Focus: Devising true artisan confectionery artforms

The artisan confectionery sector has seen significant growth in recent years – US-based chocolatier William Poole recounts his notable career as it enters a fresh chapter as he sets out to create a new venture. Neill Barston reports

As Nebraska-born artisan confectioner William Poole explains, with his grandmother having worked in a New York chocolate factory, “perhaps my love of sweets is in my DNA.” The engaging US-based industry expert has gained extensive experience across the hospitality sector that he entered into after previously owning a construction firm specialising in historic property restoration.

But with family connections in the food sector, he notes it was inevitable he would eventually be drawn to the industry in his 30s, and is continuing to greatly enjoy operating his fine chocolate confectionery business, Wm. Poole Confections (see our exclusive video with William here).

As he enthuses, he’s presently working flat out on putting some of his former building sector skills into action with refurbishing a new store for his confections near his home in New Hampshire, which he hopes will be ready for the prime Halloween confectionery season. According to the 57-year old, progress on his latest project is ‘on track’ and is offering renewed focus, as the country’s artisan confectionery market continues to break fresh ground in terms of consumer interest.

Moreover, as reported by Confectionery Production magazine recently, the ongoing work of national organisations such as the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, are driving both the quality and quantity of premium chocolate being created by small to medium-sized enterprises within the country. As William asserts, despite the clear challenges being posed by the ongoing pandemic, there’s optimism ahead and it’s a career choice he clearly has no regrets about making.

“This is my third small business that I’ve had within confectionery, and hopefully my final one. “While I’m getting up there in years, I still have a youthful vigour of wanting to create beautiful things for people to enjoy. The chocolate element is magic to me – the flavour of chocolate itself, or chocolate as a medium, is limitless in what can be done with it. Through moulding you can create a thing of beauty, and tablets that are filled with anything in the world,” explains the chocolatier and confectioner, who says his other grand passion in the industry is in devising a wealth of panned candies to push his creative instincts further.

In terms of his chocolate business, he says that he is in the midst of developing a new signature blend, requiring additional equipment that he is in the process of sourcing to deliver a full bean-to-bar operation, including the potential for roasting his own beans.

Formative years

Reflecting on his career to date, he says the industry connections through his grandmother were inspirational, as were some of his earliest food experiences. Moreover, by his own admission, his fascination with the sector came into being from a young age, becoming hooked on some of the processes behind crafting a host of confections.

“Ever since I was a kid I have been drawn to sweets. I remember when I was growing up that my grandparents would take us every year for winter clothing to the big local department stores, and each place would have its own candy counter – they would let me pick out a quarter pound of two different things every time we were there. “I would go home and dissect them before eating them, trying to work out how the flavours would go together, and thinking about things like what makes caramel what it is, and I just started taking notes and learning,” he says of his earliest encounters with the industry that has now become his world.

While his path into the business has been far from straightforward, he says that he is relishing the chance to get stuck into fulfilling his latest enterprise. As he discusses the pandemic, he notes that lockdown conditions in the US have enabled him to “go down a number of rabbit holes” in terms of culinary research on the internet, which he feels is offering renewed impetus to his venture.

Clearly, the hunt for great additional ingredients isn’t something that happens overnight, and he seems ever restless to be able to conjure something dynamic and engaging for customers. Regarding honing skills through industry training, he says although his own route into the food sector as a chef was very much self-taught in a ‘sink-or-swim’ environment, he enthuses that there are now a wide range of training opportunities open to those who are interested. In his case, he reveals that he did some advanced culinary studies travelling to Slovenia nearly 20 years ago, learning from people who he says were masters within the confectionery sector.

One of his most notable experiences was working aboard the US Orient Express (below) train as a pastry chef, which further enhanced his credentials. “I am glad that the development of the market has been relatively slow here, as if you saturate it too quickly, then it will overwhelm people with what they are eating.

“We look regionally to see what’s going on in the industry, and even in our own pocket of New England, there are some extraordinary chocolatiers here doing some beautiful things, which I am glad for, as I don’t see it as competition. We all work together and learn from each other.” As he adds, the sector is continuing to evolve at some pace, with the artisan market facing strong competition from a major growth in ‘junk’ confectionery as he puts it.

He believes this stems amid pandemic conditions prompting greater level of binge snacking, so his hope remains that the more craft end of the sector will increasingly find its place as consumers increasingly realise the difference between cheaper commercial chocolate and premium confectionery offerings. To that end, keeping his finger on the pulse in developing products and recipes is uppermost in his mind.

He says that this year, one of the key trends he is witnessing is a drive for ‘heat and sweet’ flavour combinations being used in everything from chocolate through to ice cream, which is offering him some fresh inspiration.

Traditional moulds

Regarding his production techniques, he adds one of his favourite areas of working with chocolate are with classic moulds that offer the potential for creating stylish ranges of classic figures. “I delight in the ability to work with vintage chocolate moulds when I can.

They are whimsical and nostalgic and I love to see customer’s faces light up when they realise they are solid castings and not hollow,” says the chocolatier and chef, who stresses that beyond creativity, he is also considerable concerned with sustainable sourcing of cocoa wherever possible with his creations.

He says he is particularly conscious of the need to ensure that those working at the sharp end of the business in farming circles should be paid fairly for their labours, as well as ensuring regard for the welfare of those working in the wider industry. Consequently, he believes he is trying to play his part in insisting on gaining supplies that are able to prove Fairtrade certification and have a strong code of practice on responsible trading. As William explains, his business is a ‘one person show,’ though he adds a note of thanks to his husband, who assists him in the kitchen, as well as supporting the broader development of the Poole brand.

“I have a number of contacts in the sector for some help if I can’t find the information I am looking for – I think it’s quite a tight community, and one of those sectors where you should be in it to help people and mentor them, and allow yourself to be mentored along the way. I’m thankful for those people in my life who have been able to help me,” he adds, enthusing that the entire journey of his career so far has offered a multitude of highlights.

From working in and owning hotels, through to becoming a confectioner and chocolatier and experiencing chocolate making in other locations around the world, it’s a life that continues to provide an array of worthwhile challenges. “I am absolutely enjoying this as much as when I started – it’s been a joyride, from each of the businesses I have created, including their logos and finished product, it’s exciting, and that’s what keeps me going.”

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