There are many wonderful niche chocolatiers in Portland. I’ve met many of our chefs and artisans in the short time I’ve been associated with our incredible food community. And when the opportunity arose to interview Julian Rose, the internationally renowned head chef at Moonstruck, it caused me to think about how Portland’s food experience is—or can be—so personalized. We know our chefs, we talk to the very people who produce our salamis, cheeses, and chocolates, and grow our foodstuff at farmers markets; we even get to know them on Facebook and learn a little about their private lives. And so we tend to root for those people. However the face of Moonstruck, to me at least, isn’t just Julian, it’s the extremely friendly staff who pour our hot chocolates and eagerly take direction as we point to the blackberry truffles in the gleaming glass case at their sweet spot on NW 23rd Ave.—one of five such shops.
In the current world where business success has unfortunately acquired some negative connotations, Moonstruck is a local success story that we should all celebrate and enjoy. Of course, success these days means you can’t just sit on your laurels. It’s about the next best thing. Although, is that the truth with chocolate? Isn’t it just glorious enough?
On a fall Portland day with my windows rolled down, the sun shining brightly between beautiful white and ominous grey clouds, I drove up to Moonstruck’s headquarters to find out. On my journey to that answer, I found myself lost in a new-to-me perspective of the beautiful St. John’s Bridge, walking up steps to a dark green building that family-connected Columbia Sportswear used to call home. Upon entering the lobby on the 2nd floor, I looked down through the gallery windows to see many white-suited workers sporting puffy caps—think Lucy Ricardo during her one-day stint in the chocolate factory. In short time, I was led downstairs and introduced to Julian. It was like pulling back the curtain of one of Portland’s wizards of chocolate.
How do you draw the line between getting too trendy and keeping your eye on the ball—your delicious, beautiful, classic chocolate?
Most of our customer base is very traditionalist. Very classic. They want to have a great piece of chocolate. We’re very in tune with what our customers expect from us, and when we do try to push the envelope, it’s usually in a season. So, we have this seasonal approach to our business—we basically divide the year into six seasons, from fall, Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter, spring, etcetera. We have these six blocks where we can throw in something kind of fun—if it’s fruits in summer or comforting flavors in fall, and holiday flavors for holidays. So… my approach to development in staying trendy and relevant is actually getting to travel across the country and overseas.
I was in France just two weeks ago. What happens in France is not necessarily adaptable to the US or Canada. Barely 10 years ago in Europe, you could not use color with chocolate. They would say, “You guys are so American. You are bastardizing chocolate.” Now what do you see in Europe? Colors galore. We’ve been into the eye appeal for almost two decades. And it’s happening now in Europe.
So that’s the opposite of what one would think—you would think that the French would be influencing us.
Flavor-wise, it’s still very classic in Europe, but they’re jazzing it up with visual interests, visual colors, or beautiful packaging. Moonstruck has carved itself into the market as being very, very unique in what we do, and we do extremely well. And I know a lot of chocolatiers across the country. And every time I meet them, they always say, “How do guys you do it? Because we can’t figure out how to pull this off.”
How is chocolate doing in this economy?
Tremendously well. People have cut a lot of luxuries out of their lives. They’ve cut cable, they’ve cut all kinds of stuff. And when it comes to a good treat, that is, if you define chocolate, it’s kind of a self-indulgence in a dark room at night with a drink or something.
So you’re hoping for the recession to continue?
Oh, no. No. Because—well, actually, those customers that have upgraded to our chocolates tend to then stay. Once the economy is going to pick up, we don’t see a dip. We just see a nicer curve.
When you are all developing flavors, do you have Portland in mind?
We do have very strong Portland, Oregon roots. So, if we can source ingredients that market Oregon well, they are going to be the ingredients of choice. So we often have strong influence of products available in the Northwest. Specifically if we can get from Oregon, that’s even better. So, that approach to market, we’ve been doing for over a decade.
You started this at a young age?
Yeah, pretty much. My parents had a shop, and my dad had a poster on the wall of our pastry shop that said, “If you like us, tell all your friends. If you don’t like us, tell us.”
So that was in Montreal?
To me, there’s no other city in the United States that feels more like Montreal than Portland. Do you agree?
Yes, there’s a lot of similarities, you know, just in transit, in how people enjoy life. There’s a nice balance of work and play. There’s a lot of stuff to do outside. The river, it runs through the middle of the city. It was easy for me to adapt here. People are super nice in general. There’s a nice restaurant scene, which is not to be said in all medium and large cities. Sometimes it falls short, I guess. Here, it’s been very nice.
So, do you get to experience the restaurant scene here?
Where do you like to go?
I want to try everything I can. The only disappointment I have is in the Asian/Chinese Szechuan… the real Chinese food, which is absent completely.
It’s not our strong suit.
So, kind of coming here you would expect—West Coast—all these big Chinatowns. I guess it’s just a small hiccup. Otherwise, I’ve been to small local restaurants on the street, to Thai, French… and the type of fusion Portlandish scene is also kind of interesting because it’s more laid back, not so stuffy. So that’s nice. I can’t say definite favorites. I have favorites in every department, I guess.
But do you have a place you like to go regularly?
