Confessions of a Chocolatier
Lagusta Yearwood is a self-described rabble-rousing chef-turned-chocolatier in love with deep flavor, ethical sourcing, farmers, the food poor people around the world have always eaten, lactic acid fermentation, and noodles. In no particular order. Lagusta is also the owner of Lagusta’s Luscious — an all-vegan, completely decadent and utterly delicious chocolate business, located in New Paltz, N.Y., that creates other-worldly truffles, bonbons and other chocolate delicacies.
Lagusta has also partnered with Friends of Animals — producing a handmade rosemary sea-salt caramel; $10 from the sale of each box supports the advocacy work at Friends of Animals.
This interview took place in December, 2010 — while Lagusta was enjoying her annual family visit to Hawai’i as the east coast was pummeled by snow.
Dustin Rhodes: Let’s get the million-dollar question out of the way: how do you pronounce your name?
Lagusta Yearwood: Ha! Well, it's a combination of Leonard and Augusta, so it's La-gus-ta, with a "gus" in the middle, not a "gu," does that make sense? If I spoke Spanish it would definitely be La-gooo-sta, but nope.
It’s kind of like the name equivalent of quinoa — another word I’ve heard pronounced a million different, cringe-inducing ways.
Totally! Or tempeh! Or seitan! Oy.
Or, let’s not forget vay-GUN! You are a student of literature turned chef turned chocolatier. How exactly does that happen?
I blame Carol Adams. In college I brought her to my school to give her Sexual Politics of Meat Slideshow, and afterward talked to her a bit about the fork in the road I was facing: should I go to graduate school to study eco-feminist literary criticism (a field of study so tiny there had only been a handful of books written about it), or should I go to cooking school? She told me she thought the world needed vegan chefs more than it needed professors writing dusty books analyzing poetry through an eco-feminist lens that no one was going to read (she phrased this all much more charitably), and my path was set.
I started out as a savory chef, but the precise and fascinating world of chocolate is where I feel most at home.
Chocolate is often associated with slavery. But your business, Bluestockings Bonbons, goes a long way in terms of producing an ethical and artisanal product. Can you talk about that?
Because I started out as an animal rights activist (I became vegan when I was 15 and was involved in the animal-rights world throughout high school), it's important to me that my business is focused on seeing all elements of chocolate production equally---not only not using animal products, but making sure the chocolate I use is fairly sourced and has never been involved with sickening practices like child slavery. I work closely with my chocolate supplier, TCHO, who are just as passionate about these issues as I am. TCHO's sourcing manager personally visits the areas where their beans are produced and has set up innovative bean-to-bar practices to ensure that the cacao farmers not only are being paid a fair wage for a fair product---but also know what chocolate tastes like and how to make it. Amazingly, most people who pick cacao beans have never tasted chocolate!
Also, I'm really proud of the environmental aspect of the chocolates--99% of my ingredients are organic and/or local, and all my boxes are made of 100% vegetable-ink-printed 100% post-consumer recycled paper. We wrap our gift boxes with this beautiful compostable, vegetable-dyed ribbon, too. It's really hard sometimes to find eco-friendly packaging solutions that are somewhat chic, so a lot of my time is spent researching things like recycled-plastic trays to hold the chocolates in their boxes.
Because I have this activist background, it's been easier for me than for most business owners to give these considerations weight. I started out knowing nothing about how to run a business, so I didn't know that I shouldn't have been (from a purely capitalist standpoint) focusing on the things I was focusing on! I just focused on the things I cared about and hoped the money stuff would work out. And in time I got better at the business stuff too.
You are making a rosemary sea salt caramel, and donating 50% of the cost to the advocacy work here at Friends of Animals. First, thank you. Second, how on earth did you learn to create such a delicious and creamy caramel that’s dairy-free?
Yeah! I'm so happy to be doing this collaboration with you! I so adore the work you're doing.
