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The Magic of Chocolatier Norman Love

Inside Love's creative process as he builds his empire of sweets and pastries

 

Norman Love’s expectations of cleanliness in his kitchens say a lot about his expectations of all things.

Says the chocolatier, “My standards begin with ‘operating room.’” The pinnacle is not the end goal, but rather the starting point.

In competition you would find his counters cleanly wiped, his tools rested like surgical instruments on a folded towel, and not a drop of chocolate on his white coat. He still has the score sheet from when he captained the U.S. pastry team to third place—out of 22 countries—in the 1999 Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. The sheet reads: No. 1 in cleanliness and organization.

To 56-year-old Love, though years removed from training all day every day of 18 months for those nine hours of competition, “time” and “work” still do not live in the same sentence. (“Would you tell an Olympic athlete getting ready to go to the games that maybe it’s time to go home because its been a long day,” he asks, “or do you go home when you’re finished?”) “Complacency” is a curse word. The excellence of today is never enough come tomorrow.

When your eyes first meet the neatly rowed, ultra-premium chocolates lining the glass cases of Norman Love Confections, it’s not difficult to imagine that the man responsible for them strives for absolute perfection.

The signature sweets gleam like buffed jewels in a museum, intrigue like pieces of art tempting you to lift a hand to them against the rules. The twisting, two-toned almond praline could be a little wave of blown glass; the 66% Venezuelan Dark could be a shrunken Pollock-splattered canvas; the sea salt caramel truffle (Love’s favorite) could be a tiny dark, domed sculpture strewn with a stripe of jagged sea glass stained pink. But these artworks are meant to be touched.

For this artist, the medium is not limited to molded chocolate. The magic comes in moist layered cakes, creamy gelato, flaky croissants, hunks of fudge as big as your fist, a tease of crunchy-soft artisanal breads possibly to come. Whatever the endeavor—and for the never-satisfied, you can bet there are more to come—the mission of this artist is clear: Just do it better than anyone else.

 

To bake with Julia Child, Love selected chocolate-cinnamon beignets, with a caramelized banana filling and roasted walnut sauce. It was 1996 (“Don’t say a word about the mullet,” Love says now), and he was one of only 20 some chefs selected to appear alongside the legend on her PBS series Baking with Julia.

They’re behind the kitchen counter of her home, Child mostly observing as Love instructs step by step. He’s calm, measured in his movements, actually soothing in his gentle and slightly staccato speech. His second-nature kneading, flouring, stirring and piping, though, say he is exercising restraint. Viewers may notice he is sure to wipe the already clean bowl before filling it. If they’re quick, they’ll see him straighten his recipes as the camera cuts away.

Child interestedly inspects the dough at each stage, on one occasion unable to resist licking her finger. It’s curious to see her learn something new about French cuisine, in this case another use entirely for the pastry dough, or pâte à choux. She also marvels at the way Love caramelizes his sugar, at his use of a pot-sticker press to form the pastry pockets, and at his “chic” design of melted chocolate on the plate. But when he spoons a puddle of the walnut sauce just so, more an artistic touch than a functional dipping pool, she has to ask. “Is that all?” It’s only that question that breaks Love from his exacted performance, into a laugh. But no, he doesn’t add more to the plate, for it is perfectly balanced as he intended. Instead, he compromises—they can serve more on the side.

 

Love has always been a chocolate guy. He is crazy for the taste, of course. The versatility is appealing. But no matter where he was in the world—having overseen global pastry operations as The Ritz-Carlton’s corporate executive pastry chef for 13 years, he’s been to a lot of places—he found that chocolate desserts were always the most well-
received. And as he learned at The Ritz, it’s all about pleasing the customer. He doesn’t love fruit with chocolate, but we do. So he’s going to give it to us.

Take the visuals. American consumers eat with their eyes first, Love says. And so he must give them a show. But that artful swirl or shape often has purpose. He also wants an aesthetic to signal what’s inside. You’ll notice the peanut butter cup chocolate confection is ridged like a childhood classic; the strawberry is that telltale shape, bright red and splashed with black “seeds”; the carrot cake is triangular and orange.

