It's easy to get distracted when you start with the word 'chocolate', but Daniel's story snaps us back to attention rather quickly. He's what we might call an 'extreme career changer' (if we were writing a reality show), and we were surprised to discover that even an aerospace engineer can apply his existing job skills to making chocolate. Of course, it's so much more than that, as you'll see when you read his interview, visit the Cacao Prieto website, or taste one of their amazing confections (are we getting distracted again?)
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
My background is engineering. I founded an aerospace company producing life saving technologies for our military. When I sold the company the deal came with a five year non compete. I found myself in a position where I had to do something completely different. There was no real 'aha' moment, more like a conspiring of the universe that landed me here.
My closest friend is a noted foodie and mixologist in NY, he talked me into partnering on a cocktail bar. The bar is called Lingua Botanica (language of plants in Latin), aka Botanica. It features an extensive cocktail list of unusual and esoteric herbal liquors, fresh herbs and botanicals.... I developed an appreciation and fascination with herbal alcohols and artisan distilling... Overlapping with this I visited family in the Dominican Republic and was exposed to Cacao. My family goes back to the late 1800's in D.R. and were always in agriculture. Cacao is truly a magical tree. I became fascinated by the plant and when I delved into the chemistry and science behind it I was hooked....
I set off to vertically integrate my family's farm. Most people are not aware that cacao seeds (cocoa beans) do not taste like chocolate until they are fermented. Chocolate is a fermented food. The byproduct in the fermentation is a foul alcoholic liquid called "sweatings". When I began integrating processes on our farm, it occurred to me that there were thousands of years of recorded science behind cultured foods: cheese, wine, yogurt, etc... and pretty much all of this had passed cacao by. Standard practice was to crack open cacao fruit (pods) in the field and pile up the pulp covered seeds to allow it to ferment. Basically completely uncontrolled and performed in a dirty environment, the fermentation begins contaminated. You would not find wine makers who would stomp their grapes in a puddle and hope they taste good in a week. So why cacao? I set out on a journey to do things differently. We have since re-examined and re-engineered most all aspects of cacao cultivation and chocolate production. The results led me into founding companies for liquor and chocolate, deeply rewarding and delicious enterprises.....
If I did have to pick an 'aha' moment, though, I would say it happened in architecting our farm expansion...We have outgrown our initial farm and are expanding with 2000 hectares. The project is monumental: we are clearing 300,000 coconut trees that are too old to be productive and replanting with 2,000,000 cacao trees. We are building a city for 1,600 employees, schools, churches, a saw mill, a brick factory, large scale biochar, compost and vermiculture operations, setting up germplasm repostories for the genetic preservation of the countries rare cacao breeds, building laboratories for invitro cultivation of cacao, etc......its a bit overwhelming.... I never thought I would fancy myself a farmer, but I also never dreamed just how much science is involved in operating a self sustaining farm (and how difficult it could be).
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
I am a professional inventor, I hold over 100 patents in 17+ countries. The legal definition of an invention is something that doesn't exist in the public domain and which is not obvious to someone normally skilled in the art. I have some particular abilities that make me a natural inventor: I have a photographic memory which allows me to catalog information I have read, I am very good at seeing patterns and connecting the dots that others pass by.
That said, I came across this industry of cacao and saw no vertical integration. There are many companies and people in between the plant nursery and the final chocolate maker. I saw no alignment of interests... I guess my skill set allowed me to visualize the way things should be and try to change it. We are beginning to change things on a national level, and before this project comes to completion we will have changed things on a global level.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
I am truly passionate and intellectually engaged by what we are doing. I imagine it will hold my attention for a long time to come...as to obstacles, they are everywhere, but that's par for the entrepreneurial course, they're what makes life more interesting.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I have never been much of an alarmist or conspiracy theorist, but I am sure that our current system of food production at a farm level in this country is not sustainable. I find the most exciting opportunities out there involve correcting this problem. Educating America in healthy diet and sustainable farming practices, etc.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Chocolate ! Already there.
Do you have a question about chocolate that you've always wanted to ask an expert? Leave it in the comments section and see if Daniel can answer it for you!