Chocolatier Paul A Young reveals the secret of his salted caramel and the inspiration behind his award-winning empire

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Paul A Young, leading light of the British chocolate scene

Photograph: Paul Stuart

In his time chocolatier and leading light in the British chocolate scene Paul A Young has dipped his fingers in many different foodie pies. He’s worked as a pastry chef for Marco Pierre White, in food development for retailers such as Sainsbury’s, and on TV. Paul was running a desserts company when he realised chocolate could be his future.

"I went to Paris, to all the places that sold great chocolate and realised London had no fresh chocolates. There were pralines, Champagne truffles, classic truffles – the same wherever you went. Everything was reserved, and not how I, as a purist, believed it could be. That’s how it all started, just from a natural progression and a gap in the market.

"I started making chocolates for Chantal Coady at Rococo and Charbonnel et Walker, but it was only when I opened our first shop on Camden Passage in Islington in 2006 that I could see if customers were open to a very new style of chocolate with no glucose, no sorbitol, no hydrogenated fats, no preservatives. I was warned there would be wastage as nobody had really tried it before.

Flavour doesn’t always come first, which surprises a lot of people. With chocolate, the last thing you do is taste it.

"Once my salted caramel won gold at The Academy of Chocolate Awards in 2011, the phone really started ringing. Now we’ve got four shops and my team has grown from two to 30. We make chocolates every day and still temper every single piece of chocolate by hand – we have no machinery and we don’t add anything artificial. All of my staff, apart from one, have been trained here. My chocolates are expensive because we handmake them and we only use the best ingredients.

"Inspiration for my chocolate comes from so many different places. From drinks – I love how complex blending a cocktail can be – combining bitter, sweet and sour. Watching Rick Stein’s TV series about India last year inspired me a lot. He talked about ingredients and things I’ve never used in chocolate, a variety of chillies and other spices. That’s inspired me mainly because of the colours, aromas and textures – flavour doesn’t always come first, which surprises a lot of people. With chocolate, the last thing you do is taste it.

"I don’t have a formula – some ideas come from just chatting with the team – but the seasons have always inspired me. I try to use seasonal ingredients as much as possible.

"Luxury chocolate is growing in popularity and people are asking 'where are the beans from?' and 'what do the flavours taste of?', which is great. But I do feel that chocolate should not become elitist. There’s a very big risk that within the industry itself it can be very snobby. I still eat mainstream chocolate, for enjoyment. I’m not going to stop eating the things I enjoyed as a child – there are some Thorntons chocolates that I still love because my grandma used to buy them for me when I was little.

"I eat a lot of my own chocolate and there are times when I think, 'I can’t eat any more,' but then the next day comes, and my craving is back!"

Paul A Young has four shops in London and runs regular events and workshops

• This piece first appeared in Sainsbury's magazine, May 2014