There’s a moment in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Willie Wonka introduces his guests to ‘lickable wallpaper’. “Go ahead, try it,” he gestures gleefully. “The oranges taste like oranges, the raspberries taste like raspberries, the snozzberries taste like snozzberries.”
When Stephen Trigg, co-founder with wife, Sun, of Kirkstall-based Lauden Chocolates hands me one of their garden mint chocolates, it kind of feels like that moment from the film. Okay, there are no snozzberries involved but this is not just a mint chocolate he’s given me, it’s something else altogether because within moments, I’m recalling childhood memories as the flavours gently unfold: it’s a thing of wonder.
When I tell him this, he smiles knowingly. His chocolates have had the same effect on some of the world’s greatest chefs. What is even more remarkable is that this humble chocolatier from Leeds is considered one of the best in the world. Lauden’s chocolates are served in British Airways first class, three Cunard liners – the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary and Queen Victoria – they are stocked by high end London grocer Fortnum & Mason, Fenwick of Newcastle and Covent Garden’s Clos Maggiore (allegedly the world’s most romantic restaurant). Other clients include Arsenal Football Club, the England rugby team hotel... oh, and they have a big gig in Japan, where Stephen enjoys near rock-star status (more on that later).
The pedigree doesn’t stop there. Lauden Chocolates has no less than 33 industry awards to its name. At this year’s Academy of Chocolate awards, they took gold for their layered sour cherry chocolate and silver for creations flavoured with limoncello and mango and tonka bean. At last year’s Great British Food Awards, judged by patissier and celebrity chef Eric Lanlard, they won the Confectionary category with their ‘first class’ chocolate collection.
When I meet Stephen at his workshop, he’s busy trying to complete a series of photographs of some of his chocolates which, he tells me, are being “FedEx-ed” to a client in Japan. It seems almost strange that this world-beating business is based in an otherwise humdrum industrial unit off Wyther Lane, surrounded by mechanics, electrical contractors, sign makers and furniture restorers. Inside, it looks more like a science lab than a chocolatiers. Stainless steel worktops are polished and shiny, various pieces of equipment neatly arranged around its edge, while the handful of people working inside wear pristine white lab coats, gloves, facemasks and hairnets. I try hard not to imagine them as umpa lumpas.
But before I can even progress to the workshop, I have to wash my hands, not once but twice. As we enter, lined up along one of the wall counters are a dozen single malt whiskeys, a clutch of domed chocolates neatly lined up in front of each. It’s a dream night in.
“That’s for a client in Japan,” explains Stephen, adding one – the Yamazaki single malt – costs around £500 and is only available in Japan, where Lauden do a lot of business. In fact, they’re already preparing for Valentine’s Day.
“I now know what it feels like to be a rock star,” reveals Stephen. “When we went out there last year, I must have spent the whole ten days just signing autographs. Valentine’s is huge in Japan but it’s slightly different to how it is over here, in that to begin with only the ladies buy chocolates and they do it for people they work with and know, there’s a whole hierarchy involved and then about a month later, the men reciprocate. Before we went, our client told me to practise my signature, they want the celebrity chef.” And he has the pictures to prove it...
Stephen is what’s considered a specialist pastry chef but the story of how he and his wife got to where they are is almost as amazing as the chocolates they make.
“We met in Singapore,” begins Stephen, who at 45 is nine years his wife’s junior. “I was travelling, on my way to see my younger brother, Paul, in Jakarta but I had a stopover in Singapore. I wanted to get an authentic Singapore Sling, which was invented in Raffles Hotel. Sun happened to be there helping someone out and she told me how to get an authentic Singapore Sling. We just clicked straight away, I knew there was chemistry there.”
So, he went on to see his brother but returned to Singapore three days later and spent the rest of his break with Sun. “At the time, I was working as an IT consultant and when I left Sun the idea was for me to go see her again but when I got back to England, I finished my contract and decided to fly back to Singapore.”
For Stephen, the travelling was far from daunting. An ex-pat child, he grew up in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, where his late father, John, who died last year aged 83, worked in the oil industry. Later, he went to boarding school in Kent.
“The year before I met Sun I was working as a divemaster in Phuket and I left there four days before the (Boxing Day) tsunami struck.
“In about 2005/6, the lease was up on Sun’s apartment, we had been living together about six weeks in Singapore, so we decided to move back to England. I knew she was a city girl but I didn’t want to live in London, so we ended up in Leeds.”
Their foray into the chocolate business came just over a decade ago when they decided to get married. Sun explains: “We couldn’t find the kind of chocolates we wanted for the wedding and so we decided to make our own. They went down so well, we thought we would try make a business out of it.”
And boy have they done that. Each year, Lauden makes over a million chocolates, 100,000 of which are for the Japanese market alone. That’s between 15 and 20 tons of chocolate a year.
Stephen is meticulous, picking up individual chocolates to examine them in the same way a jeweller might gaze at a diamond. Each one resembles a miniature work of art. Some have ornate wallpaper-like designs, while others have splashes of colour across their domed lids.
His profession – chocolatier – falls under the umbrella of pastry chef but it’s more of an extreme specialism. When he heats up some cocoa butter, he explains how it has to be melted at 45 degrees but then cool slightly to between 30 and 31 degrees.
“Our specialism is creating flavoured fillings which are like no other. One involves toasting pecans, which are then caramelised, then ground into a paste, keeping it a little bit coarse, then comes the shell creation, which has to set overnight.
“I like to do the simple things but do them really well, like orange and mint. I get the fresh garden mint leaves from Leeds Market. I remember doing a tasting for some chefs in Las Vegas and I asked them what they thought about all the flavours and the one they said they liked the most was the mint.”
Ten years on and Stephen and Sun are still eager to grow the business – there’s talk of a shop, but Stephen, who recently completed the coveted Goldman Sachs ‘10,000 Small Businesses’ management course, is cautious about overextending. “I’ve seen so many businesses fail and I don’t want us to do that, so we’re not going to do anything that endangers the business, but we would like to get to a point where people can come and knock on our door, so to speak and if we did open a shop, would we open in Leeds? Certainly.”