Yes. Le Pigeon, Meriwether’s, Mother’s for brunch.
Do you have any friends in the food business here in Portland who inspire you, or for whom you have a lot of respect?
I know a few… Earl Hook from Meriwether’s and Pascal Tisseur from La Petite Provence bakery. Earl is a passionate chef with lots of talent and Pascal a great pastry chef who does everything. I would like to know or meet all the chefs in the city. I’m sure it would be eye opening!
What would you recommend to friends as the quintessential Portland experience?
The Pearl District for a walk and maybe a bite or two between shopping, the food carts—since that is very unique, and a tour of the brewpubs and brasseries.
If you could transpose anything from Montreal here to Portland, what would it be?
I would love to bring the real wood-fired bagels with their shiny crust outside and moist centers. They are pre-cooked in a sweet honey water. So good! If you are in Montreal, seek them out—and bring some back—customs officers are used to seeing them on the x-ray machines! Smoked meat is another favorite—kind of a mix between pastrami and slow cooked cured beef. And French Canadian culture to top it off, just because we like to eat and party.
If you could take the best of Portland back to Montreal to give to your loved ones, what would that be?
It would be the great outdoors feel of Portland, beer, and food carts—they are illegal in Montreal!
So how about chocolatiers in town? Do you go to any of the chocolatiers just to see what they’re doing? I have to imagine some are inspired by what you do.
I used to teach chocolate making, so a lot of these chocolatiers around the country know me. I don’t necessarily know them. So it’s kind of interesting how it presents itself. I don’t have anything really to hide, and I’m generous in the information I share. Because just by nature, I think when people have problems… I’ve had to visit a couple of chocolatiers, and they’re like, “Oh my god!” You know, they almost treat you like some celebrity, which I’m not. I just do what I do. I do it well, hopefully, and I repeat. I don’t have anything against anybody, and everyone has their own niche—from the very small in farmers markets—they do their thing. It’s not for me to say it’s a bad or good execution. It’s what they do. Very often, they can perceive our chocolate truffles as large and oversized or something, but it works for us.
Have you ever been anyplace where you respect what they’re doing on a much smaller scale? You and I weren’t around here in 1993, but Moonstruck started like that.
I have to be cautious because, I guess maybe it’s just the East Coast background. Smaller, smaller chocolatiers might think that I’m sneaking around or doing stuff like that, which I’m not. I’ve seen more than they can imagine. But I don’t want to be put in a situation where people start chatting about the fact that I’ve been here or there. So that’s, to me, delicate, and I have to stay professional.
I think that’s your East Coast thing. I do. I think if you walked in and tried chocolate and told someone you loved it, whether they knew who you were or not, they’d probably appreciate that you were there.
For me, it’s still delicate. Even when I was teaching, I was working for a very large corporation that supplies chocolate for the industry. And you would go in chocolate shops there, and there would be this, “Well, you know, I’m not using this.” So there’s always a level of secrecy and personal information they don’t want you to know. But, yet, I was there as a completely neutral person wanting to help them. So, I don’t have any apprehension of going into a shop and looking. I’ve done it. But I’m not going to say, “Hey, I’m Julian Rose.”
No, I wouldn’t think you would. I would just assume—I’d like to know what other people are doing. So…
Yep, but we’re so different also.
I don’t know anybody else in Portland who’s doing what you’re doing.
I have my agenda and my vision of what I want to do, which is good.
So, what are you excited about right now that you’re doing? What’s new at Moonstruck?
As you can see here, there are five racks full of development—from new colors, new flavors; texture is back. We’re adding crunch and we’re adding bite to something, instead of being all soft and creamy. So we’ve moving into a creative bubble. For 2012, we have texture, crispiness and crunch.
And so where did you come up with texture and crispiness and crunch? Is that just an inspiration that you had? Have you seen it somewhere else?
Well, it follows desserts, if you think about it. So what happens in pastry happens 3, 4 years after in chocolate. Typically. So in end of the 90’s, everything was mousse, everything was soft, everything was fluffy in pastry, and then it slowly… well, it kind of hit a plateau. And then the pastry chef said, “We need crunch, we need texture, we need bite, we need heavy cakes—not the airy cakes.”
And I think it’s the same wave in chocolate. For a while, you would go all into cream, and texture, and soft, and velvety, and then you kind of get bored with it. And then you move to—let’s bring back crunch, and let’s bring back layer or something. I think for consumers, it’s the experience when you buy that you have a crunch in your head that you hear. It betters your experience because you chew a bit more than having something just melt and swallow—which, we all tend to just eat very fast.
I like my Nestlé’s Crunches. And a Hershey’s bar. Hershey’s does a really nice basic candy bar…
It has a specific flavor that people are used to. And it’s all about memories of taste and flavor that you’ve experienced when you were young. And unfortunately, all the big players—they are always challenged in keeping that same flavor, but reducing cost. When you think about it, the Hershey bar that was in 1970, 35 cents, is now 99 cents. And so something’s gone wrong.
So I am guessing chocolate wouldn’t be your last meal. What would it be?
Everything breakfast. It’s the only meal in the world where you can have eggs, meat, fruits, vegetables, pancakes, bread, butter, croissants and coffee; and no one finds that weird.