Meet the maker: the Belgian chocolatier crafting confections with an Asian twist

At the workshop in his self-titled Brussels cafe, Laurent Gerbaud is making chocolates with a difference, taking inspiration from far beyond the borders of Belgium.

Published 25 Jul 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
You can only buy Laurent Gerbaud’s products at his cafe on Rue Ravenstein, not far from ...

You can only buy Laurent Gerbaud’s products at his cafe on Rue Ravenstein, not far from Brussels’ Central Station.

Photograph by Laurent Gerbaud

Charming, ebullient and with a smile as wide as the Grande Place, Laurent Gerbaud is my idea of a chocolatier. But there’s more to the man than meets the eye: Laurent is a polymath whose wanderlust and linguistic curiosity — he’s a fluent speaker of Mandarin — have served him well.

“My inspiration comes from China,” Laurent tells me in his self-titled cafe on Rue Ravenstein. Having first arrived in Shanghai as a student, Laurent was struck by the local attitude to chocolate — as well as noticing the much more measured role sugar plays in some Chinese cuisines. It’s fair to say the experience of living there altered Laurent’s taste buds. Upon his return to Belgium, his first big sales success was chocolate-covered kumquats.

Explore more from this series — Meet the maker: the Spanish family behind some of the world's best saffron

For the next eight years, Laurent sold his chocolates from a stall at Brussels’ Boitsfort Market, while also supplying delicatessens. Then in 2009, he opened his cafe-cum-workshop, where his mantra is ‘less sugar, no alcohol, more cocoa’. And more vegan, too. “I never used eggs in chocolate, and I also use coconut cream instead of milk in certain mixes,” he explains. “By accident rather than by design, about half of my products are vegan.”

Laurent’s maternal grandfather was a baker, a gruelling nocturnal job that paid poorly — so much so that his grandmother forbade her kids to follow in her husband’s footsteps. Still, the taste for fresh cakes, waffles and pies lingered on in her grandson’s mind, sowing the seeds of his eventual career.

In 2009, Laurent opened his cafe-cum-workshop, and hasn’t looked back.

Photograph by Olivia Droeshaut & Yves Dethier

On my visit to Laurent’s atelier, the first thing I see is a cream and chocolate ganache being churned in a tempering machine. He then pours this into a mould and lets it cool while he assembles his other ingredients: pistachios, cashews, sultanas, figs, dried apricots, cranberries, quince, ginger, cocoa nibs, hazelnuts and, as always, a touch of Eastern Asia — in this case eiyokan and uzu, both Japanese citrus fruits. After the chocolate has set, everything else in sprinkled on top; their abstract composition looks dramatic, something akin to a Jackson Pollock painting.

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Before I go, I take the ‘Gerbaud taste test’. I try a piece of supermarket chocolate (fine), followed by 12 of his own creations, which include fillings such as grapefruit peel (terrific), candied ginger (unusual), sesame praline (astonishing) and dried fig (divine). Then I try the commercial stuff again. “Now it tastes of carboard,” I tell him. “Exactly!” he exclaims and claps his hands with delight.

As I leave via the cafe, I notice a sign on the wall: ‘Chocolate gives you a more intense high than kissing’, it reads. Some does, that’s for sure.

Where to try it

You can only buy Laurent Gerbaud’s products at his cafe on Rue Ravenstein, not far from Brussels’ Central Station. For an insight into chocolate making, as well as a chance to take the ‘Gerbaud taste test’, book a spot on one of his Saturday workshops, which run from 11.30 to 13.00 (€35/£32 per person).

Laurent Gerbaud's confections contain ingredients including pistachios, cashews, sultanas, figs, dried apricots, cranberries, quince, ginger, cocoa nibs, hazelnuts and, as always, a touch of Eastern Asia — for example, eiyokan and uzu, both Japanese citrus fruits.

Photograph by Laurent Gerbaud

Three artisan chocolatiers to try in the UK

Paul A Young
The one-time head of pastry for Marco Pierre White opened his first London shop in 2006. Since then, his reputation has soared, thanks to frequent TV appearances and regular masterclasses, not to mention his stunning chocolate creations. 

David Maenhout
David favours leftfield tastes like umami-inspired sesame pralines with a soy sauce employed by Japan’s Imperial Household. His dark chocolate with gin and tonic won a gold medal in London in 2017. 

William Curley
From apprentice at Gleneagles Hotel to chef patissier at The Savoy, William is another culinary genius who eschews additives, colourings and preservatives. A four-time winner of the Academy of Chocolate's Britain's Best Chocolatier Award, he sells his fine chocolates, macaroons and biscuits ­at Harrods. 

Read more stories from our Meet the Maker series

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