chocolate show. There are maybe 45 chocolate makers in the U.S, and I thought, who’s making chocolate in L.A. 

I took some classes in Hawaii on sustainable agriculture and forestry, and bean-to-bar chocolate making. We, me and my wife Corey who’s an ecologist, bought a melanger, roasted cacao in a toaster, and peeled them piece by piece; 10 hours for 5 pounds of beans. We realized why no one was making chocolate win L.A. It was really really hard. I spent a year and half learning how to properly temper. Once we got a bigger machine, we ended up making chocolate at home through the L.A. [Department of Health’s] Cottage Food Operation. We couldn’t ship or sell outside of L.A. L.A. Weekly ran a piece, and our landlord found out. Then we found another space.  

Six months after we moved in, we found this place was for sale. We started negotiating and this is going to be our space. Because it’s open and permitted, it’s worth its weight in gold. We started making bean-to-bar chocolate. Kriss Harvey discovered us in 2017, and posted a photo. We didn’t know who he was at the time. He brought us into the fold and we won our first Good Food Award. 

CH: What’s your philosophy?
DM:
We want a clean read on all the cacao we work with. We think about what kind of roast do we want to do with this. Ucayali is the most delicate cacao we work with; roasting 30 minutes. Venezuela is the heaviest, with about a 70 minute roast. Forestero are larger beans, which take longer to penetrate; we roast them low and slow. From talking to friends at Dandelion, we learned they roast them longer. We roast with convection, not a drum roaster. We have a high fan, and move around the volume, to get consistent roasting. 

Ucayali isn’t usually associated with good chocolate; mostly cocaine. A buddy of mine is a fermentation expert. What he does is identify interesting projects. We decided to do a micro- fermentation on the Ucayali. 

For me, I’m looking for specific flavor profiles. I want something for everyone. We’ll add cocoa butter if we need to. The farther you get from the equator, the more cocao butter you need. In Ecuador, we work with one family in Costa Esmeraldas, that’s what we won our Good Food Awards for; it’s a more nutty and floral chocolate.