The caramels! I'm madly in love with them. Honestly, here's the secret: Don't use fake crap. I don't use any "replacement" ingredients in anything I do: No soy butter, no margarine, nothing filled with junk that coats your tongue in a freaky way. Most often I use coconut butter and coconut milk where other fine chocolate companies use cow milk and butter. Coconut products are a ton healthier than fake butter, and because they are so pure and unadulterated, they have a cleaner flavor.
By the time this article comes out, I should have more caramels up on the website. Very exciting!
You’ve been an independent business owner for quite a while now. That must be liberating and stressful in equal measure?
Yep. I'm madly in love with working for myself, but it certainly has challenges. Particularly when I realized that in order for the business to grow, I had to become a boss. A boss! A hardcore feminist loner-girl like me really had trouble with that. But, happily, I've had the best helpers in the world, amazing women who really helped me become a better boss just as I helped them learn about the stubborn world of chocolate.
And what about the chocolate itself? I’ve heard you say you aren’t personally obsessed with chocolate. What is it about chocolate that’s compelling, inspires your creativity?
I think about that a lot, and I think it has something to do with being vegan -- and being a perfectionist.
I was never interested in science in school, but working with chocolate has made me want to learn more about the chemical properties and how chocolate functions so I can trouble-shoot more accurately. I feel like I can keep learning and working on mastering the chocolate world forever, which is a nice feeling.
It's just the definition of creaminess and decadence. I love that this most luxurious of foods is naturally vegan.
Milk chocolate was invented to sell more chocolate at a cheaper price, by stretching it out with milk. I love telling people that milk chocolate isn't "real" chocolate; dark chocolate is the only real chocolate! (That said, I've made a vegan milk chocolate that I'm going to be rolling out soon. It's pretty tasty!)
Every time I put chocolate blocks in my tempering machine and look at them melting into that giant pool of liquid, my heart starts beating a little faster. It sounds a little snobby, but I really feel like an artist and chocolate is my medium.
That said, as you mentioned, it's sort of a secret that I don't personally adore eating chocolate. I think this is an asset. I can taste the ganache fillings for the truffles and know instantly if they have enough of the flavorings or not, whereas everyone else in the kitchen gets caught on the "yum!" factor. I love making people happy with chocolate, even if I'm slightly mystified by why everyone loves it so.
Those caramels though, they are my Achilles' Heel. I could eat them all day.
At the end of 2010, you decided to close down your meal delivery service. Why have you decided to focus exclusively on the chocolate?
Because making chocolates is fun, and endlessly chopping onions is not!
Well, really it was because I'd been doing the meal delivery service for nine years, and I was a bit burnt out on it. I loved my clients and I had become really good at the business aspect of it, and I cherished my relationships with all the amazing farmers in my area (upstate New York), but chocolate was just calling me. The chocolate side of the business had increased, and running two full-time businesses was really wearing me out, even though I did have great helpers.
The change was bittersweet (chocolate pun!), but I'm hoping in time I can devote the energy I used to invest in menu planning to writing some sort of cookbook.
What’s it going to be like cooking for yourself now and not everyone else?
I'm a bit scared of it, actually. I started going out with my partner, Jacob, when I started cooking, 13 years ago, so he's never really cooked for us (he's an amazing prep cook and kitchen cleaner!) and I'm a bit worried that with no pressure to make balanced meals for my clients, I'll make peanut noodles (noodles are my weakness), or just kimchi and rice--super easy things we always have in the house.
I asked Jacob what he wanted for dinner the other night and he said pierogies. I told him that we were going to both have to get used to simpler meals for a while--no pierogies from scratch! I'm sure in time I'll miss the elaborate meals I used to make for my clients, though. And with so much sweetness on the chocolate side of things, I'll need to get my hands dirty with savory pasta dough and things now and then.
Is it true that you might be opening a retail chocolate shop?
I've been working on buying a commercial building in New Paltz for quite some time. The plan is to renovate it and open up a tiny little (secretly vegan!) chocolate shop.
Right now I rent a commercial kitchen that's not open to the public, so this is a very exciting step. It's going to be amazing!