The story of how chocolatier Phil Landers got into chocolate is all sorts of enlivening. It’s a tale that tells us how a break from routine, getting a new perspective and not being afraid to throw yourself into a new skill can really work wonders.
It all began when he went travelling, but even when he was back on terra firma, his obsession only skyrocketed. After working with pioneers of the artisanal movement, Mast Brothers, Phil moved into an old furniture makers workshop in Bethnal Green and Land Chocolate was born.
Over the last few years this movement has gained hype, there have surfaced many questions about the authenticity and sustainability of handcrafted produce, and the chocolate industry isn’t exempt from this. There are murky corners that Phil is openly shedding light on, informing both industry and consumer that livelihood, provenance and attention to detail are the only ways to result in a genuinely quality product.
We caught up with Phil to find out more about the bean-to-bar process and the top tools he uses to temper, roast and tame an ingredient that very often has a mind of its own.
Hello Phil, tell us about your background. Was there an epiphany moment when you realised chocolate-making was your calling?
I moved to London about 11 years ago with the intention to work in radio at the BBC. I spent 6 years doing that then took a break and went off to Central America on my own. It was there that I stumbled across the cacao fruit tree and spent the next few days learning about how this tropical fruit tree eventually turns into chocolate.
That was the moment the obsession started. I came home from that trip and instead of going back to my stable job at the BBC, I decided to start again and jumped into the chocolate industry. Somehow, I now find myself making chocolate for a living.
Tell us about the ‘bean-to-bar’ movement. What aspects of this all-involved process do you find fulfilling, and which more demanding? What makes LAND stand out in the industry?
It’s the small detail which I enjoy most about the process of making chocolate. Each part of the process is as crucial as the next, whether its roasting or conching or even wrapping the bars - they can all affect the final quality of the chocolate.
In terms of the most demanding part I would probably say sourcing is the hardest. Cocoa only grows in tropical parts of the world, and as a chocolate maker you’re constantly searching for the finest quality. Therefore you have to have an understanding of the DNA of the cocoa bean and the process it goes through when being harvested.
Crucially, you want to be able to build a relationship with your farmer/supplier so you can build a sustainable chain from farmer to chocolate maker. It’s something which always needs to be improved, and hence why it can be slightly challenging.
When it comes to the flavours, where does your inspiration come from? Do you experiment as you go, or meticulously plan beforehand?
When it comes to making bean-to-bar single origin chocolate it’s all about bringing out the natural flavour of the cocoa bean. Hundreds of flavour compounds are naturally living within the bean I have to be able to extract those flavours through intricate processes. The result is enjoying the wide spectrum of natural flavours the cocoa bean can provide.
It’s half experiment and half science. You can have everything meticulously planned beforehand but the fact is the cocoa bean is quite volatile and it will do what it wants. It’s my job to control it as much as I can and maximise the potential of the bean.
Tell us about your workshop in Bethnal Green. What three tools / instruments couldn’t a chocolatier live without?
Heat gun - Useful for when I’m hand tempering small batches so I can keep the chocolate from solidifying too quickly. Also, chocolate gets everywhere and solidifies in odd places so the gun can melt your disasters down and wipe away clean.
Scraper - Again, I spill a lot of chocolate and it makes a real mess. If it spills anywhere the best thing to do is let it set then scrape it off.
Thermometer - Chocolate is very unpredictable and is only happy in very precise temperatures so having a thermometer nearby is always a must when in the workshop.
We love the artisanal community of East London. Have you come across any places recently doing something that’s excited you?
I sadly spend most of my time hiding in the workshop but I did manage to get down to newly opened Mare Street Market which has the best collection of East London based food products all under one roof.
Any magazines or books on your reading list that you’d recommend?
The chocolate industry has a lot of dark secrets and they need to be talked about to help the future of the industry in general. We always see the final product and see it as a happy treat but behind the chocolate there is a bigger story that needs to be told. ‘Cocoa’ by Kristy Leissle is a great read if you want to learn more about where your chocolate comes from, and understand the negative impact some of the big chocolate companies are having on the environment.
What’s the best way to enjoy a LAND bar?
I’m tasting chocolate from about 8am to 6pm everyday and I’ve concluded the earlier the better. Your taste buds are freshest in the morning and so you can really taste the flavours coming through.