Medellin is the destination city for chocolate lovers in South America. Yes, the hillsides surrounding the City of Eternal Spring are plentiful with premium, raw cacao, but the secret ingredient in exceptional chocolate is creativity. Fortunately, one exciting expat is elevating the experience for consumers everywhere, intent upon pushing the boundaries of the world’s most lustrous and healthful treat.
On a recent sunny afternoon in the gorgeous Parque de la Presidenta, I took a seat with Danny Michlewicz, owner and lead chocolatier at Tilin Cacao. Waxing Willy Wonka, we talked about the sweet things taking shape in his new world-class chocolate factory opening around the corner in nearby Provenza, the city’s craft and culinary haven.
Danny shared his vision for creating unparalleled chocolate, his passion for the extoic splendors of Colombia, why he loves Medellin – and why cacao always comes first.
Why did you decide to set up shop in Medellin, of all places? Was it the cacao being in Colombia that brought you down?
I came here for the first time over four years ago. I decided to move here three and a half years ago and started the chocolate and cacao company a year later. Before landing in Colombia, I was actually travelling in South America for several months and I had been seeing cacao grown and trying awesome chocolate everywhere I went.
And I was looking for a new venture. Medellin is extremely entrepreneurial; not just the expats, but also the Paisas. There’s a history of some of the most famous companies in Colombia being born here, so I thought, “Why not be here?”
We like to think of ourselves as more of a cacao company than anything, because you need cacao to make chocolate. We try to encapsulate the entire supply chain.
Since you’re dealing with cacao, there are numerous health benefits?
One of the great things about living in Colombia is that cacao grows all around Colombia, rather than being in the States and having to import it, you can go to fincas (farms) and select the cacao you want and negotiate with farmers directly, which is pretty cool.
Was your endeavor here formed of a love of chocolate or was it a confluence of events and resources? Maybe some particularly sweet memories around chocolate or cacao?
It was a love of food, definitely. And the love of food comes before the chocolate. And it’s a love of health. The thing is: People don’t know, scientists don’t know the extent of the health benefits cacao provides, simply because there are a lot of chemicals within cacao that change throughout the manufacturing process and so what is digested is somewhat unknown.
I’ve wanted to be in the middle of something that was still at its frontier, not yet fully developed and that’s kind of where we are now. We’re continuously learning, even though the company is over two years old.
Antioxidants are definitely a huge aspect of the health benefits of chocolate. You’re making a few different styles of cacao-based products, right?
We started making chocolate about a year and half ago. We signed a lease on a factory space 11 months ago and the last year and a half has been spent educating ourselves at whatever it is that we sell to another human being. Because you gotta’ provide not only what’s really natural, but also what’s very high quality. And then kind of figure out your niche as you go along.
Anyone who’s a businessman needs to understand that when you have a small company – and people were manufacturing chocolate over 100 years ago – it’s not new. So, what’s our place here? Our place in Colombia? In the world? We have to figure that out what we are going to contribute.
Right now we’re finishing up the factory. We’re applying for licenses next week and so that’s really, really important because we want to make sure we’ve done all of our diligence there. We already have several licenses, but we have one more to make sure we can export the way we want.
After that, we’re going to start to create products which are a bit more extreme – not as mainstream – lower in the quantity of sugar and slightly less processed than what we’ve traditionally done. We’ve learned how to make world class chocolate. Now we’re going back and doing something a little less processed because we see we can still maintain the quality.
You’re pulling out additive processes? Things that make manufacturing easier?
Here’s the beauty of Colombia: We’re able to go to fincas and buy small lots and then create small lots of chocolate. We’re able to see how all the quality trickles down to the final product, so we can select the farm for the best chocolate.
We’re going to make a chocolate bar that’s 90% chocolate, but without the bitterness that most chocolate bars have. Also, the process behind making it takes a shorter amount of time, so it’s also less processed in terms of micron size and it feels more like the cacao you’d find in the field. It’s not so far away from the tree.
Many commercially produced chocolate bars have their health benefits processed out by producers, since antioxidants are very bitter. Sounds like you’re opposed to that.
On the one hand you have to embrace these differences that are out there. On the other, we had to come to terms that not every lot will be the same. I’ve talked to restaurants and they say they want some consistency, but if sometimes things are going to be different, and you can tell the story and explain why – and transmit that – it’s going to be a richer experience down to the consumer, the person eating at a restaurant, for example.
I had the Tilin Cacao 69% chocolate bar yesterday. It was unlike any chocolate bar i’ve had before: robust in it’s flavors, but it had a certain character I was not used to tasting, a lean elegance. What was that?
I’ll tell you about that. That was a Rooibos chocolate bar we started selling. They’ve come a long way – we’ve iterated, we’ve made it better than what came before. That is a 70% chocolate bar infused with 1% rooibos.
Rooibos is a South African plant that also has a high level of flavonoids. We try to pair the bright notes we find in the cacao with the bright notes of the rooibos and make something that was greater than the sum of its parts.
A bangup job. I was eating at the prominent local restaurant Osea yesterday, and I was eating this amazing dessert and it also had your chocolate in it.
That’s a super secret trial, I’m amazed you got your hands on that. Salomon is a good friend and he’s advised me for a long time about chocolate and chocolate quality, because he has a professional chef background. We’ve thrown around lots of ideas around pairings.
His dessert is actually a creme anglaise, with a cardamom infused chocolate cremeux. He’s created a chocolate cookie crumble with 70% cane sugar that’s he’s topped with this marshmallow that’s absolutely amazing. It’s the best dessert I’ve had in a really long time and I’m a harsh critic of desserts. I have a high expectation for them.
