Visiting the retail space and production facility of Dominique and Cindy Duby’s Wild Sweets® (2145-12191 Hammersmith Way) is like entering the lab of wonderfully mad and inventive chocolate scientists. Displays of cookbooks, chocolate products, and awards lead a space with whirring machines, microscopes, and measuring devices. The intoxicating aroma of roasting cocoa beans fills the air.
Dominique Duby takes a break from his work to chat, while Cindy is busy upstairs creating the company’s holiday offerings. Dominique explains that the journey to becoming award winning, cutting-edge chocolatiers began humbly. While Cindy grew up here in Richmond, Dominique spent his childhood in Wallonia, in southern Belgium.
“We eat chocolate a lot in Belgium. Every time I came back from school, if I had pocket money for buying a treat, I would stop at a pastry shop and buy a chocolate,” Dominique recalls. Back in those days, young Dominique would opt for sweeter chocolate compared to the darker, more bitter chocolate he prefers now.
His interest in chemistry and science began in high school, partly inspired by his father’s work as a chemical engineer. After graduation, however, he yearned to travel and decided that a career as a chef could give him the mobility he wanted. After completing a culinary program in Belgium, he moved to British Columbia in 1980 and began cooking as a chef.
Working at a now-closed hotel in Richmond, Dominique found himself drawn to the pastry shop and the ethos of a pastry chef. “I liked the idea of pastry as consisting of formulas. It’s much more precise than cooking. There’s also not the same kind of stress. With cooking, you have the rush, whereas in pastry, it’s more continuous. It’s also less ephemeral. In the shop, you can have the display product, and you can look at it throughout the day. From an artistic perspective, it’s nicer.”
One pastry chef at the hotel also stood out: Cindy. The two found that they had a lot in common, both professionally and personally, and soon began dating. Shortly after, they decided to embark on an adventure together, packing up and moving to Europe in 1983 to study and work as chocolatiers. During their time there, they trained at Le Notre in Paris and Wittamer in Brussels; the former program was especially intensive, consisting of three grueling months of practical application, which would normally span three years of training. Even more daunting, instruction was exclusively in French, which was especially challenging for Cindy who lacked fluency in the language.
After their European stint, armed with a wealth of techniques and expertise, the pair returned to Canada. “It was a rude awakening. Vancouver wasn’t ready for what we had learned,” says Dominique. At the time, the Lower Mainland wasn’t particularly food or chocolate savvy, but, nonetheless, the Dubys persevered. From 1985 to 1999, the couple ran a shop in North Vancouver, as well as a wholesale business. However, the focus on quantity failed to excite them: “It became more and more boring. We were making lots of the same thing, with too little creativity.”
In order to re-energize their craft, the two began to experiment on the side with molecular gastronomy in the late 1990s, around the time when it was becoming popular in the culinary realm. They started really delving into the scientific aspects of chocolate-making, collaborating with food science students from the University of British Columbia in order to further their knowledge and techniques. Today, they continue to work with UBC students on a variety of projects, from hot ice cream that is uniquely solid when it’s warm, to cake cooked and texturally modified through the employment of liquid nitrogen.
Dominique and Cindy also began to play with unusual flavours in their creations, drawing upon Pierre Hermé’s concept of introducing savoury flavours into sweets. “The palette of ingredients for chefs is versatile. For pastry chefs, it’s usually more narrow. You’ve got chocolate and fruits and binding elements, like cream and milk,” Dominique explains. The Dubys broke these limitations by including ingredients, like mushrooms, into their cakes and chocolates.
From these initial experiments, the mad scientists exponentially increased their talent, innovation, and accolades.
They wrote numerous award-winning cookbooks (e.g. Wild Sweets Chocolate, winner of the 2007 Best Chocolate Cookbook in the World); contributed to other prominent cookbooks (eg The Flavour Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity); competed in competitions (eg they led Pastry Team Canada at the World Pastry Cup in Lyon, France); taught culinary classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University; and received multiple awards for their chocolate work. One of their crowning achievements was being ranked as one of the “24 Best Chocolatiers in the World” as part of the 2015 edition of Chocolate – The Reference Standard: The Chocolate Tester. Their list of achievements is seemingly endless.
At their current Richmond location, Dominique and Cindy have moved away from experimenting with novel flavours to exploring intensely the cocoa bean-to-bar process. The painstaking 11-step sequence involves everything from sorting to roasting to winnowing (cracking the beans into “nibs”).
They’ve also moved into the realm of texture, akin to the work of the famed elBulli restaurant in Spain. “We take more of a classic flavour, but really change it into a multisensory experience. It’s not just the taste. It also involves the ears, the eyes, and sometimes the fingers, with the touch,” says Dominique. For example, their 2016 Vintage “Ganache Classic Nougatine” features ganache filling, topped with salted butter cocoa nib nougatine and enrobed in dark chocolate.
The result is pleasurable textural contrast. Each chocolate is also hand-painted with cocoa butter colours for aesthetic impact.
The Dubys consider their work to be culinary constructivism, which basically involves taking the familiar, and building and playing on the fundamentals in ways that startle and wow their customers. The 2016 holiday line exemplifies this constructivist approach. Their cocoArt sculptures of sleighs, trees, snowmen, and Santa-spheres showcase the designs of Linda Mitsui (Chief Chocolate Designer) and use silk screen techniques, as well as custom-made molds in order to form the original chocolate creations.
They also use in-house made bean-to-bar milk and/or dark chocolate, hazelnut cinnamon praline cream, and crispy French crêpe cookie flakes in these sculptures.
Meanwhile, their play on Christmas fruit cake features pound cake with cherry, cranberry, and orange peel soaked in Kirsch brandy.
Below the cake are layers of crispy crêpe cookie flakes, hazelnut chocolate praline cream, and crunchy sablé cookie. And the whole creation is wrapped in almond paste, coated with dark chocolate, and decorated with a sheet of patterned almond paste.
The Dubys have plans to continue to innovate and spread their wealth of chocolate knowledge and passion. TasteProjects in their new expanded “Chocolate Lab, cocoArt Gallery & Chocolate Tasting Bar” will involve 60 to 120 minute sessions where the duo will introduce participants to different chocolate-related topics.
For instance, they’re currently hosting “Cocoa Bean to Chocolate Tasting & Appreciation” seminars, as well as “Cocoa Bean to Chocolate Afternoon Teas,” that people can pay and sign up for on-line.
The couple’s enthusiasm for their artisanal work is infectious. Just a single bite of one of their lovingly and scientifically perfected chocolates is enough to convince you that they are truly masters of their craft. Culinary constructivism is complex work, but it can be reduced to a single word: delicious.
Baked Chocolate Custard Pudding
- 3/4 cup + 1 Tbsp (200 g) salted butter
- 4.6 oz (130 g) 70% dark chocolate, chopped
- 1 medium-sized (3.6 oz/100g) banana, peeled and puréed
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp (80 g) granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 300 F (350 C). Line a 9-inch (22.5 cm) square baking pan with silicone paper.
In a microwavable container, melt butter and chocolate together. In a bowl, combine puréed bananas with eggs and sugar. Add banana mixture to chocolate mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Pour mixture into prepared pan and place pan in a water bath. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until set. Let cool, then set in the fridge for at least 1 hour before unmolding from pan. Cut into desired shapes and serve either cold or warm.
Sourced from Chocolate: more than 50 decadent recipes by Dominique and Cindy Duby.