As a culinary specialist, Laura Schälchi is on a mission to seek out, celebrate and make good food. She and a few friends recently founded La Flor, a chocolate manufacturer based in Zurich. The food expert has come a long way since packing her bags and heading to New York to study design management as a wide-eyed 19-year-old.
Close to Zurich Binz station is a building that was once home to Buchmann bakery, where the air was always suffused with the scent of croissants turning golden in the oven. Now, however, the bakers have moved to a new location and there’s nothing left to eat. Or is there? Two conches spin on their axes, turning cocoa beans into the finest quality chocolate. Laura Schälchi watches the mixture with an attentive eye. She’s satisfied with how it looks – and with what she’s doing with her life. The 36-year-old is working in a profession that she loves with the topic that is closest to her heart: food. And with no bosses to take orders from, she enjoys freedom wherever she can find it..
Just over a year ago, she founded the chocolate manufacturing company La Flor AG together with three friends – Heini Schwarzenbach of the renowned Schwarzenbach café and colonial goods shop in Niederdorf, restaurant owner Ivo Müller and graphic designer Zelia Zadra. Production started in spring 2018. La Flor has opted to cut out the middleman, sourcing its fermented cocoa beans directly from Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil. The manufacturer makes sure to remain in close personal contact with the cocoa farmers and their cooperatives.
‘I think there’s something truly magical about cocoa.’
Laura Schälchli, Ivo Müller, Finn Ramseier, Heini Schwarzenbach and Zelia Zadra
‘I think there’s something truly magical about cocoa. A single bean contains up to 600 unique aromatic notes,’ says Laura, before popping a cocoa bean into her mouth. Her main aim was to produce chocolate that embodies these exact flavours and aromas, which differ depending on the type of bean and which country they come from. And she’s managed to do it. One type has a hint of cinnamon; another is rather zesty on the tongue; yet another has a delicate nutty taste.
She enlisted the aid of Finn Ramseier, a food technology expert and authority on chocolate who understands what truly matters when it comes to chocolate production. In a room not much larger than a domestic kitchen, Finn roasts and grinds the beans before running the cocoa mixture through the conches and wrapping the finished chocolate by hand. He does not use any additives, relying solely on beet sugar, cocoa butter and powdered milk for the milk chocolate varieties.
The manufacturer makes sure to remain in close personal contact with the cocoa farmers and their cooperatives.
When she was younger, Laura never dreamed that she would one day carve out a niche in the food industry, let alone become the owner of a chocolate company. At the tender age of 19, she left Zurich and headed for New York to study design management. She ended up staying there for an entire decade. She found it difficult to scratch out a living as a design manager, however, and ended up working in restaurants at weekends. ‘It was in their kitchens that I discovered my love of food,’ says Laura. Her new-found passion subsequently led her to the Italian town of Bra, where she completed a Master’s in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.
With her degree in hand, she found it hard to adapt to life in Switzerland again. As a 29-year-old graduate, the only job she was able to find was as a waitress at Rosso, the well-known Zurich pizzeria. ‘As well as being new to the city, I was knocked back by the fact that I had to work in a pizzeria despite having a master’s. Looking back, though, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.’ Knuckling down to her work, she soon realised that the chefs at Rosso were committed to using organic produce. It was the spark that started the fire. She spent three years at Rosso, ultimately taking over as manager of Rössli, a lunch counter adjoining the pizzeria. She then turned self-employed and founded Sobre Mesa.
One type has a hint of cinnamon; another is rather zesty on the tongue; yet another has a delicate nutty taste.
Today, Laura calls herself a ‘culinary expert’. Through Sobre Mesa, she provides workshops, shows seasoned chefs how to use blood to enhance dishes, and reveals the secrets of cocoa beans and chocolate production to enthusiasts. She buys her produce at the market each week and knows many of the farmers by name. As the co-founder of Slow Food Youth Switzerland, she is dedicated to raising awareness of the work that these farmers do and the quality of their produce. Considering how busy she is, she’s not the kind of person to slave away over a hot stove for hours making complicated dishes. Quite the contrary, in fact. ‘I take a no-frills approach to preparing the ingredients I buy. I chop the vegetables into thick slices or pieces, throw them in the pan and cook them with a few fresh herbs. That’s it.’