Waterslide tester, duvet quality control, tropical island ambassador, master chocolatier: dream jobs do exist, and inventing, making and tasting delicately flavoured confections on a daily basis is certainly one of them.
Amelia Rope has been honing her skills since 2007 when she set up her eponymously named business selling high-end chocolate. It’s hard not to romanticise with idle reveries of Juliette Binoche or fantastical Wonka-style laboratories, but what followed for Rope was graft: 6am starts, 14-hour days and sofa-surfing.
In fact, she tells Stylist.co.uk, the job is “extremely hard work and not floating around tasting chocolate for most of the day.”
Though abandon ye not your chocolatier ambition, there is a fair bit of that too – all in the name of quality control.
“I can eat up to 100g a day,” she divulges. “I often find myself drawn to the latest flavour. At the moment I’m devouring Dark Honeycomb & Sea Salt and Dark Sea Salt.
“When I developed my white chocolate range I did expand around the waistline – there’s no goodness to be had with white, though it is a wickedly delicious treat. Thankfully that craving has diminished!”
Personal hankerings aside, Rope does of course have to taste products constantly, given she’s pretty much a one-woman band.
Handling nearly every aspect of the business herself (production is outsourced and she has some help with accounts) means days are full-on from her 6am coffee onwards. “It’s straight to my laptop to catch up on emails and orders. My days mainly revolve around meetings, tastings, networking, sales, marketing, PR, customer service, online orders...”
That’s not to say there isn’t any Willy Wonka inventing: Rope still creates every single recipe herself in her kitchen, “in top secret”. A recent brief of merely ‘Nordic’ resulted in chocolate skis with a tantalising dash of Italian lemon and Maldon sea salt.
Introducing flavours to chocolate is a balancing act and previous aromatherapy training has come in handy, as she plays with food-grade essential oils to create sophisticated tastes, such as the bestselling Pale Rose bars.
“The lemon and sea salt caramel truffles were an obvious combination for me. Having created Lemon Sea Salt and Lime Sea Salt bars I knew it would work well,” she explains. “I look at the chocolate profiles. For example, flavours such as ginger, mandarin and lemon are citrus and spice, so I naturally married them up to single-origin Madagascar couverture [high-quality chocolate] as it tends to have an intoxicating citrus, spice note to it.
“The end note is as key as the initial and developing tastes. It must be clean, leave the palate fulfilled.”
After creating the recipe, she asks her UK-based production team to make two versions, one with a slightly stronger flavour and one less so, before deciding. And there are regular intervals of palate-cleansing with apples and bread.
“If I am tasting I avoid any strong flavours or odours. In the early days I ate a lot of Pale Rose and one day couldn’t taste any rose at all. I took a week off because my palate had become mollified.
“[Creating recipes] is really important to me at this stage. While the business side fascinates me, my fingers itch if I am not creating.”
So where does a chocolatier’s inspiration come from? “Travel really makes my senses come alive – I did a lot last year and this year I went to Mauritius and the balance of flavours and eclectic culinary influences blew me away.
“Some recipes are trial and error, sometimes it’s seeing things in a magazine or reading a menu. Other times they just fly into my mind.”
Travel is a huge part of the job, as Rope chooses her couverture carefully (“quality and how they are produced is vital to me: my brand is my name”), focusing on provenance, fair trade and reliability. All the chocolate she uses is single origin, meaning all the cocoa beans in a product come from one country – Tanzania, Ecuador or Madagascar.
Now, Rope supplies boutique hotels, high street department stores and luxury retailers, is called on for bespoke creations for the likes of Baileys and the Design Museum and has just secured her first stockist in Japan. And all after initially branding chocolate bars too “boring”.
Rope set up the business in 2007, having appeared on Masterchef twice. But this is no ‘TV show contestant done good’ story – Rope started with little more than an idea in a kitchen. What Masterchef did do was encourage her to pursue her interest, and she took a five-day training course in France at Valrhona l’École du Grand Chocolat.
She then spent months perfecting her concept – crystallised petals dipped in chocolate and decorated with gold leaf – before delivering them to the food desks of national press, expecting little. They were a runaway hit, featured in several publications, but Rope eventually decided they weren’t sustainable.
“I will never forget a quote from Brides magazine saying they would have been ‘fit for Marie Antoinette’s table’,” recalls Rope. “But with minimal shelf life and huge fragility I had a very limited market.
“A key turning point was meeting the late Pat Reeves [co-founder of sofa.com and Deliverance] when I was I was struggling financially and working odd jobs.”
She rejected both Reeves’ offer of investment and suggestion of making bars for two years, while working for him part-time as a PA and cook, until he challenged her to fill an order of 1,000 bars for sofa.com within six weeks: “Pat’s criteria was kraft paper and dark chocolate. I hand-foiled, wrapped and signed each bar in his sitting room with his staffie Louie looking on!”
Her payment was in the form of more bars, so she had to sell to make a profit. Shortly afterwards, in February 2010, they were selected for Selfridges. More stockists, such as Whole Foods, Fortnum & Mason, John Lewis, followed suit.
That’s not to say it’s been easy – Rope only moved the business (and herself) out of her brother’s flat in 2014 after two and a half years – but surely there’s some breathing space now? Does she ever still worry (pardon the foodie pun) she’s bitten off more than she can chew?
“On a daily basis,” she admits. “It’s one of my traits to take on things which challenge me. I have always been a risk taker. At times it can be a real pain in the backside. I am constantly seeing what I haven’t achieved, where I need to get to and wondering how to get there.”
So was there a point when she realised being a chocolatier was a viable career path? “I question constantly whether being in chocolate is a viable career path! I didn’t plan to have a chocolate business. Chocolate found me.”
Given a lot of people, who may or may not be sat in the Stylist.co.uk office, see being a chocolatier as an ideal job, Rope is keen to stress the realities.
“It’s tough, challenging, pressurised and takes a lot of motivation and determination to keep going.
“Margins are very slim: the marketplace is stagnant and saturated. I am trying to work out a way to disrupt it! And to build a brand takes a long time.
“You need to be able to prepared to wing it with decision-making, and financially. But rewards, when they come in, are worth it.”
There’s no doubting she works hard – even powering her way through a bout of exhausting dengue fever last Christmas because “I hate letting anyone down” – but workdays no longer hit the 14 hours they used to (unless it’s Christmas, when all bets are off) as she reassessed her work-life balance following the deaths of three close friends last year.
“I always make sure I take time off at the weekends too: I am much happier as a result.
“I am pretty disciplined as an individual and I exercise every day – it could be a walk, gym, packing and lifting loads of boxes. Healthy body equals healthy mind. And I have a notepad on my desk with tasks – the satisfaction of ruling out what has been done is just heaven!”
Rope is the first to admit her path to master chocolatier has been challenging, but says there’s “nothing more exciting than seeing something grow, and ultimately I am financially supporting myself. If I don’t sell anything who is going to pay my rent and bills?”
Considering a new truffle range for 2016 and hoping to eventually take on a business partner or investor, Rope’s appetite for the chocolate business shows no sign of diminishing.
“I still have a long way to go. I want to leave a legacy to encourage others – if I make it rich, I aim build a foundation giving opportunities to those who need them.”
Images: as credited, Rex Features