Understandable. Sounds like you have a familiar history with food, a distinct passion for all things edible. Can you talk about that?
I started making a mess in my mom’s kitchen at age 11 with pizza. Since then I’ve just been cooking. I really enjoy that I can orient myself in the kitchen. I don’t have culinary school experience – there’s a big distinction here – but I’ve always tried, and the one great thing about artisanal chocolate in the world, is that it’s being kind of rediscovered.
10-15 years ago it didn’t exist. I’m not coming into that field where I have to compare myself to folks who have this incredible talent and 20 years of school, because that doesn’t exist in the world. There’s a lot of artisanal chocolate that was kinda lost in the past years, but there’s a small group that creates artisanal chocolate in the States and in Europe.
What that allows us to do in Colombia is discover things that no one else is discovering. We don’t have to catch up with 20 years of work, but we can push the frontier and that’s really exciting.
Anything we can look forward to in the future, something you’re excited about?
Definitely. I think we’re gonna have some chocolate bars that don’t have any conventional sugars, and that includes stevia, other processed corn-derived sugars or other trend sugars.
We’re looking to pair fruit powders that have a natural sweetness. Colombia has a lot of fruit. It has a lot of fruit that no one even knows about and if we’re able to process the fruit in the right way and were able to combine it with the chocolate bars – that’s outstanding for me because I don’t eat any processed or added sugars that don’t come from fructose. I drink three to four juices a day and the only other sugar I get comes from chocolate.
We try to do as good a job of refining it as possible, which means we have organic cane sugar or organic panela in all our chocolate bars. We’re paying way more than market prices because we want to bring that to the customer.
Speaking of customers, I see your bars around shops in Medellin here. Are these going to be available in other commercial areas?
I’ve had experience in scaling a business before, and, at this point, we’re scaling the distribution. This is really hard for food companies and, thankfully, I’ve had a lot friends that have helped me. We’re moving into some hotels, Bogota next month, from there we’ll be starting to hear feedback. Do folks in Colombia, will folks in the States, be willing to buy this 90% incredible chocolate bar? What are we going to do with the chocolate bars in order to optimize them and suit the market a bit?
As for online, we’re going to have a chocolate subscription service. Especially since we have friends dipping in and buying kilos of 90% chocolate and dipping out whenever it’s available. So, people love it and there’s a demand.
That sounds sinful. But if there’s no sugar, there’s no shame, so there’s no foul. I guess we can’t call it sinful anymore.
Where are you from originally?
New York City, a Colombian barrio, Jackson Heights. It’s extremely multicultural there, but when I was there in June, I was able to catch the end of the Peru/Colombia game during the shootout and it was madness – crazier than it is in Medellin. I was very fortunate to be there and to have friends from there.
Do you get a steady flow of visitors coming down and seeing what the Colombian lifestyle is all about?
Definitely. My best friend right now, who lived in China for five years, he’s actually planning to come down for Thanksgiving this year. We try to get people down. They plan a trip to Cartagena and then Medellin; the chocolate factory is luring them there. And even then when it’s finished, they will be a more constant, for sure.
You said factory – a chocolate factory? What do you have in the works?
We’ll be wrapping up the majority of the work here now. The design and ornamental pieces are next. We really want to blow this out of the water. This is such a special project, we want the world to be enamored of it – not just the people in Colombia or Medellin. This is something that should be shared with the world. That’s what we want to make.
A hallmark chocolate destination in Medellin? Tremendous.
We’ll be opening in September. Come on by, we’re located in Provenza on Calle 7. The address is Carrera 33 Calle 7-79. It’s going to be a blast, it’s near lots of the great, high class restaurants, so it’s a great trip to make.
Part of the hotspot, for sure. Where have you been hiding that?
We have been hiding this a bit. We want to make sure that people know about it when it’s really great, that’s important. Chocolate has this sheen to it, we want to make sure people respect the chocolate and the cacao. We want them to know it’s not an artisan, rough around the edges set up. We take it seriously, and it’s world class and everyone should know that.
What is your favorite restaurant in Medellin?
I’ll mention three. I only eat out at three or four – that’s just because of my diet, because I don’t eat gluten and most carbohydrates. I eat at Osea a lot. It’s very homey food, I love it. I love Na’an and Carmen; these are fantastic. I have to mention that the chocolate bar we make with rooibos we make with a local tea company called Namaste, located in a prominent mall here called Tesoro; they make some amazing tea. These are several spots that I absolutely love.
What do you take visitors to see in Medellin that doesn’t revolve around food?
I love going to Parque Arvi. There are a lot more Medellin hiking events. It’s so beautiful here. The weather right now is now is like 26 degrees (72 degrees F), no wind, a few clouds, it’s really hard to beat and if you can get outdoors, it’s amazing. You can’t do that everywhere in the States,for example. You can do this in December here. Folks coming down from New York in January and February are really hating New York at that point.
It’s a one-of-a-kind place we have here. Danny, I know you’re busy with that new factory, so I’ll let you go – anything else you’d like to say to the readers of ColombianLifestyle.com?
I really appreciate being able to share this beautiful city and my passion, and it’s been a blast to see Medellin grow and change incredibly in the last few years. I’m just glad to be a part of that…. So, thanks.
Last question: what’s your favorite way to eat chocolate?
Good question … it’s gotta’ be melted and it’s gotta’ be with ice cream.