Our latest In Focus interview takes you from Johannesburg to Brooklyn to Arizona and back again, as we proudly introduce you to Daniel Sklaar, founder of Fine & Raw Chocolates out of Brooklyn, NY. We first offered a glimpse of Daniel earlier in the year, when Fine & Raw launched a new product line and a complete redesign of their packaging (see the June 2018 Issue for that coverage).
Today, however, it’s time to meet Daniel himself, as we dig deeper into both his story as a chocolate maker, and the unique chocolate creations he proffers via Fine & Raw.
What’s the Word? Johannesburg.
Daniel began his chocolate journey far, far away from the bustling NYC streets of Brooklyn, where his chocolate dream eventually became a reality. He spent his early years in South Africa, growing up in Johannesburg, then eventually moving to Cape Town for school. Let the grand ocean divide fool you not, however, as chocolate knows no boundaries.
“I always loved helping my mom make chocolate cake as a kid. Mostly because I got to lick the cake batter bowl at the end. Besides that, I was very experimental with the typical chocolate foods you’d find in your pantry.
For instance, I’d combine different kinds of cereals with chocolate ice cream and microwave the mix to come up with something inventive. The signs of my obsession with chocolate were there, but I didn’t ever think I’d end up making chocolate.”
I asked Daniel if he wound up with any successful combinations from all those fun Frankenstein-like food experiments. Even venturing a solid guess that Frosties in South Africa translates to Frosted Flakes here in the USA, I don’t foresee any of you rushing to your freezers, pantries, and then microwaves for this one… but it’s a fun share nonetheless –
“I had a particular affinity towards one blended concoction of vanilla ice cream, Milo Chocolate powder, and Kellogg’s Frosties.”
If you find yourself giving that a whirl, let us know how you fare. When it comes to Daniel’s current chocolate experiments, however, we’ll stand with much more confidence.
In one of Daniel’s other early chocolate memories, he remembers spending time at his grandparents’ house… and his grandfather always kept a massive collection of chocolates, which he’d dig into after dinner. “It was such a treat when my grandfather brought out the chocolate. There was something mystical and exotic about it too… maybe that was because he was quite a mysterious character himself,” Daniel fondly remembers.
He was a character indeed, living in a part of the city that actually contained farmland. Daniel recalls how his grandpa would swim in his pool every morning at 6am sharp, no matter the season… summer, winter, all of it. Perhaps the most telling influence on his grandson, however, came in the form of profession, as Daniel’s grandfather worked as a pharmacist.
“He had the most fascinating collection of apothecary type jars and instruments. I believe that sparked a keen interest in the idea of experimentation within me.”
Now we know who to thank as the early inspiration for Fine & Raw… and of course for the Milo Chocolate covered Frosted Flakes mixed into melted vanilla ice cream as well.
We Are Looking for Brooklyn…
Daniel finally moved to New York in 2003, to become a financial analyst of all things. [On a side note – is anyone else surprised by our running theme over the past few issues of Finance majors in college eventually translating to ace chocolate makers?]
Daniel spent a little over two years in the finance industry, taking in all the beauty of NYC along the way.
“I love the bridges. Walking over the Williamsburg bridge is one of my favorite things to do.
The views are incredible and give you a very different perspective of the city.”
When Daniel left the financial world in 2006, he sensed something different calling his name, as he shares –
“I knew that I had to go exploring the world, myself, and my dreams to really discover what it was that was calling to me.
After leaving finance, I had a lot of time on my hands and found myself in the kitchen whipping up dishes and getting creative. Back then I was surrounded by artists and creatives, who all understood why I left finance, what I was doing. My family, on the other hand, thought I was crazy to leave a professional career with absolutely no plan.”
Although his family didn’t recognize what was going on, they were still supportive, and Daniel soon moved to Arizona to work as a raw food chef. Raw cacao had entered the alternative food world, and all Daniel wanted to do as a chef was put raw cacao in every dish…
“I mean, I was obsessed with cacao!”
Yes, it’s Daniel and the Chocolate Factory…
The obsession led him to make truffles and bars and all sorts of other confections. Think back to those mad scientist days in the kitchen as a child, however, and you’ll discover all of Daniel’s professional training preparation for this adventurous leap into chocolate –
“I have pretty much no professional training to speak of, everything I’ve done is self taught. That’s just how I like to do things – tinker around until you figure it out.”
Daniel moved back to Brooklyn at a crossroads – either continue as a chef or roll the dice and start a chocolate company. Need you even ask his choice?
“My parents flew in to visit me soon after I got back to NY. They hadn’t tried the chocolate I was making yet. The first thing we did together when they landed was eat some of my truffles. They tasted them and loved them! Immediately they told me that I should start a chocolate business. And so I got to work starting the initial business plans.”
