Ask the Alchemist #121

Who do you look up to?

Ok, this one is sort of out of left field. It’s a valid question. And one person jumps to mind. It isn’t an importer or farmer. Nor a chocolate confectioner. It is not a chocolate maker, or equipment maker. In fact they are not even anyone associated with the chocolate industry But the hint is there. It is Adam Savage. The non-self proclaimed poster child of the Maker revolution. I find both he and his Mythbuster partner Jaime Hyneman inspirational. They are both Makers. They make things. But to make them, they have to understand them. They approach problems, break them down, systematically develop potential solutions and then make what they need to test out their hypothesis – basic scientific methodology.

How does this relate? Well, it’s what I do day in day out. And what you, as a chocolate Maker, or aspiring chocolate Maker, are. A Maker.

Last year I hear a speech Adam gave at a major Maker Faire. It was his 10 commandments of making. It made such a positive impression on me, and per 6, I want to pass them along and comment on them and how they relate to what we do here. You can hear the full talk here: Please, go listen to it.

This is my adjusted take on what we do as chocolate Makers.

1. Make something. Anything. Don’t make this complicated. Of course the obvious is putting some roasted nibs and sugar in a Melanger and making chocolate. But this can also be as simple as toasting up some raw nibs in a pan so you have made roasted nibs. Or even getting a large bowl and blow dryer together so you can winnow your own nibs. Do something. Make something.

2. Make stuff that improves your life, either mechanically or aesthetically. This could be building some of your own equipment. But it does not have to be. There is a great satisfaction to un-molding shiny, glossy chocolate that you have made. You can also go laterally. How about making up a label for that chocolate you just made? Don’t discount the importance of aesthetics.

3. Don't wait. This goes back to 1). Maybe you don’t have all the equipment. But you have something and can make something NOW.

4. Use a project to learn a skill. I learn by doing. I have a confession. Ask the Alchemist is my own project for learning. It keeps me researching and thinking. Yours could be making your first batch of chocolate. Or learning roasting by methodically over and under roasting and makng the resulting chocolate.

5. ASK. Ask for help. I need to just quote Adam here. “People who make things love to share their ideas and knowledge. Makers love to talk about their work. Any husband or wife of a maker knows this is true. Learn how to work well with others and it will give back to you tenfold. Ask questions. Ask for advice. Ask for feedback.” This is why I am always here to answer questions. Please ask.

6. Share your methods and knowledge and don't make them a secret. This is the other side of the coin to 6). When asked, share what you know. Nothing, absolutely nothing, pisses me off more than hearing someone talk about trade secrets. Bullshit. What in the world are you afraid of? If what you do is so precarious that it’s based on a secret, then to my mind it’s just a house of cards. I’ll grant that sometimes there are very alternative formulations or new technologies that need to be protected for financial reasons, but claiming a bean mix or roast profile is secret is just insecurity talking. Get over it and share what you know….and it will come back to you. And besides, you OWE it to the people that shared so freely with you.

7. Discouragement and failure are intrinsic to the process. It’s going to happen. Again, Adam says it so well. “Don't hide from these. Talk about them. They're not enemies to be avoided, they're friends, designed to teach your humility. Go easy on yourself. Don't compare yourself to others; go ahead and be envious of others' skills, because frequently you can't not. Use that.” Use it to get better. Use failure to learn. I can’t tell you how many times I have failed while building and making something. But I learned from it and made myself and what I was making better because of it.

8. Measure carefully. Have some tolerance. “Do you know what tolerance is? If something fits tightly into something--that's a close tolerance. If something fits loosely, that's a loose tolerance. Knowing the difference between tight and loose tolerance is perhaps the most important measure of a craftsperson.”. There are two aspects of this in chocolate making I find. Knowing when to be accurate and precise and when you can, and should, be looser are key. 1 or 2 or 3% differences in a formulation are barely going to be noticeable. Combining 1) and 7) just get something going and stop fretting it will be 100% perfect the first time. Computer controlling your roast to 0.1 F and the exact second is just silly to me. The tolerance is too tight. You can’t tell the difference in the end product roasted to 251.7 F for 14:16 min vs 252.6 F. On the other side, a candy thermometer that is accurate to +/- 5 F just isn’t going to cut it for tempering where 1 F can make a difference. And you will only learn the difference by doing and failing on occasions. Embrace that..

9. Make things for other people. I love the look on someone’s face when I give them something I’ve made. Be it chocolate, or a truffle or anything. It can also make you vulnerable and keep you humble. These are not bad things. This is another form of sharing.

10. And if I could go back in time and tell my young self anything--any specific thing at all--it would be this: Take more notes!

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