Robert Steinberg, Chocolate Maker, Dies

Robert Steinberg, who died this week at the age of 61, was a family physician who became an American pioneer in the area of specialty chocolates. He and his friend John Scharffenberger started the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. Scharffenberger says they were just trying to make something delicious.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Fourteen years ago, a California doctor went to France, where he spent a few weeks learning the art of making chocolate. He returned with a passion to try it for himself, and together with a friend, a coffee grinder and a hairdryer, he began experimenting in his own kitchen. They helped start an American chocolate revolution. That family physician was Robert Steinberg. His friend was John Scharffenberger. Their company, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, is now highly acclaimed. We learned today of Robert Steinberg's death this week at the age of 61 of cancer. John Scharffenberger joins us now to talk about his friend and his business partner. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN SCHARFFENBERGER (Cofounder, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker): Oh, thanks for having me on.

NORRIS: How did the two of you meet?

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: We were neighbors up in wine country, Mendocino County, north of San Francisco. I was farming wine, grapes, and strawberries, and Robert had a small practice.

NORRIS: Why was he so interested in trying to do this at home?

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: Well, you know, Robert was a chef. He loved food. He was diagnosed, actually, with lymphoma quite a long time ago, and it really changed his life. And he decided to do the things he loved, and one of those was cooking. He studied in Italy with Marcella Hazan. And a friend had said, nobody makes a good chocolate here in the United States, and I think it lit up in his mind, you're right, you know, let's make something that is more like the European standard.

And so, he looked around and heard about a very small company in Lyon called Bernachon that not only makes delicious candy, but they make their own chocolate. He wrote them, and they wrote him back and said, yeah, come on, come and visit. He came back to the United States really on fire to try and do this. So, we began a really interesting project, exactly, in his kitchen, with all kinds of strange things, like a trivet, and a mortar and pestle, and a Mixmaster, and a convection oven.

NORRIS: Now, some of that makes sense, the Mixmaster and the trivet. The hairdryer?

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: We wanted to keep the chocolate viscous while it was turning in the Mixmaster, but we were very careful. You couldn't get it too hot. So, the hairdryer just kept the chocolate liquid enough to actually keep it mixing around. Actually, after awhile, we chucked that stage and just realized that by using the coffee grinder, we could get 80 percent of the flavors we needed to out of a bean. Frankly - I tell people this all the time - they can make their own chocolate at home using cocoa nibs and you know, a coffee grinder, and it's pretty good.

NORRIS: How were you able to do this, to create this company, under the shadow of Ghirardelli, since you were both based in San Francisco?

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: Well, we weren't trying to start a company. We were trying to make something that was really delicious. It was more a labor of exploration - let's try and make something we really like - and, you know, maybe we could sell it to our friends eventually. You know, rent a little place and make a little bit of chocolate, sell it to the restaurants in San Francisco to pay our expenses. So, we thought it was going to be kind of a weekend project.

NORRIS: I have some of the chocolate here with me, a few of the small bars that you often see at the checkout counter, the dark chocolate with the roasted cocoa nibs...

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: Oh, that's incredible...

NORRIS: The dark chocolate with freshly roasted coffee...

(Soundbite of rustling plastic wrapper)

NORRIS: So, I hope you don't mind, but in honor of Mr. Steinberg, I'm just going to sort of open some of this.

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: Great, great, great.

NORRIS: And maybe even take a nibble while we talk. What's the difference between what we consider to be good chocolate now and what used to pass for good chocolate?

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: You know, I don't really know. I think what we do at Scharffen Berger is pay careful attention to what goes into the chocolate. I came from a wine-making background, and in that craft, what you need to do is look very carefully at what the grapes are like. You're really taking the flavor of those grapes and putting it into wine. And really, that's the protocol that we chose in making our chocolate.

We - Robert was a very keen adventurer and found beans from really interesting parts of the world - Venezuela particularly, but also Trinidad, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea - and so, we would taste these cacao nibs, or the beans themselves, much the way I used to try base wines in the champagne world. And really, what we were just trying to do was make that flavor - the best flavors from the best beans come into that bar. Sort of our mantra is to try and, you know, make it from bean to bar and make it really delicious.

NORRIS: John Scharffenberger is the co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. He was speaking to us about his friend and his business partner, Robert Steinberg, who died this week at the age of 61. Mr. Scharffenberger, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SCHARFFENBERGER: Thanks for having me on.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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