Oh what a difference a little chocolate can make. With full support behind him, Daniel started developing the brand and products for Fine & Raw in 2007, right in his arts loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The brand officially launched in 2008.
Imperial Stout Chocolate Truffles, crafted with Nave Nave Mahana Imperial Stout (Finback Brewery)
When Daniel first started, he was bootstrapping and producing at his aforementioned loft in Brooklyn, but eventually moved production to the Jomart kitchen in South Brooklyn.
There, good luck shined, as he found himself working with Michael Rogak (of JoMart Chocolates fame).
Daniel wanted to buy a Hilliard’s chocolate machine, so he called up Hilliards directly and asked for a reference whom he could speak with about the machines. The company gave him Michael’s number. I’ll let Daniel tell the rest himself –
“It was around Valentines Day, so when I got in touch with Michael he told me to get back to him in about a month, as he was slammed. Eventually we set up a meeting, and I went to his candy store to ask about the Hilliard. We chatted about it for a second, he showed me all his crazy, old-school chocolate machines, then I said to him, ‘Dude, try this out,’ and gave him some of the chocolate I made. He nibbled on it, then put it down.
After a while, I called Michael back and asked him about the idea of working together. I think he liked my adventurous spirit, and said he’d kept the piece of chocolate I gave him and had been nibbling on it – a really positive sign for someone whose family has been in the candy industry for over sixty years.
Micheal was really my mentor. Where I was impatient and wild, he was patient and thoughtful. Where I was nervous, he was playful. I really learned so much about how to be a balanced person, have fun, and run a business. I feel a little lucky to have worked with him – he really is salt of the earth.”
With the combination of Daniel’s own cacao obsession, his experimental nature in creating new, exciting chocolates, and Michael’s mentorship, Fine & Raw sat poised to make a solid impact on the chocolate world. Now, let’s see just how far they’ve come, and how Daniel clocked in as one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America back in 2015…
Expect Only the Best
Fine & Raw crafts only 100% organic, plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, and refined sugar-free chocolate. Daniel relies on nut butters and oils to make the chocolate creamy instead of using dairy (think hazelnut butter or coconut butter versus milk).
He also uses coconut sugar to sweeten the chocolate, often preferred from a nutritional standpoint, plus it adds a great caramel note to the chocolate. Fine & Raw only creates chocolate with raw cacao, as Daniel proudly notes, “a superfood with forty times more antioxidants than blueberries.”
Fine & Raw’s focus on the finest of course extends to the source as well. They work with small farmers in farmer collectives, and source via direct trade pricing, which Daniel, as we often hear from chocolate makers today, feels works better than fair trade.
All Fine & Raw’s farms maintain fair labor practices for workers and use ecologically-sensitive farming practices to nourish the land as well. Daniel elaborates –
“Right now we’re bringing beans in from Ecuador and Ghana. I visit the cocoa farms… it’s always an adventure getting out there. I do find it really bizarre to be in the jungle and then think about my artisan chocolate factory in Brooklyn. Such worlds apart.
The farmers are always wonderful, kind people. I stay at the haciendas at the farms… we’ll wake up at 5am to jump on the donkeys and trek an hour into the jungle in order to harvest the cacao. I remember one time bringing cacao back, unloading it, and then spotting a giant tarantula climb out of the bag I was using! The jungle is wild!”
Last of all, Daniel considers Fine & Raw to be “probably the most hand-made product of the larger atisanal chocolate makers.” They create everything on site. If a recipe calls for almond butter, they buy almonds and make the almond butter in-house. As Daniel notes –
“Doing things by hand means that you can give the production a very specific kind of attention… the kind of attention you need in chocolate making to turn a good product into an outstanding one… We also have a sincerely fun and authentic brand. We’re playful and creative and I think that comes through in the flavor.”
Fine & Raw stone grind their cacao and nut butters, performing long “low roasts” on the cacao – with the beans heated for over an hour at very low temperatures – creating a distinctive chocolate flavor. Put it all together, and voila… Daniel presents a rich, creamy, and balanced chocolate, without dairy, refined sugar or soy.
Fine & Raw Chunkys
Play That Chunky Music
Laying the foundation means little without a final product that lives up to such lofty expectations, so let’s dive into Fine & Raw’s signature selections. First, let’s inspect Daniel’s favorites – the chunkys. Don’t be fooled – they may look like chocolate bars, but they’re actually truffles in disguise. As Daniel notes, “When you’re honest with yourself, what you really want is a truffle, but with the convenience of a chocolate bar.”
