Oliver Kita was named one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America by Dessert Professional Magazine in October, 2015, on an otherwise not-so-fun day, he says. The news instantly put him on Cloud 9 and had him thinking more positively about the future — kind of like the effect a bite of really good chocolate can have on you. His future has proven to be sweet, in fact. This year Oliver Kita Chocolates won the gold for its Hudson Valley Naturals Dark Chocolate with Peanut Butter and Crispy Rice bar in the 2017 World Finals at the International Chocolate Awards.
Recognition for excellence in fine chocolate making from such distinguished experts as these not only boosts the reputation of the winners; it also promotes the efforts of cacao farmers and the artisan chocolate industry in general to bring their best products to consumers. “I love talking about the Hudson Valley Naturals bars,” he says. “They began as a tasting tour of the Hudson Valley and were inspired and named after the farm-to-table flavors of the region. We have Clermont Cappuccino, Beekman Buttercrunch, Annandale Almond. The next flavor that’s coming out is the Roosevelt Raspberry.”
When asked how a small operation like Oliver Kita Chocolates gets recognized on the world stage, he says, “First of all you have to begin by loving chocolate passionately and want it to be part of your life on a daily basis. Your career has to be about mind/body/chocolate every day. That’s my philosophy. A number of professionals in the industry who work in the upper ranks of chocolate and cacao purchasing, production, sales and marketing, and publications watch to see who the rising stars are, how they’ve ascended the ladder of this very tedious and difficult career path. There’s a saying: Successful chocolatiers have rich wives. People begin a chocolate business and close within three to four years. It takes a lot of time and dedication to get through the seasons. It’s hard to make it through the summertime unless you have a strong plan in place.”
Kita’s small shop in Rhinebeck has been producing confections for a decade. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he subsequently immersed himself in associations with some of the world’s premiere chocolate concerns: Valrhona, Guittard, El Rey, and Republica del Cacao, as well as the editors of Dessert Professional Magazine and Chocolatier Magazine. “Knowing some of the top people in the industry who broker, sell, and work to help businesses, and having participated in Salon du Chocolate in Paris for 4 years in a row — they saw how hard-working and eager I was to create something spectacular and make a precedent here.
“When I began ten years ago in this area, there wasn’t anything like what I was doing. I was featured in all the local magazines for my creative edible projects that were beautiful and fun.” Kita had previously sent out his signature item, a chocolate Buddha, to be made by another company. “I wasn’t getting a repeat customer purchase. The quality of the chocolate they were using was of a low grade. At that time, chocolate wasn’t anywhere near what it is today. And now in our area there are four or five chocolatiers.”
He explains some aspects of the industry’s growth. “Bean-to-bar — where they actually procure the beans from plantations or brokers, then roast, grind and make them into chocolate — did not exist 10 or 15 years ago, only in the large manufacturing scale. Typically most of these create bars for people to taste from the different plantations around the equator. It’s a lot of work to make your own chocolate and turn it into bonbons. I’m a confectioner; I buy my chocolate — approximately 12 tons of it a year! — ready-to-use, melt it and transform into bonbons or molten figures. It comes in tablet form. You can store it in refrigeration for up to a year, but we don’t have enough space for that. So, it comes every week to two weeks.”
Kita studied at Acadamie du Chocolate in Montreal and in two schools in Paris — Culinary Institute Lenotre (with Gaston Lenotre), where classes were all taught in French, and the Valrhona Ecole du Chocolat. Before opening Oliver Kita Chocolates, he had a restaurant in Woodstock for ten years — anybody remember Heaven Café? — which is to mark his dedication and longevity in the culinary business. Having worked through the kinks of procuring a consistent supply of prime chocolate, he now strives to maintain quality and reasonable pricing for his customers.
“I wanted to work with organic chocolate and make it into something spectacular. The question is: How big can you get before you become a large scale manufacturer? Before it’s no longer artisan? This space is not huge. We’re not at maximum capacity. I grow organically; I don’t overextend my production. We sell in over 200 stores in Ulster, Dutchess, Putnam, Long Island, NYC and Brooklyn. But we’ve grown slowly. That way our customers are satisfied.”
He talks about waves associated with the up-and-down economy and trends in the overall market for chocolate. “Consumers are now becoming more aware of quality, more savvy in reading the labels on the back of the bar. The government has allowed the industry to substitute cocoa butter for transfats. So when you read the back and it lists anything other than cocoa beans and sugar — it if says ‘poly’ or ‘hydrogenated’ — it’s not good for you in any way. If you eat chocolate every day, you want to make sure that the quality is good for your own health. The higher the % of cacao, the better it is for you. Everything is good for you in moderation. It’s all about finding the balance — the secret to enjoying life.
“What do you want for your life experience?” He ponders this question. “I’m not here to conquer the world of chocolate. It was never my goal to do that. I’m here to have a lifestyle and enjoy myself. And to be part of something that’s important to me, something artistic and fulfilling. Having lived in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years, I think of the whole experience — how it’s grown exponentially. We’re in the epicurean center of New York. I met my partner of 33 years here and never left.”
Oliver Kita Chocolates is open daily from noon to 6 p.m., located at 18 West Market Street in Rhinebeck; 845 876-2665, https://www.oliverkita.com/