If there’s a word that pops up most often when Love talks about what drives his products, it’s “recognizable.” Recognizable look, recognizable taste. That’s what we want, he believes. No odd combinations or frou frou flavors.

“‘Just lemon’ is OK,” he says. “It’s OK to just execute it perfectly. Start with the freshest lemon and make sure when you eat this it’s the most succulent, delicious flavor. I think that’s more appreciated than trying to create complicated uniqueness in flavor that never gets delivered.”

He uses his approach to gelato as an example.

“If I made ricotta gelato with fig puree, are you eating that?” he asks. No. “Why? It’s not recognizable. It could be delicious. It probably is. It’s very popular in Italy. But if I made, I don’t know, salted caramel gelato, you probably would choose that one first. Or cherry vanilla, or mint chip. So I’ve never been the chef that needs to reinvent flavor.”

He draws instead from comfort foods, tried-and-true classics, almost universal memories that bring us back to childhood. We all know and understand the aroma of Cinnabon drifting through the mall and the airport—now how can he replicate that experience in our mouths?

When he first tried putting peanut butter and jelly into a chocolate, it raised some eyebrows. Just taste it, he said. Today it remains his No. 1-selling chocolate.

“Whether it’s grandma or mom making you that squishy sandwich that they cut the edges off, we all remember that,” Love says. “That’s who I am.”

Love remembers his own grandma and mom, as well as his aunts, in competition for the best pie or jelly roll come the holidays. The culinary seed was planted at those family gatherings, he says. It was their pride and enjoyment, and the happiness everyone seemed to exude when it came time to eat dessert.

Then the artist inside him who wanted to be a cartoonist in first, second, third grade realized he could express his creative side through food. During his job making ice cream at age 15, when he could see the dazzled response of customers as he worked behind the glass, he knew it had to be sweets. And when he was waitlisted at the Culinary Institute of America and decided instead to get hands-on pastry experience, it was a done deal.

 

It’s not that love’s attitude is, “Anything you can do I can do better.” He’s always eager to learn something new, including from his own team (see sidebar). It’s that he recognizes what he can do better, or at the very least do as well. And then he does it.

When his wedding cake designer asked if he had seen what hot-shot global group Momofuku was doing with their cakes, he said no. They were selling them online, she showed him, with beautiful frosting-free sides exposing their layers.

They ordered some to try, and Love was convinced they could compete. And they have—Naked Love Cakes now come in seven flavors and have proven a great boost to his e-commerce. One Food and Wine editor claimed the chocolate-peanut butter sample he sent her brought her to her knees.

“I laughed so hard,” Love says. “But you know what, it’s chocolate and peanut butter for goodness sakes. People like it. You have to recognize what people love and just make them great.”

 

It sounds so simple. but then Love is a sucker for the simple things—quickbreads, shortbreads, the perfect pound cake. As “darn proud” of and as known for his chocolates as he is, baked goods are still his favorite thing to eat and to make. He recalls the scent of his first bakery job. First it was “nasty,” a big bucket of dehydrated onions. But it gave way to the waft of a pumpernickel onion roll baking at 6 a.m.

“I never get tired of that smell,” he says. “Or of freshly baked cookies or croissants—it’s distinct. Really distinct. I love it. And it’s really a passion of mine.”

His next brand extension will feed that passion through his take on the classic corner bakery, to be titled something like “Baked with Love.” (He’s fleshing out the idea by looking at another existing concept he likes, a company in his native Pennsylvania called Whipped that offers customizable orders through local delivery.)

He has retro visions of favorites America grew up with, like cupcakes, cookies, classic layered cakes like coconut and red velvet, and maybe afternoon tea. He has a friend in New York he’s been talking to, “a lot,” about contributing his skills for “European, rustic, artisanal, crunchy, beautiful” bread.

Love isn’t sure how long it will have to wait. He’s currently on the brink of rapid expansion of his current chocolate salons, planning to add 10-plus across the state within the next three to five years. His refusal to compromise on quality and integrity meant it took 15 years to open his four existing storefronts—the latest, on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, set to open as early as this month. But now it’s time to spread the wings. First will be north to Sarasota, then to cities on our East Coast, then to Orlando and downtown St. Petersburg.

