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Meet Roger Rodriguez, Chocolate Extraordinaire

Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Roger Rodriguez grew up cooking with his grandmother and mom. He went to college for graphic design, but felt stifled creatively. Once he discovered that he could turn his love of food into a career, he moved to New York City to pursue pastry arts. Rodriguez recently traded in his pastry chef apron to become a chocolatier. He now creates liquor-infused delicacies out of Dominican cacao for Cacao Prieto, a chocolate factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. O.N.S spoke with Rodriguez about his love of sweets, his management style, and his transition from baking to chocolate-making.

Tell us about your experience as a pastry chef. Where did you work and what
was your specialty?

I enrolled myself at the Institute of Culinary Education in the city. The first job I had out of school was at this restaurant, Anthos, and I worked under pastry chef Bill Corbett, who quickly became a mentor for me. Knowing that I had the desire to go the miles in this field, he sent me to work at one of the best pastry kitchens in the city at the time: Jean-Georges in Columbus Circle. After the stint, I got offered a job at the legendary Gramercy Tavern. I quickly finished all the stations at GT as a cook, which then led me to an opportunity to work as a sous-chef. Sous-chefs are the ones who are practically in charge of the kitchen, making sure all the cooks are in position, and all the ingredients are ordered in time. Working there as a sous-chef for five years gave me a strong foundation and the tools to realize my creative vision. At the end of this tenure, I got an offer to work at Del Posto under Chef Mark Ladner and Chef Brooks Headley. And that’s where I started working a lot more with chocolate as a medium. I quickly grew bored of the same chocolate that all pastry chefs were using, so I started exploring, making my own chocolate to express my  vision. Eventually this led me to meet my current business partner Dan, and we created Cacao Prieto together.

Tell us about your path to becoming Head Chocolate Maker at Cacao Prieto.

Like I mentioned earlier, I met my now business partner Daniel Preston while I was at Del Posto. He had started the chocolate company with cacao beans from his family farm in the Dominican Republic, but was looking for a maker who could work with him to create the vision he had for Cacao Prieto. I created a collection of Criollo bars that are representative of Dominican cacao for the company, and he offered me a partnership in the company. And as you see, the rest is history.

How does your experience as a pastry chef translate to chocolate-making?

Having a full spectrum of understanding of how a pastry kitchen works has given me an intimate understanding of how chocolate should taste and how chocolate should work in a practical application. I have worked with a few restaurants where I developed a unique roasting profile to fit their needs. And that’s the beauty of it. Being able to be fluid between the two realms.

Tell us about the manufacturing process—like where it’s sourced from and how you infuse liquor into the chocolate.

All the beans, cacao butter, sugar, and spices come from Dominican Republic, which makes us truly single origin. To make chocolate, I first roast the beans in our vintage Sirocco roaster until it tastes right. I don’t roast the beans per time, but rather the taste and aroma because all beans are different, and they need unique roasting to achieve the same flavor profile. Then, we crack the beans, then separate them by size—medium and small cacao nibs. We winnow the cracked nibs to remove the husk. Then we conch it for a few hours to remove the fermented smell, and we add sugar and a bit of cacao butter. Finally we let it go for at least 12 hours until it reaches the desired particle size.

Describe what you do in a typical day at Cacao Prieto.

There is no typical day, actually. I could be roasting the beans, or I could be fixing one of the machines, or I could be wrapping and labeling the bars, or I could be sending out the orders. When you have so many hats to wear, you quickly find a way to multitask all day, every day.

What is your management style like? How do you keep the factory running

I don’t like micro-managing my employees at all. I work with like-minded people who come to work with the can-do mindset every day. And that’s huge. I believe good business is all about the people, and when you hire the right people, the synergy feeds off each other to create something truly remarkable.

What’s it like manufacturing your product in Red Hook?

It’s an amazing neighborhood filled with other artisans who inspire me everyday through their craft. It’s a beautiful neighborhood too, where you can see the water and Statue of Liberty, and it’s got the old style warehouses and cobblestones and all. However, it doesn’t have direct public transportation, except for the ferries, just yet, so the foot traffic in cold months could be improved. But I’m hopeful that in the near future, there will be an easier way to get to Red Hook and there will be more foot traffic.

What is your favorite kind of Cacao Prieto chocolate? Do you eat a lot of it?

Well, you can’t ask someone to choose a favorite child! All the bars that I created have a unique story, and I love them equally for different reasons. I sure do eat a lot of my chocolate to make sure the quality is up to standards.

Tell me a story of a concoction you made that went terribly wrong.

I tried aging the chocolate liquor in the whiskey barrel that had aged hot sauce inside. That didn’t turn out the way I envisioned.

What does the word artisan mean to you?

To me, it means seeing through every step of the process, no matter how big or small. When I see my products carried in retail shops, I feel good knowing that I’ve touched every step of the chocolate, from sourcing and roasting the beans to labeling and putting expiration dates on them. Basically what machine can’t give you. That love and care and dedication.

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