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Chocolatier Phillip Ashley Rix
“Every piece of chocolate should tell a story.”
~ Phillip Ashley Rix
A self-taught chocolatier, a visionary entrepreneur, a creative innovator. These are just some of the words that come to mind after sitting down with Phillip Ashley Rix. Born and raised in Memphis, Rix’s passion for pushing boundaries and reinventing the chocolate industry comes from the smells and tastes of his grandmother's kitchen, the art his father exposed him to and the high-end chocolates his mother treated him with after a long day of shopping.
From bleu cheese to fried chicken to sea urchin, Rix is provoking the palates of chocolate lovers around the world. His collections have paid homage to the 50 US States, music artists, soul food tastes and much more. Each unorthodox flavor pairing tells a story rooted in history, culture and most importantly, imagination. Collaborating with brands like Cadillac, Nike and Woodford Reserve, Rix creatively translates the brand’s story into a memorable chocolate flavor.
DLISH speaks with Rix about his journey from corporate America to building Phillip Ashley Chocolates, his own chocolate empire, the rewarding challenges he’s overcome as well as what a Phillip Ashley personal chocolate flavor would be.
Mona Bavar: Why chocolate?
Phillip Ashley Rix: I always knew I was going to do my own thing and I knew it would be around food. The idea of chocolate came to me in a dream. One night I woke up at three o'clock in the morning and was like, I’m going to be a chocolatier. I enjoy cooking and experimenting with flavors and new ingredients and so it came to me that chocolate could be that medium. From there I spent about 2 years traveling around tasting chocolate, studying ingredients, tasting different types of food and drinks – understanding the process of making wine and distilling spirits. Basically learning as much as I could about the origin and the process of making chocolate, from the cacao to the end product.
Chocolate gives me the platform and medium to do something that I really love to do which is to connect with people and tell stories. So it's a communication tool for me. With chocolate I can exemplify the things that I'm thinking and feeling, the people I'm meeting, the food and drinks I’m tasting, the music I’m listening to, on and on.
MB: Would you consider yourself more of an entrepreneur or a chocolatier?
PAR: Both. I'm definitely an entrepreneur. But I'm absolutely a chocolatier because the first thing that I did was say, look, I want to be able to master this craft so l learned and continue to learn everything about it – I am self-taught in it. I look at the industry and realize there are so many things within chocolate and confections and pastry that I can do. Where I thrive and where I absolutely feel I'm the best is turning flavors into chocolate that you would never imagine.
MB: What’s your process for developing your unorthodox flavors?
PAR: My process is definitely unorthodox in creating flavors. Essentially, I play chess with ingredients in my mind, trying to think 678 moves ahead, if you will. I ask a lot of questions, like what if we put this much blue cheese or this much saffron or how can I make caramel using sea urchin and uni? Having studied different flavors and tasted different foods, my brain communicates to my palate, and I can taste what saffron with uni would taste like, for example. I think of the possible measurements like 45 grams this way or 2 grams this way, I guess, you can say, I am composing a symphony in my head of flavors, much like a musician.
MB: Your newest collection of chocolate is called Mixtape Collection. What was the inspiration behind it?
PAR: I keep a journal where I’m always downloading my thoughts and what I observe around me like art, music, etc. So with the Mixtape Collection, I was inspired by what I listen to while driving, everything from hip hop to classical and everything in between. It’s been about a year in the making because I like for the collections to be meaningful, to have a story behind them and that requires a lot of research. It will hopefully come out at the end of this year and we’ll have four 6-piece boxes and each box will be a different nod to either a different genre or women in music or hip-hop artist, etc.
MB: You were quoted as saying that if Prince was a flavor, what would he be. So, what would he be?
PAR: When I started researching Prince I asked myself some questions like what did he eat or drink. I found out that he was a fan of and collected mustard, in particular this raspberry mustard that I had had never heard of. Then I remembered his song, Raspberry Beret and putting the two things together I created raspberry Dijon chocolate.
MB: Who is a chocolatier that you admire or you are inspired by?
PAR: Jacque Torres is someone who I have always looked up to and not just for his work as a master pastry chef but also as an entrepreneur. He’s a great pastry chef, Master chocolatier but he's also built an amazing business around his craft. From a visual standpoint, I also like Cedric Grolet for his pastry art and his style.
MB: What flavor would Phillip Ashely be?
PAR: It would definitely have some champagne in it because it’s surprising, it’s effervescent it’s inviting, it’s something to celebrate with and I am definitely big into celebrating with others. There would also be something bold like sea urchin with caviar.
MB: How was your business impacted during the pandemic?
PAR: During the pandemic, I did a lot of virtual tastings on zoom. Every Friday during the 16 weeks of lockdown we had upwards of 70 people on a zoom who had received our chocolates and we would hang out telling stories about chocolate and chocolate making, drinking wine and tasting chocolates. So the pandemic helped our business a lot by creating a community and putting us ahead of others. In total, I’d say we did over 500 virtual tastings. We are still doing some now.
MB: Do you think future of cacao is in jeopardy?
PAR: What I think is shifting is the price to access cacao, not necessarily the supply of it. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire supply close to 70% of the world's cocoa and what I think needs to be done and what I am working on is trying to modernize that cultivation process so that the farmers and the suppliers of these countries benefit from the production of their crops.
MB: What's next for Phillip Ashely?
PAR: As we continue to grow and evolve, I see more opportunities. We have started working and creating relationships with some cocoa farms in Africa, Ghana specifically. We are also looking to produce more products around chocolate like inclusions for ice cream and pastries or toppings for gelato. Really the possibilities around chocolate are endless. We like to get as creative as possible – like Willy Wonka.
MB: Do you prefer white, dark or milk chocolate?
PAR: All of the above, I appreciate each one differently. We use milk for a lot of things. We even have a blonde couverture which is kind of like this shortbread salted caramel like chocolate. I always tell people that white chocolate is still real chocolate because it all comes from the same bean. It's a matter of adding milk or not, or using the cocoa butter for more than just cocoa butter and adding other things. I think it's just a cool concept that from this one bean you can yield so many different things.
MB: What’s your favorite pairing?
PAR: I love dark chocolate with red wines, champagne or tequila.
MB: Any last words you would like to share?
PAR: I just want to say that I have really worked hard to become this chocolatier and entrepreneur who is reinventing the industry. I want people to eat my chocolate and to want to share it with their kids, to really enjoy what we do and what we are creating. I want people to understand that I definitely look at this work as a much bigger thing. Even with how we hire and who we hire and how well we pay, it is important for everyone to know that it isn’t just about me. I am very fortunate to have a great team and to be in a position to hopefully benefit many people.
Click here to see more of Phillip Ashley's unconventional chocolates.
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