Kathy Johnston had a dream to set up a bean to bar fine chocolate factory in Switzerland.
Then a twist of fate introduced her to someone who had the same dream except it was here in the UAE. The result: Mirzam Chocolate, a home-grown craft chocolate producer. Here the 33-year-old from New Zealand, who has lived in the UAE since she was three, tells The National how she became the chief chocolate officer at the 10-month-old company.
Have you always worked with chocolate?
I started out in journalism and after university moved into marketing, and later became a strategic marketing consultant.
So, where did the interest in chocolate come from?
It’s a lifelong obsession and what I have always wanted to do. Everywhere I travelled around the world I would visit chocolate factories and every fancy supermarket I passed I’d buy chocolate. I became obsessed with the production of fine chocolate and the stories of the people making it. When I heard about bean-to-bar chocolate and understood the picture of where cocoa was coming from, it became even more interesting.
What happened next?
My flight was booked to Switzerland to start my own bean to bar factory plan. Then my final client from my marketing consultancy asked me what I was going to do. He said I should meet a friend of his who was doing something special with chocolate here. When I finally called the contact, we got on so well; he was so dedicated to the science behind chocolate and had already come a long way in the development of Mirzam. They wanted to produce exactly the same concept as me so we decided to work together.
What was the most challenging aspect of setting up?
Recruiting the right people. There are no other bean-to-bar makers in the Middle East so all of the staff to be trained and that is an intensive process.
How many staff do you have?
We have 11 including me. On the craft chocolate scale this is quite a big team because craft chocolate is such a new concept, so these businesses and their production are generally tiny with some only making 10kg a year. One of the most important things for us is to offer staff a career plan. We wrap everything by hand but we don’t just have staff that are wrapping, they are also making the chocolate and tasting it – everything they need to be able to become a chocolate maker.
Have your taste buds changed since you joined Mirzam?
I used to like rich milk chocolate but now I can taste the chemicals and the artificial flavours. I wouldn’t go out and buy a chocolate bar now – it’s like reading your ingredients on your favourite food and finding out how much rubbish is in there. The highest number of ingredients you will ever find in our bars is five.
Have you achieved your dream then?
Yes, I have 100 per cent found the thing I love to do and I don’t know why I took so long to do it. No matter what happens with this I will always be making chocolate.