Interview with Sebastián Cisneros of Cocanu Chocolates
On food and childhood:
I was born and raised in the high altitudes of Ecuador, Quito to be specific. Chocolate has been magical for me as long as I can remember. My most vivid memory is from a family road trip to the Ecuadorian coast, where the pungent smell of cacao fermenting wafted in and overtook the car. When I asked about the awful smell, my parents laughed and answered “chocolate.” That such a thing was related to my beloved "chocolate" was mind boggling.
When I was just 17, I moved to Oregon for University. I was about to graduate with a degree in Economics from the University of Oregon when I began to tinker with possible ways to put my efforts into chocolate. I had many dreams, but no idea how to ignite them. A job offer moved me to Portland, where I found myself sitting at a desk just few short blocks away from Cacao, a local specialty chocolate store. My first visit was quite intimidating because here I was at the epicenter of my chocolate dreams, and didn't know what to do with myself. I bundled my courage for a week and upon my return I was greeted by a "We Are Hiring Sign". Five years later I gave my notice to my mentors, employers and friends, Jesse and Aubrey (Cacao’s owners) as it was finally time to focus all my attention on Cocanú.
How did you learn to make chocolate?
Before I was hired at Cacao I knew that someday I wanted to embark on a chocolate story of my own. Aubrey and Jesse were very open and taught me a lot about fine chocolate, to understand its circle of life. Months later, some major events in my personal life gave me a clearer vision. Chocolate was not only a way to improve my customers’ well-being, but it could also be a way for me to communicate personal experiences, dreams, or peculiar observations about my surroundings.
How did you decide to start a business?
I felt that Cocanú had to come alive, and I was set on making it happen. Cacao (the shop) had shown me the principles of chocolate, but actual technique and practice were things I had to learn myself. I taught myself how to temper in my kitchen on a stone slab. Then I bought a small tempering machine and made the first 1.5lb batch. I designed the bar and made the molds myself with silicone. I brainstormed night and day about the packaging, and I was ultimately inspired by three things: Euclidean geometry, Ecuadorian hayacas, and unsent love letters.
How's the chocolate made?
Once the dream of the chocolate bar comes to me, I turn my attention to finding the flavors to make it a reality. Perhaps it's as simple as going to the Dollar Store for Pop Rocks, or as far as an Ecuadorian desert for palo santo (a type of wood), or a short drive eastward towards Oregon's hazelnut orchards. I work in 10 lb batches with chocolate from fine chocolate makers in France, Sweden and Ecuador. I am easing into a new factory which I built in summer of 2012 that is inside a historic industrial laundry facility that is now a center for contemporary arts in southeast Portland.
Prioritizing ideas. My imagination gets tempted constantly, and it's a challenge to say no. I'm learning to silence them and store them for later.
What is your favorite part of the chocolate business?
Living chocolate every day. I feel fortunate to have found a beautiful element around which my world can pivot. Chocolate strings together family, new friends and old, creativity and curiosity. I find it amazing how this project requires me to listen and observe, awake or sleep. Staying sensitive to my surroundings has been vital for the health and creativity of the project. Also, mistakes! Cocanú has significantly grown from scraping beauty out of accidents.