Artisanal chocolatier and Chocolate Concierge founder Ong Ning-Geng may not be dressed in a purple suit and a top hat, but the enthusiasm with which he talks about chocolate bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Willy Wonka.
Ong’s romance with chocolate began with an interest in fermentation. Fascinated by the processes that turn regular ingredients into delicious and decadent pleasures, the 38-year-old pored over books and research on the topic.
About 10 years ago, this morphed into a quest to hunt down the tastiest local chocolate in Malaysia. A software programmer by training, he believed that he could apply much of the same skills and knowledge to produce high-quality chocolate.
“I’m an application developer, way before there were smartphones,” he says. “I wrote code and software. I knew that with programming, garbage in, garbage out. So if I wanted a good output, that meant that I must put in the best quality ingredients, the output cannot be better than the quality that was put in.”
Finding a reliable source of beans was easier said than done. Ong invested in training by joining planting programmes organised by the Malaysian Cocoa Board and started to learn about the source of local cocoa beans through networking events and visits to farms all across Malaysia. He discovered that many growers focused instead on producing cocoa butter, an ingredient sought after by beauty and cosmetic companies.
Cocoa butter sells at a premium; it can go for as much as RM30 (SG$10) per kilogram, compared to RM5 to RM6 (SG$1.60 to SG$2) per kilogram for cacao beans. Cacao beans are dried and fermented into cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate.
The growers he spoke to were not complimentary of Malaysian cocoa, telling Ong that the country’s beans were acidic and low in quality.
Through further research, Ong learned that most of the chocolate makers in Malaysia sourced their beans from Indonesia, Africa and Vietnam.
While conducting this research, he obtained tasting certification and training in sensory focused topics and received qualifications to allow him to better understand the chocolate-making process.
After six years, Ong had still not been able to find a satisfactory local source of cocoa beans. Instead of fretting over the lack of supply, he decided to go upstream and invested in a cocoa farm in 2015.
He partnered with entrepreneurs and investors Tham Kong Weng and Kevin Yee to launch Culture Cacao. They now operate three farms, in Kuchai, Batang Kali and Raub. All of the farms are about 50 to 100km from Kuala Lumpur. The team also jointly manages three other areas and say they are open to further partnerships.
Culture Cacao is notable for committing itself to a sustainable and ethical supply chain – literally from bean to bar.
At their farms, cocoa trees are planted amongst other fruit trees like durian trees and bananas as a natural way to repel pests and ensure they get some shade.
Ong and colleagues support the cocoa growers with trees, training, and chemical-free planting material and fertiliser. Most importantly, they purchase the raw pods at a premium – three times higher than the market price.
By paying more they hope to be able to tackle poverty among the growers, who are mainly Orang Asli, an indigenous community that lives in the area around the plantation.
The beans are used to make chocolate for Chocolate Concierge, which names the bars after the different tribes that harvest the beans – such as Temuan or Semai – to recognise their work and mark the origins of the chocolate.
This partnership earned the company a grant of RM150,000 (SG$50,000) from Sin Chew Foundation that has enabled them to continue to help more Orang Asli households.
In particular, the company is able to buy wet beans from the growers and dry them itself in special sheltered areas on bamboo racks that are designed to ensure aeration and hygiene. If beans are not dried properly, they can go mouldy and spoil.
“They don’t have to dry or ferment and we’re the only service who go and pick up a weekly drive, they don’t need to drive it and there is no transportation cost. [We] make it super easy.”
Ong says beans used by major brands are often dried on the floor, which according to some research can cause allergies.
“The allergy is not to the cacao itself but to other elements that end up in the process when chocolate is made. Sometimes even cockroach droppings,” says Ong.
And it is this love and dedication to the supply chain that has produced Chocolate Concierge’s rich, creamy, delicious and melt-in-the-mouth gems for its growing list of clients.
The retail market
Almost 80% Chocolate Concierge’s handmade bonbons, truffles, tempered chocolate and bars are sold to hotels and corporations, who use them for special occasions.
Their retail arm is small but makes up the remaining sales through a kiosk at Bangsar Shopping Centre, which is in an affluent suburb just outside the Kuala Lumpur.
In terms of volume, Chocolate Concierge produces nearly 600kg of chocolate and almost a tonne of cocoa beans every month.
The chocolates are handmade and customised to suit the client’s requirements, and many have flavours that blend the East and West. Ong and his team experiment with jackfruit, wasabi, raspberries – even citrus flavours from asam laksa, a spicy and sour fishy noodle soup.
All his chocolates are 100 per cent vegetarian. When the recipe calls for gelatin, he uses fruit pectin instead.
Ten years on, Ong acknowledges the blood, sweat and tears that come with perfecting his artisanal chocolate.
Some reward for the team’s hard work came last year, as Dusun Merdeka’s bean was recognised internationally – becoming the first Malaysian company to win a major chocolate award.
Damak, one of their cocoa estates in Jerantut, Pahang, was awarded the Cocoa of Excellence Award at the prestigious international competition, Salon du Chocolat.
Of the 18 winners, Malaysia was one of only two Asian countries to be recognised, along with India.
Salon du Chocolat provides the benchmark for the standard of cocoa beans used for chocolates around the world.
Ong is over the moon with the win, knowing now that Malaysia has the ability to produce world-class ingredients for artisanal chocolates, all done through natural and ethical growing techniques.
This is at a time when many European chocolatiers are disappearing due to high labour costs.
As more major chocolate brands employ automation to improve competitiveness, Ong has found this makes his ability to temper, craft and shape chocolates manually only more valuable.
“What we are doing here is reminiscent of the Belgian artisanal chocolatier, [which] made them famous to what they are today. But ironically a lot of those chocolatiers from 15 years ago did not survive,” he says. “In Europe you almost never see someone covering a mould, there are just huge lines. In Asia, we are able to that.”