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Sweet genius: We meet master chocolate maker Jean-Philippe Darcis

06:01 24/11/2018

The world’s elite pastry chefs descended on Spa to cook up a storm of desserts for 800 privileged guests earlier this year. For the flagship event of the week-long Relais Desserts seminar, some 75 chefs served up a feast of 7,000 sweet treats. The centrepiece was a banquet table overflowing with artistic creations, from glistening chocolate work and mountains of choux buns and macaroons to spun sugar and fruit confections.

Each year, the worldwide Relais Desserts collective gathers its 80 members – an elite group of pastry chefs from France, Belgium, Japan, Australia and Italy – to share their passion and experience. With Verviers-based artisan Jean-Philippe Darcis hosting this year’s get-together, it was an opportunity to showcase the talent and skills of local pastry chefs – from DelRey, Ducobu and Wittamer – as well as the attractions of Wallonia itself.

Darcis and his team organised visits to numerous sites, including the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit, Waterloo, the town of Verviers and his own chocolate workshop. The visitors also had a chance to discover some local specialities and meet the people behind the produce. “They really had a superb image of Wallonia; as much in its welcome and its infrastructure as its quality of life,” says Darcis.

If the Relais Desserts is less known in Belgium than in its home country, France, Walloon pastry chefs need little promotion abroad. “Wallonia has always had a high standard in patisserie,” says Darcis. “We are a close neighbour of France, the top patisserie country in the world, so we have regular contact with its chefs and find a lot of inspiration there.”

As a chef and entrepreneur, Darcis may be accustomed to pressure, but how did he find the experience of receiving such an illustrious group of guests? “It’s indescribable; a lot of pride, honour, stress and friendship. There was enormous pressure for everything to be perfect, but everything ran perfectly.”

Darcis, an ambassador for Belgian chocolate and pioneer of macaroon production in the country, opened his first establishment in 1996 at the age of 25. In 2016, he opened an atelier in Verviers, a temple to chocolate. While travelling the world to discover new flavours and the highest quality cocoa beans, his close work with farmers has led to him manufacturing his own chocolate blend.

Taking part in competitions abroad has been important to him, too. “I have participated in a lot, but it’s difficult now to organise my time,” he says. “It’s chefs from my atelier who take part now and it’s always a positive experience. It helps open up the mind, meet other people sharing the same passion, exchange the latest innovations, perfect techniques and promote the Darcis brand abroad.”

As for the future, the priority is consolidating the business in Belgium – which employs 50 people – and continuing to increase exports by developing new markets and additional outlets. “In autumn, we will be happy to finally inaugurate a new boutique in Taiwan,” he says. Darcis also runs an academy in Verviers, providing demonstrations and courses for groups of at least eight people, at beginner or intermediate level.

This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine

Written by Sarah Crew