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Askinosie in Austin

Chocolate maker comes to share his sweet love of the art and people
Margaret Shugart, 9:30am, Fri. Feb. 15, 2013

She is a single mother of six children, a seamstress, the head of her church choir, the only woman to lead a farmers’ co-op in Tanzania and her cocoa beans are in your chocolate bar. We know this, because Shawn Askinosie knows this, and knows Mama Kyeja personally.

Mama Kyeja with chocolate bars made from her cocoa beans
Photo by Bob Linder, courtesy of Askinosie Chocolate

Named by “O Magazine” as one of the 14 men saving the world, Shawn Askinosie uses his chocolate-making business as a conduit to impact the lives of people all over the world, from his farmers in the Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, Tanzania and Mexico, to the school children in his town, Springfield, Missouri. We attended a Chocolate 101 class by Askinosie at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Hyde Park last Thursday and learned the process of making chocolate, the story of his business, the stretch of his philanthropy and the depth of his heart. And tasted absolutely incredible chocolate.

Madame Cocoa introduces us to Shawn Askinosie.
Photo by Margaret Shugart

The class opened with an introduction by Madame Cocoa, our own local chocolate maven, and followed a tasting grid that led us through the stories. First we tried all the components of quality chocolate individually and at their in-between states: roasted cocoa beans, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa powder and un-conched chocolate. All of these elements were based around beans from the town Davao in the Philippines so we could compare the same bean flavor profile in its different forms. Then we tasted finished chocolate made from the Davao beans, and chocolate from single-source farms in San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador, Cortes, Honduras, and Tenende, Tanzania. They were all very different and Askinosie explained that, like wine, it is not just the source of the bean, but the way they are treated that creates the variety of flavors. And because the flavor is tied to all these stages, he is heavily involved in all steps of the bean process.

The chocolate story board
Photo by Margaret Shugart

This is one of the many features that set Askinosie apart from other entrepreneurs, and chocolate makers specifically. He goes directly to the source and meets the farmers in person. He then teaches them the best ways to grow, ferment, and dry the beans, and conducts bean inspection himself. When the chocolate is complete, he returns to these hot regions with insulated coolers filled with bars of their chocolate so the farmers can try a product made from their own hard work. It is often the first time they’ve ever tasted chocolate in their lives and he said there is universal response of reverence, savoring and deep appreciation. He pays above fair trade prices and involves the farmers in profit sharing, handing out their cash portions in person. All of these steps insure that he is receiving the quality of bean needed to make the best chocolate possible. As he likes to say, “It’s not about the chocolate. It’s all about the chocolate.” It’s about the people as well.

And for Askinosie, people are his inspiration.

Shawn Askinosie at Antonelli's Cheese Shop
Photo by Margaret Shugart

The Askinosie Chocolate factory in Springfield, Missouri is located one block away from Missouri Hotel, a homeless shelter housing approximately 80 children (and their parents) a night. Not only did Askinosie provide the money and labor to turn the shelter’s basement into a study room for the children, outfitted with computers and work desks, he felt so inspired by these kids, he started “Chocolate University.” With their partner Drury University, Askinosie Chocolate designed programs for Springfield’s Boyd Elementary, Pipkin Middle School, and Central High School. Each age group is given the chance enroll in different curriculums that teach about entrepreneurship and a world beyond their own. They become personally involved in the factory and get hands-on experience with chocolate making and how the manufacturing process plays into other subjects.

Back to Mama Kyeja.

She was selected as a cocoa bean supplier by Central High School students when Askinosie assigned them the task of finding a new source, led by a woman. The students of the Cocoa Honors worked hard all year to learn bean selection and the entrepreneurial side of the business. Then, on a combination of self-funding and scholarship, all of them flew to meet Mama Kyeja and the farmers in person in Tenende, Tanzania. In addition to helping Askinosie with bean selection and the business side of the trip, they worked with Doug Pitt (Brad's brother) to install a well for the village, so that Mama Keyja and the villagers could have fresh water. One girl returned a year later and stayed in the village to run a textbook campaign and teach an "Empowered Girls" program, helping the local girls stay in school longer. Tenende is just one of the villages Askinosie works hard to positively impact. The affect of this little chocolate making business is astounding.

Askinosie keeps ties to Texas as well. He attended Baylor University for a year, left to finish his degree in Missouri and returned to practice criminal law in Fort Worth. His wife went to University of Texas nursing school and father-in-law played football with Tom Landry at U.T. in the 1950’s. They still have family here in the state.

But one of the most extraordinary ties is to Paul Kiry, a Cheesemonger at Antonelli's Cheese Shop. Kiry and Askinosie met in Michigan at a chocolate workshop, similar to the one we attended. A few weeks after the workshop, Kiry wrote an email to his boss, thanking him for the opportunity to learn about chocolate and the chance to talk about it with customers. That email was forwarded to Askinosie, who was so touched, he stopped all activity in the factory and read the email aloud, as a reminder of the impact of their labor. Then he set up "Paul Kiry Day" at the Askinosie Chocolate factory, to mark the occasion. This will be the forth year, and on Wednesday, Feb. 20 the factory staff will listen to music Paul likes (he is sending Askinosie his playlist), and read the email together again. Pictures will be posted on Facebook, so you are welcome to "like" Askinosie Chocolate and follow along, or visit Antonelli's Cheese Shop in person and wish Paul Kiry a happy day!

Paul Kiry, Cheesemonger at Antonelli's Cheese Shop, receiving an Askinosie Chocolate shirt.
Photo by Margaret Shugart

Askinosie Chocolate can be found in Austin at Antonelli's Cheese Shop, Whole Foods, and Central Market.

Next in Food: Farmers Market Report: February 16-17 »