Not for the Masses – Oriol Balaguer



His chocolate creations are flavored with saffron, truffles, even olive oil, and are legendary both in taste and appearance. Fragilely sculptured compositions that melt in your mouth and electrify your taste buds. After being employed as Chef Patissier at the renowned elBulli for several years, where he was in charge of creating the dessert selection, in 2002, Oriol Balaguer decided to start working for himself. Since that time he has been cultivating and improving his own brand continuously. And as daring as Balaguer is when creating yet another gustatory sensation, the basic ingredients of his brand's success have remained the same throughout: curiosity, passion and painstaking care.

Oriol Balaguer opens the door to his Chocolate and Confectionary Studio on Carrer de Mateu Benet in Barcelona. Dressed in grey sneakers, jeans and a standard white cook's jacket, he wears a pair of glasses that make his brown, good-natured eyes, appear almost too large for his face. Upon entering the shop, a delicious rich waft of warm chocolate immediately rises in greeting. Oriol looks at us expectantly. "Do you smell that?" he asks and seems to scoop up the heavy aroma with his hands as if to get a better whiff. Then he smiles and says, "Actually, I don't smell it anymore."

I would have to leave the studio for at least two weeks to be able to smell the scent of chocolate again. That's the price one pays!

Balaguer has another shop in Barcelona on the Plaça Sant Gregori Taumaturg. A refined boutique for sales purposes only, where his confectionary is displayed like precious jewelry. However, clients who do not deal with chocolate every day enjoy coming to the premises on Carrer de Mateu Benet where they can soak in the scent along with the artisanal atmosphere. "And because you can look into the workshop," Balaguer says and points toward the back where a few employees can be observed plying their trade. The kitchen behind the shop looks extremely functional with its sheet metal surfaces, big metal pots, heavy-duty kitchen appliances and enormous ladles. One appliance features two sizeable faucets from which liters and liters of white and dark chocolate flow. Yet, any Willy Wonka effect is canceled out by the no-nonsense, industrial environment. The business-like atmosphere, however, changes the very instant you put one of Balaguer’s chocolate creations in your mouth – and your taste buds are taken on a roller-coaster ride. The creation "Mazcleta" – which translates to "firework" – is especially impressive. It delivers what the name suggests: chocolate fireworks that literally make your head sizzle. The sensation brings to mind "Pop Rocks," which anyone who grew up in the 1980s will remember: candy crystals that started popping and sizzling the instant you put them into your mouth. Balaguer has now created the more sophisticated version for grown-ups, and "Mazcleta" is one of his best-selling creations. The list of ingredients includes Yuku, a citrus fruit, Earl Grey extracts and even Fleur de Sel, though not because the combination of sweet and salty is intended to surprise, but "because salt opens up the taste buds."

The more extraordinary and creative a composition is the smaller the target group.

Oriol Balaguer's name has been a brand for some time now, so he can afford to design delicacies for exclusive target groups. No matter what he creates, it always meets with acclaim. Both the time he spent as part of the legendary team that surrounded Ferran Adrià in elBulli, and the awards that he regularly wins for his dessert creations have contributed to this development. In 2001, Balaguer's submission "Chocolate in eight textures" was voted “best dessert in the world”. And French fashion label "Commes des Garçons" even asked him to reinterpret one of their perfumes as a confection. So it comes as no surprise that Balaguer cannot remember a time when he was not passionate about his métier.

I don't remember ever wanting to do anything else. Becoming a pastry chef has probably always been my destiny.

Growing up as the son of a pastry chef, his career choice may not come as an entire surprise – and his brother also chose the same profession. "Our parents were separated," Balaguer relates. "And with my father, the smells of baking that I loved so much as a child disappeared from our house." During his teens, Oriol enjoyed traveling and did so frequently. However, instead of visiting tourist spots or checking out the girls in other cities, he would look for bakeries and pastry shops. His constant companion: a small notebook. "A habit that I have kept until today," says Oriol while pointing to a little notebook on top of a pile of magazines.

What I love most about my profession is the freedom to experiment and be creative every single day.

Truth be told, his office does not appear to be a place where Balaguer spends a lot of time. Small, square and grey with a bright overhead neon light, it contains a bookshelf full of cookbooks, a desk, a computer, one chair and a few futuristic pictures on the walls. These reveal only on second, or even third glance that they are actually images of his boutiques located in Madrid, Tokyo and other cities around the world. When Balaguer started looking around for an architect to design his boutiques, his first question was always whether they had any previous working experience with pastry shops. If an applicant's answer was "No," they passed on to the next round. "Normal people hang up pictures of their family in their office; with me it's pictures of my shops," Balaguer says with a self-deprecating smile. But, this knowing business persona doesn’t really suit him. And, apparently aware of this, Oriol rolls his chair closer to his computer to proudly show us the photograph he uses as a desktop image. "Look, these are my two sons." A family man at heart, Balaguer's sons often come and visit him at work, just as he and his brother used to visit their father in the bakery. Possibly the artisanal skills will be handed down yet another generation. Although, as Oriol confesses, his older son's eating habits worry him. While the younger one is happy to try anything he can get his hands on, the older boy really only likes one thing: French fries.

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