Ning didn’t stumble upon chocolate by chance but through a sense of curiosity that has driven him deep into the chocolate-making business for close to a decade. From something that started in a home kitchen, the 41-year-old Ning has dedicated more than just time but an unwavering passion and respect to chocolate over the years. As the founder of Chocolate Concierge, Ning has tremendously influenced the F&B scene in the country by posing one question — how much do you care about Malaysian chocolate?
Ning, whose full name is Ong Ning-Geng, has always been curious about flavours and origins. It was not just about chocolate, but the origins of coffee, wine and fruits like durian. Chocolate is also something that he believes is highly universal, and a great memento for anyone. When he came back to Malaysia from the States, where he majored in physics and computer science, he wanted to do something that utilises one ingredient and has the potential, but not yet been discovered.
“I thought chocolate had the prospects and is so universally loved. We can grow it so successfully here yet we don’t think of its full potential as an artisanal produce — we look outwards to imported chocolate instead, even from countries that don’t grow cocoa,” he opines.
Ning admits that homegrown cocoa has not been given enough credit as the general public has the impression or mindset that imported products are more superior than local ones. But when respect, craftsmanship and care are put into the equation, local produce like chocolate will rise to the occasion in its own rights.
Caring from the Grassroots
Nespresso’s latest “Made with Care” campaign explores how caring for farmers and the environment results in high-quality coffee and can be a catalyst for positive change exponentially — if care is instilled in every detail. This ethos is embedded through the brand’s value chain that is designed to ensure the finest quality while improving the livelihoods of farmers and protecting the environment, apparent in its commitment to reviving endangered coffees and communities with the Reviving Origins program. This same sense of care lies behind Nespresso’s commitment to make every cup of Nespresso coffee carbon neutral by 2022.
Care runs deep at Nespresso, and Ning shares similar sentiments. “In comparison, we are still very small but the fact that we are in the topic of wanting to do well for the growers, the community and the environment, then tie in the experience of the chocolate or coffee — what we bring to the table — I think, personally, brings value to the consumers, both chocolate and coffee lovers alike. It requires a lot of commitment and for a small-batch chocolate maker like me, our footprint is relatively smaller but the intention is very commendable.”
It is the shared passion for sustainability and welfare of the farmers that the two have in common— in this case, the orang Asli community that Ning accredited much of his knowledge to. The collective effort of two parties, sealed with the notions of respect, passion and care, that brings forth value to the experience that consumers like us enjoy today — whether it is a piece of chocolate or a cup of coffee.
Understanding the Way of Cocoa
“You want to look at not just how to make good chocolate but also good for the environment and the community by touching the lives of the growers of cocoa,” Ning exclaims.
He describes his personality to be inquisitive as he dives deep into things that he finds intriguing. “When I was greatly interested in wine, I signed up for a sommelier course to understand wine better and learned what makes wine the way it does — it’s through the varietal, farm management, soil nutrition and climate. All of these form the terroir,” Ning beams in excitement.
He finds common grounds. “Winemaking is exactly like making chocolate.” And so, he transferred the science of viticulture and what he has learned into chocolate making, which in essence, involves fermentation, drying, roasting, refining and tempering.
The self-proclaimed control freak also bought a farm to control the fermentation of the cocoa, and began working with the orang Asli community — starting with the Temuan, then the Semai and now the Temiar, which he aptly names some of his single-origin chocolates after.
“When we work with the orang Asli community and ferment the cocoa that is grown naturally around the village area, we also ensure that the transaction are not exploitive — we offer an amount that is way above the market price. These amount are paid mostly to women, and we know that the money goes to improving the lives of the orang Asli families. Currently, we are working with over 200 individuals and supporting over 100 households within the orang Asli community,” he shares, adding on to the common values of Nespresso who also put the livelihood of its coffee farmers first above all.
Having paid more than four times the minimum price of the beans might sound absurd to many — and he doesn’t have to do that — but Ning believes this is a long road to commitment. “If we want to show our commitment wholeheartedly, think long term. Give a fair amount and take on some risks even before the chocolates are even made or sold. We need to first take care of the community and the environment — these take precedence.”
Caring for Sustainability
In pursuit of sustainability, Ning hard-headedly believes that it cannot be used as a mouthpiece. He explains: “Many people want to be sustainable but it takes backbone to truly follow through and a lot of them have no idea what it takes to really commit to sustainability. When it’s no longer convenient, that where the turning point is. When things are so easy, why take the extra mile? And that’s where the word ‘care’ comes in.”
