Marc Moynot, 66, in his HCMC chocolate lab in Tan Binh District
Marc Moynot, 66, stands in the garden of the French General Consulate during a Bastille Day celebration.
The little old man's soft, gentle face seems to disappear behind his trove of handmade chocolates. They are white and black, milky and dark. Some have the yielding texture of truffles. Others feature firm shells that burst open to yield tropical bonanzas: passion fruit jam, orange peel marmalade and kumquat liqueur.
Cinnamon and other piquant spices swirl through the buttery softness of these little marvels and a je ne sais quoi that is distinctly Vietnamese.
The following day, I decided to trek out to the small workshop he shares with his Vietnamese partner and her two children out in Ho Chi Minh City's sprawling Tan Binh District.
The intoxicating aroma of 50 kilos of chocolate almost knocks me out as I step through the door of 27 Nguyen Van Mai Street Moynot's home and the headquarters of Astair Chocolates private company. The ground floor of the private home features Moynot's neat laboratory. Shelf after shelf of pots and trays line the walls. The slight man slinks along a long stainless steel table and goes to work.
Moynot's production team consists solely of his partner, Nguyen Thi Mai Huong, her two children and a maid. Together, the crew is endlessly experimenting with new fillings based on distinctly Vietnamese flavors - white honey from Da Lat, kumquat, mango, peppercorns.
The nose knows
Laurent Severac has made a living scouring Vietnam for thrilling smells. For the past 16 years, the stout Frenchman has tromped through the nation's forests in search of seeds, leaves and aromatic woods that delight the senses. He makes his livelihood distilling his finds into essential oils and selling them to Western perfume designers.
For this olfactory epicure, Moynot's chocolate is sui generis.
Last year, Severac ordered around 200 boxes of kumquat chocolates to give to friends and clients for the Lunar New Year. "Marc's chocolate surprises me most with its purity and simplicity," Severac said. "I've been in Asia for 22 years. Every time I come home, my father asks me to bring him two things: Tiger Balm and Astair chocolates."
When Severac tries to slip a French-made truffle to his staff in Hanoi, they turn up their noses.
"I prefer chocolates from your friend in Saigon," they say.
Moynot has agreed to customize chocolates to suit Severac's thirst for Vietnamese flavors. In his small lab, he's whipped up fillings derived from ingredients harvested in the mountains of the north: star anise, wild pepper, and wild ginger to name just a few. "They are simply the best I've eaten in my life," Severac said.
Moynot B.C. (before chocolate)
The master candy man once made his living as an Apline guide, leading ski trips, forays and search parties into the mountains in Savoir, France. He was busiest during the snow-packed four- month winter season. The rest of the year was slow and Moynot got by on taking tourists hiking and camping.
In 1993, he decided to visit Vietnam on a one-month holiday.
After returning to France, he was determined to change his life. In 1995, he moved to HCMC and took a teaching job. He didn't care much for the work and toyed with the idea of becoming a water sports instructor in Mui Ne. During the transition, Moynot's friend, a successful HCMC caterer tried his two standby dessert recipes: chocolate mousse and dark chocolate truffles.
His friend was blown away.
"I had these two recipes when I was in France," Moynot says. "I learned them from a box of chocolate."
Moynot's caterer friend helped him import ingredients and supplies from France. Seeking further guidance, Moynot approached Serge Rigaredin, the former head chef of Sofitel Saigon Hotel, to learn more chocolate recipes. (Rigaredin has since returned to France and could not be reached for this article).
The budding chocolatier felt very lucky at the time. "Serge Rigaredin was a very kind, skillful and devoted teacher," said Moynot. "He also loaned me several good books."
In 2001, the standard for chocolate was fairly low in southern Vietnam; Moynot worked hard to change that.
Around the same time, he met his partner in Da Lat. Soon after the meeting, the two began making chocolate together. Huong said that it was difficult to enter the field at the time. Step by step, she added, things became easier.
After a few months their chocolates were being served at some of the finest restaurants and hotels in HCMC.
A tiny, happy empire
After nine years, Moynot's empire is confined solely to the four walls of his little lab.
He has played a role in every aspect of his operation. He sketched out a design for the heated cauldron he uses to mix the chocolate and built the device he uses to cut wrapping paper.
His major problem has been marketing. "When I started I had very little money for marketing but I am conscious that we need a marketing team for our chocolate," he said. "Many of the hotels in HCMC make their own chocolate these days."
Moynot still takes orders from luxury hotels, but he's on the lookout for new customers across Vietnam. Though he sometimes finds himself pining for the quiet of the Alpine forests, he remains a satisfied man in busy HCMC.
"I have a happy family here and I make something that other people like," he said.