As of publication date, Cacao + Coconut, Almond, Truffle, and Hazelnut were the four chunky varieties currently available. Daniel elaborates on their creation –
“There are always interesting stories behind the flavors. The flavors come from events and inspirations in my life. As an example, I went through a long phase of dunking our sea salt bar into a jar of almond butter and eating that as my afternoon snack. That habit is what made me create the Almond Chunky.”
The Coconut Chunky, however, became his first obsession with a raw chocolate recipe. Inspired by some of Daniel’s original recipe experiments from back in the day (with raw chocolate still in its infancy), he fondly remembers hanging out with chef friends after work shifts, playing around with all sorts of combinations and permutations of the coconut flavor. As Daniel recalls, “No one had ever heard about raw chocolate, never mind experimented with it… it was such a great time where anything and any flavors were possible.”
Ironically, when he first launched Fine & Raw, Daniel didn’t include the Coconut Chunky in that original lineup. After about three years, however, not only did the Coconut Chunky make an appearance, it also quickly became Fine & Raw’s best seller.
Indeed, that Coconut Chunky, along with the Almond Chunky, still rank as their best sellers, and Daniel offers his reasons why –
“Both these products have exceptionally well-balanced flavors and textures – creamy and rich, smooth soft centers, and perfect heirloom cacao flavors. They’re next level chocolates.”
Take That, Spatula!
Next up, the Hazelnut Butter Bar, part of Fine & Raw’s Brooklyn Bonnie line, crafted with “50% raw & 50% roasted cacao for a smooth & toasty flavor.” Put down the Nutella and immerse yourself in a true hazelnut butter, but first, enjoy a little hazelnut butter origin story, in Daniel’s own words –
“When we opened our original factory, the first product I developed was the Fine & Raw version of Nutella. I really loved the flavor and texture of Nutella, and wanted to see if I could replicate those characteristics using super high-quality ingredients. For the first round of experiments I went to the farmers market for raw, fresh cream… the kind of stuff that is so good you almost just want to pour it over yourself.
I then went into experimentation mode and threw all the ingredients in a blender. Unfortunately the hazelnuts clogged the blender. I used a plastic spatula to get the blender spinning again. The spatula got stuck to the blender blades too!
I was eventually able to get the blender working again, but ended up blending both plastic spatula and chocolate ingredients together. It’s really a sad, embarrassing moment when you blend spatula up in a blender, but also a hysterical one in its own right.
The next experimental batch was absolutely delicious… and plastic spatula free.”
Another great collaboration, this time with Poppy’s Catering: S’mores kits with homemade marshmallow and graham crackers, paired with Fine & Raw’s Alderwood Smoked Salt Chocolate. Alderwood Smoked Salt Smores? Yes, please!
Sea Salt, Raspberry, Ginger, and Espresso Bars showcase the more standard side of Fine & Raw’s chocolate collection (along with an 83% Dark), while intriguing flavors such as Habanero Salt, Mesquite, and Alderwood Smoked Salt round out the selections. Fine & Raw’s website notes the Mesquite Bar as “earthy, smoky, and cunningly free of any sugar. Instead, sweetness comes from lucuma powder, for a creamy finish.” That sounds positively divine…
Catch a Glimpse
If you’re looking to connect with Daniel and Fine & Raw outside of their factory-cafe in Brooklyn, they recently started attending a few of the bigger food shows, namely the Fancy Food Show, Expo East/West, and Good Food Mercantile. You can also spot Fine & Raw at several local pop-ups in New York, including the Christmas pop-up at Chelsea Market.
First and foremost, however, as we reported earlier this year, is the launch of Fine & Raw’s redesigned artwork for their Signature Collection, running in conjunction with the premiere of two new flavors – a Cashew Butter Bar (creamy cashew butter with notes of toasted caramel over dark chocolate) and a 70% Bar that’s “pure and simple but rich in flavor, expressing the regions (Ecuador and Ghana) of cacao”.
So much chocolate, so little time.
If Plato Made Chocolate…
Every chocolate maker, whether consciously or otherwise, shares a distinct chocolate philosophy with the world. As you might expect from one already prone to wax philosophical, Daniel artfully, yet simply, shares his own –
“Balance, simplicity and next level flavor.”
We wholeheartedly expect all three of those to ring true in each and every bite.
“I get to eat chocolate everyday! When you’re in the chocolate business you’re basically in the production of happiness. Chocolate makes people happy. The team at Fine & Raw is a collection of the most talented, friendly, smart, fun people too!
And as for our chocolate factory, no matter what’s going on in your day, if you walk into the chocolate factory you are instantly happy… after inhaling your first breath of the deep chocolate aroma at the factory, the chocolate bliss engulfs you completely…”
If you fancy a trip to Brooklyn, we strongly suggest you pay a visit to Fine & Raw, so you can experience the chocolate bliss for yourself.