Then will he slow down?

“Depends. If you’re my wife, I would tell you differently,” he says. Mary Love has worn many hats for the business since it started as a 700-square-foot space out of an in-home health care business in 2001. “My wife doesn’t feel that I can ever be slowed down. It’s never ‘enough is enough’ for me. It’s nothing about enough. It’s about passionately loving and being involved in something that you gave birth to. … I have been crazy, madly in love with this industry since the first day that I started.”

It seems he surely won’t rest until he tries to be the best at one other thing: a dessert restaurant. For him it’s like the curtain call. No, he takes that back. But it is his personal dream. Unlike his gelato enterprise, which he admits he undertook more for his ego and love of ice cream, this will be a destination. He hopes it’s the place to be after dinner or a play.

Think high energy, night life, theater. Everything would revolve around chefs creating on stage, or perhaps behind a long, sushi-style bar. Patrons would interact heavily with the architects of their desserts.

He throws out some ideas: different stations, flights of wine, tasting menus. Maybe some tapas for a bit of added saltiness, maybe not. Funky glassware. The desserts still would be American-
themed and familiar, he’s thinking, but this time they would come to the customer in a form farthest from what he or she would envision. When we picture a banana split, we see three scoops of ice cream in a glass boat. Off the cuff, he considers how to turn that on its head: vanilla-infused pineapple, bananas caramelized in front of you, warm chocolate sauce drizzled tableside by the waiter. Oh, and maybe there’d be croissants to take home with you, for the morning.

He wants a place on Naples’ Fifth Avenue South “very badly,” but he hasn’t yet found the right space. He’ll wait, he says. It will come.

“I’m tired of thinking about that project,” he says. Sorry, Mary. “I’m ready to do it.”

 


STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

The vibe in the Norman Love Confections kitchens is, not surprisingly, decidedly serious. There’s no music, no excess chatter. The surprise is that it’s not just “Norman’s way.”

Yes, Love is present every day to taste, touch, smell and see every product that bears his name. Yes, if employees think they know everything, he’ll show them that they don’t. But he not only trusts them to execute things for him (of course, he has to—he can’t make 6.6 million pieces of chocolate per year all by himself); he also trusts them, and relies on them, to contribute ideas. The company’s “newness,” as Love calls it, is very much collaborative. And that is a huge factor in his mogul-level success.

“I think that any time you surround yourself with accomplished professionals, those multiple brains, multiple thoughts, multiple ideas from multiple people will always exceed that one individual mind,” Love says. He adds: “If you don’t empower them and you don’t allow them to be part of what you do and you don’t allow them to be creative, and you restrict creativity for a creative person, I think that will be a very short-lived relationship.”

Norman Love with his son, Ryan.

“He’s never going to say ‘no’ to an idea,” says his son, Ryan, 27, who works under perhaps the most scrutiny, as assistant pastry chef. “If you come up with something and you want to try it tomorrow, it’s always going to be ‘Yes, try it. If it’s a huge success, great. If not, at least we tried and it’s something else you learned.’”

It’s a smart move to keep a team of creatives stimulated, says production manager Dan Forgey, 37. Another smart move: supporting them in organized competition. It’s a great way to grow individually and as a company, Norman Love says. And so to those who are willing to give their all to the grueling task, Love offers them the money, the facility, the ingredients, the encouragement, the sounding board, the global network only phone calls away. Forgey himself just took home a top 10 honor from the World Chocolate Masters in Paris last October.

Love has suited himself with an armor of talented individuals Forgey says were chosen not for their skills—though many are outstanding in their fields—but for their passion. Because skills can be taught. Sooner or later, the person with passion will be better than the person who just knows what he’s doing.

Love elevates them further still. By expecting nothing less than excellence from himself, he in turn inspires that same drive in others, Forgey says. Ryan Love agrees. Every time he’s making something he asks himself: What would my dad think of this? Would he be proud if this is the product he saw, or upset?

“It’s when the motivation and the drive stop that it is time to go,” Norman Love says. “Because the industry continually evolves. I always push my team to be better than yesterday because that’s how we stay on top of who we are.”