Environmentally, all of Chocolate Concierge’s chocolate bars are plastic free — it is a risk of exposing the chocolate to moisture and air, but the team has overcome it by ensuring strict SOPs on how the chocolates are stored and transported. From farm to the consumer, everything is carried out without using plastic. With Dewakan, Ning takes it up a notch by using cocoa leaves as packaging.
At the farm, Ning has also introduced indigenous species of trees that are not related to cocoa and other cash crops to increase the biodiversity of the land, which includes supporting insect life, mammals and birds.
“Like coffee, there are many processes in making chocolate, from growing a tree to putting together a bar of chocolate. A lot of blindspots that the consumer may not be aware exist but as someone who makes it and who is in the craft, we are fully aware. For me, care is expressed when even in the blind spots, you don’t cut any corners,” he addresses his notion on care before throwing another rhetoric question.
“For me to grow more cocoa in the land, shouldn’t I be planting more trees?”
While a consumer may be unfazed, Ning expresses his care with a conscious decision to produce less cocoa by not just having a mono-crop or duo-crop, but planting other non-cocoa trees to take care of the biodiversity of the environment. In his words, that is the commitment he pledges to the community and the surrounding to ensure sustainability in all aspects.
Ning also remembers in the early days when he spent a week living with the orang Asli community to understand their way of life and how they tend to the cocoa trees. Over the years, he has forged a strong sense of trust and support from the orang Asli community despite the many curveballs he has endured to have a better understanding of growing cocoa. Close to ten years into the business, Ning still grows cocoa in its most naturalistic way together with other trees and the cocoa that comes out from this environment are very different in taste and quality.
“In 2019, we reached the ratio of 1:1 that means one cocoa tree to one non-cocoa tree, with over 1,000 trees grown. And I’m so glad we’ve met this objective,” he prides.
The experience has given him a sharper perspective into the making of his chocolates. This journey is years in the making, and it has not been easy as Ning puts it: “The journey has taught me to be humble, because at any point when I think I’ve known enough, something will come along to remind me that my work is not yet complete. I’m still learning as I go and adapting to the change.”
Journey of Chocolate
In retrospect, it has taken Ning years to make people understand the value of artisanal chocolates, especially the ones that are fully grown and made in Malaysia. He sees himself as a modern chocolate maker — one who wants to present the fullest expression of the bean, without modifying its natural qualities. It is a very puristic approach to chocolate making, giving full respect to its truest form, taste and profile of the original bean.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Ning interjects. “Making chocolate is easy, but what’s hard is how you educate and engage with the audience, and run a successful business.”
Very early on, he knew that he had to engage with the professionals. He reached out to restaurateurs, hoteliers, bartenders, baristas, chefs, pastry chefs and key players in the F&B industry — through them, they have the multiplying effect. His only intention was to let them taste the chocolate.
“Chef Darren Teoh from Dewakan, who tasted my chocolate was the first one to back me up. And from there, we grow to other buy-ins from barista champions, and other chefs including Darren Chin (DC Restaurant & BREF), Raymond Tham (Skillet@163 & Beta KL) and Masashi Horiuchi (Entier French Dining). From there, it started to gain momentum but it was a time when using local produce wasn’t sexy yet,” Ning recalls.
At that time, nobody could tell him why Malaysia cocoa beans are of low quality — mostly expressed it as sour. “But it’s the same as Madagascar chocolate that is normally regarded as fruity — so acidity is not a problem,” Ning iterates.
Similarly at Nespresso, quality doesn’t happen by chance but results from conscious choices and the great care taken by the company throughout its global operations. In the same vein, Ning’s journey to up the ante of Malaysian chocolate is one that truly backbones the results that we see today — proudly homegrown artisanal chocolate that could rival some of the best in the world. It is through the conscious choices and care that enable Ning and his team to make a difference in his craft as a grower, a chocolate maker, and a chocolatier.
New to Nespresso? Start enjoying the myriad flavours in the world of Nespresso by getting yourself on the Machine Subscription programme with a monthly commitment, which will be turned into Nespresso credits that can be used on all products. To find out more about the Nespresso’s Master Origins range, including coffee recipes and accessories, visit www.nespresso.com.
Interview & Creative Direction MARTIN TEO | Photography MICKY WONG NEW STORYBOARDS | Grooming ERANTHE LOO | Styling NIGEL LEE