Tuesday 18 February 2020

In the kitchen with Ben Axford from Benjamin Chocolatier

From reaching the finals in Masterchef to running The Cheeseworks, self-taught Cheltenham chocolatier Ben Axford's is now making waves in the world of artisan chocolate with his award-winning truffles and inventive techniques.

Ben, tell SoGlos readers a little bit about yourself and where you work.

My name’s Ben Axford and I am the founder of Gloucestershire-based Benjamin Chocolatier. I’ve lived in Cheltenham for 12 years but I grew up in Brussels as my family moved over there when I was nine.

What brought you to Gloucestershire?

When I came back to the UK I ended up working in headhunting in London and although it was a lucrative business to be involved in, it wasn’t my true calling. I realised that food was and I moved up here as I spotted a cheese and wine business that was for sale. Something crazy in me told me I thought I could make it work, so in 2003 I moved to Cheltenham and bought the shop, which I branded The Cheeseworks, and owned it for six years before selling it in 2009.

What made you make the leap from cheese to chocolate?

While I owned The Cheeseworks, I entered Masterchef and got to the final and off the back of that I started a private dining service which I still run. I was making chocolates to serve with coffees and people kept asking where they could get them.

It slowly dawned on me that the thing that had been staring me in the face, having grown up in Brussels surrounded by great chocolate, was what I should have been doing all along. When I told my family I was going to start a chocolate company and become a chocolatier I felt I’d finally found what I was supposed to be doing.

Have you had formal training?

No, I’m completely self-taught in cookery and chocolate; I’ve never had a chocolate class in my life. It might have been more sensible to have taken one, but I picked up a gold and silver award at the recent Academy of Chocolate Awards, so I must be doing something right!

Can you describe the chocolate that won gold?

It was a palm blossom caramel. Palm blossom sugar is taken from the nectar of coconut palms and you cook it in big open copper vats until it crystallises into a sugar that’s butterscotch and floral in nature. As far I’m aware, I was definitely the first and might be the only one doing a caramel with that type of sugar.

Do you like to be quite inventive with your chocolates?

I do! We’ve done some pretty crazy flavours over time, not necessarily for public consumption but for private requests, and I’d like to be a lot more experimental but most people are actually quite conservative in their tastes.

We’ve done vegemite ones for an Australian wedding, and when I was slightly worse for wear one evening, I was bragging about my ability to make anything into a truffle and one of my friends suggested spam so I did it just for the bet. I wouldn’t say it was the greatest truffle I’ve ever created but they were by no means awful!

What would you say is the most popular flavour combination?

Our range of salted caramels is by far the most popular thing we’ve ever done.

Do you have a favourite flavour combination?

In terms of filled chocolates, my favourite ones that I make are the muscovado salted caramels and the passion fruit and basil ones.

Do you find it difficult to come up with new combinations?

Oh no, I’ve got a book of hundreds of flavours I’d like to do if I had my own shop as opposed to selling online. There’s just so much you can explore, from nuts to spices, fruits to herbs, alcohol to teas.

Is a Benjamin Chocolatier shop in the pipeline?

Yes, but it needs to be the right project and I need to see if I can really make it work. As a chocolatier you need to have a plan for the period from the end of May to September which is quite fallow because of the heat. Things like chocolate-making classes, particularly for hen dos, and chocolate-tasting masterclasses are good events for the summer months.

Would that be in Cheltenham?

I think so, being Cheltenham-based it would be good or possibly Bristol or Oxford, or maybe I’d do all three!

Do you eat chocolate every day?

I usually have it most days. I did read that if you eat 70 per cent plus cocoa solids more than twice a week it increases metabolism so that’s my justification!

Do you enjoy cooking with chocolate as well?

Yes, because I’ve still do the private dining, which at the moment helps out during the summer months, I create lots of desserts with chocolate but also use it in a savoury context as well.

Tell us about your new range of chocolate bars.

We launched the Wicked & Wonderful brand of chocolate bars late in 2014 and are now really starting to push on the retail side to get it stocked in delis and farm shops, and hopefully in a year’s time somewhere like Waitrose.

Was Masterchef a good springboard for your culinary career?

I think it was definitely what got me into cooking and then into chocolate. I wouldn’t say it necessarily opens any doors of its own but it is certainly something that can help open doors.

It was only the third series and didn’t have as much PR behind it as it does now. But I think Masterchef helps give you credibility, so it means that I’m not just a random chef with a catering business who will come and do cooking for you. Clients also really like to talk about the show and want to know what it’s like behind the scenes.

What made you apply?

I saw the first two series and thought I could bring something a bit different, and be inventive and creative. I never entered it with aspirations that I’d get near the final but after I got to the quarter finals I got more and more competitive. It was certainly the hardest I’ve ever pushed myself at anything.

What made it so tough?

I was running my own business at the time and for the semi finals and finals I was away for pretty much six weeks solid, and in that time we were in three different countries and a new challenge was thrown at you every day.

Do you still watch it now?

Yes, it’s interesting to see different styles of cookery and also the way that restaurant techniques have slowly percolated through the series. Water baths, sous vide machines and foam guns are now available to the general public and aren’t just chefs’ tools anymore.

What’s been your career highlight?

For somebody who is competitive, getting so close to winning Masterchef was frustrating in a way but then when I reflect on it, coming second out of all the thousands and thousands of people who applied, I can’t really complain.

Is there anyone who’s stood out as been memorable who you’ve cooked for?

During Masterchef we cooked for Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern at Number 10 Downing Street which was pretty incredible venue. We also cooked for eight Michelin-starred chefs including Raymond Blanc, Marcus Wareing, Michel Roux and Pierre Gagnaire which was nerve wracking for an amateur chef especially having to stand there and receive feedback from them. But, unless you challenge and push yourself, you’re not going to learn.

Are there any chefs you particularly admire?

There’s a chocolatier called Damien Alsop who’s not a hugely well-known but he uses a specific method and was a big inspiration for me. In terms of chefs David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage, in Cheltenham is hugely inspirational and internationally probably Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz in San Sebastien, who favours very earthy orientated cooking but in a very modern style.

Do you have any other Gloucestershire favourites?

Purslane, in Cheltenham has fantastic seafood, and also 5 North Street in Winchcombe.

And finally, what would you have for your last meal and why?

To start I’d have lobster ravioli with a really rich sauce and then I’d go for an incredible burger. Dessert is a tricky one so I’d have two. One would be a hot chocolate-based dish with ice-cream and the other one would be a peach Bellini but in dessert form with a prosecco jelly.

For more information call Benjamin Chocolatier on (01242) 253862.

By Anna McKittrick

© SoGlos
Thursday 25 June 2015

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