Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New York's Loss, Manila's Gain

 Pinoy chocolatier Raul Matias elevates Philippine flavors to world-class status with his unique creations, now proudly Manila-made. 

He left for the States a physical therapist. Eighteen years later, Raul Matias came home a chocolatier, bringing with him a chocolate brand that was slowly making its name in New York’s elite circles.

He called his chocolates Machiavelli, after his favorite author, Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Bold like Machiavelli, Raul’s sweet selections are a fusion of European and Asian flavors, the strong taste of chocolate tempered by subtle flavors such as purple yam [ube], guava, jackfruit, coconut, and green tea.

Raul’s foray into chocolate making was serendipitous. In search of business opportunities online, he read of a woman who sold personalized chocolate bars. “All she did was wrap the Hershey’s bars. It was tacky! I thought, I could do this. Why not make my own chocolate?”

Through the online Ecole Chocolat, Raul was able to study chocolatier courses in Vancouver and France. Later he took advanced classes with a Belgian teacher in Florida and interned with several chocolatier stores in Connecticut, New York, and Orlando.

Pinoy chocolatier in New York
Shifting into chocolate making, he moved to New York. There he made chocolates at a rented commercial kitchen. His Eurasian-flavored creations such as Mango Lait, Jasmine Blossom, Ivoire Jack, and Purple Yam Yum were sold in gourmet stores or through private orders.

He found fulfillment in chocolate making, never mind if it took him hours to make. “I didn’t feel drained at all. I had classmates in chocolate school who were psychiatrists and orthopedic physicians who left their professions, and later on I understood why. There’s something magical about chocolate. It makes you happy, maybe because of all the chemicals that it gives out.”

Machiavelli in Manila
In 2008, after weighing his options carefully, Raul packed up and decided to come home to the Philippines. Too bad for New Yorkers, but lucky for us Manilans, we now have access to a world-class chocolate brand that’s made by a Pinoy chocolatier.

Sold exclusively through Rustan’s, Machiavelli is fast becoming a hit among Manilans, who have warmed up to the Yema de Manila and the Guava Asia.

In this exclusive tete-a-tete with Raul back in July 2009, he talks about making it in New York, coming home, and his bigger (Machiavellian?) plans of conquering the world as the first Pinoy chocolatier.

Pinoycentric: Why Machiavelli?
Raul Matias: I chose Machiavelli because it’s got substance and character, and the name is universal. It crosses boundaries. If I used my name and sold my chocolates abroad, people will say, “Who the hell [is this person]?”

As a Pinoy entrepreneur, it must have been difficult to penetrate New York.
It wasn’t easy. I came from Orlando and had just moved to New York, so my friend, a physician, drove me around Manhattan in his Mercedes-Benz to hand out samples to the gourmet stores. We were all dressed up because we didn’t want them to snub us.

How was the reception?
It was very good! A popular champagne brand hired me to make truffles for a wine-tasting event. I made some extra ube chocolate, which I let the owner taste. He liked it!

You already had your foot in the door. Why did you come back home?
I always knew I would come back. I loved the life here. Mas relaxed dito [It’s more laid-back here]. I don’t want to grow old in the US.

Also, I realized that while I could make money, I wouldn’t enjoy it kasi ako lahat [because I did everything]. I was making my chocolates in a commercial kitchen in Westchester County, with only an assistant. Thirteen hours, tuluy-tuloy, ang break ko, ihi lang [straight, with only a toilet break].

So what was the takeaway of the whole New York experience?
I enjoyed being independent and learning about the business culture, but I was never comfortable because a big part of me was Pinoy. I was never an American and didn’t feel like one. [In America], you have to be self-centered to survive, because ikaw lahat dun [you do everything there], to the point that you’ll forget yourself. You can’t help it. [It’s] that part I didn’t like.

Chocolate with guava and jackfruit . . . When do all these ideas come to you?
When I’m sleeping, because that’s when I’m relaxed, or when I’m in the car, driving. Even Martha Stewart said, “I think when I sleep.” It’s not when you want them; it’s when you’re relaxed [that the ideas come].

How do you keep your selections exciting?
I don’t want to be boring! I want to always reinvent my products because you have to keep up with other brands.

Also, part of me is Filipino, so I really infuse it in my creations. When people taste my chocolate, I want them to relate to me.

What’s the most challenging part about chocolate making?
I visualize it before I even make it. The hard part is living in a tropical country. I had to adjust some of my recipes because of the humidity. I’m glad I have a background in medicine. It comes in handy.

After New York and Manila, what’s next?
I want to bring Machiavelli to Asia–first to Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. I want to show the world that Asians aren’t second-rate, that we can be as good and as intelligent as the rest. We can do it. This is our time.

Machiavelli Chocolates are available at Rustan’s Makati at at Rustan's Tower in Shangri-La Plaza Mall. Contact them at (+632) 483-9854.

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