Lola Valerius: "If I look far ahead, I must admit that I would like to export one day. I've always loved to travel. (Photo: Andrés Lejona/Maison Moderne)

Lola Valerius: "If I look far ahead, I must admit that I would like to export one day. I've always loved to travel. (Photo: Andrés Lejona/Maison Moderne)

With a degree in architecture, Lola Valerius still discovered a taste for chocolate. The thirty-year-old has opened her own chocolate store in Esch-sur-Alzette and intends to impose her brand in an area dominated by foreign brands and standard products thanks to original sweets.

Your first shop opened in Esch-sur-Alzette last March. The opening was well attended and commented on. How do you explain such a great response from a "novice"?

It is simply because we are creating a product that I think is new in Luxembourg. With very aesthetic chocolates. I was also lucky enough to have built up a real network on social media. And that was long before the opening of this shop. In particular via Instagram. An audience that followed me and gave momentum to the announcement of the shop opening. And then we opened our doors at Easter time. And our colourful eggs were the talk of the town. Everyone wanted to see them and taste them.

Your name may have helped a little too, no? Your father, Gérard, is a well-known figure in Luxembourg.

“I don't really think so. Before, people asked me if I was his daughter. Nowadays, people ask him if he is my father [laughs]. Our clientele at the shop is quite young. And my generation doesn't really have the same references. Especially since my father no longer owns the bars and discos that made him famous. He followed his passion for art and now has his own gallery.

Your background is a bit unusual. You have a degree in architecture and you had not set out for a career in chocolate making.

"That's true. And I think that's at least partly due to the Luxembourg education system. The path is often already laid out for you, with high school pushing you towards university. There are no other choices really. It's a motorway with no exit.

In my case, when I asked myself what I wanted to do after my studies, it quickly became clear that I wanted to do something creative. And I decided to study architecture. I finished my bachelor's degree because I like to follow things through, but I already knew during my studies that I wouldn't be going down that road. I'm not made to sit in front of a computer all day. So I questioned myself, asking myself what I really wanted to do. I thought about graphic design or product design. But I ended up in pastry-making.

By chance?

"While at university in Vienna, I started making cakes for my classmates. I am a person who likes to do things well. So I got some books, watched some tutorials, looked around and it all became very addictive. So, after a while, I said to myself: 'Why not go down that road? But as I wanted to be sure, in order to test myself and see if I had a future, at the end of my studies, I took the option of doing an internship. Coming from Esch, I turned to Gérard Cayotte, our best pastry chef, in my opinion. We know each other well, with my grandparents having run a shop next to his. Unfortunately, he didn't have any space. But he put me in touch with the main pastry chef at Steffen's catering company.

I started looking for a place and the covid-19 crisis came up! So I set up a small lab in my grandparents' kitchen instead. And I made chocolate. A lot of chocolate!
Lola Valerius

Lola ValeriusBusiness Owner & Chocolatier

And did you really enjoy the experience?

"Yes, except for the fact that I had to get up very early. Or rather having to go to bed very early. One of the advantages of running a chocolate shop today is that no one asks you to be open at 7am [laughs]. I then worked for a few months for the Schumacher pastry group (now Hoffmann, after the merger with the group bearing the same name, editor's note).

Without a diploma? Just with the background you had acquired from books and the internet?

"Yes. When I introduced myself, we decided that we would try this way. And that if they weren't happy with me, I would leave. But they were very happy. So much so that they didn't want to let me go. So apparently I had a good enough basis.

But I really wanted to get a diploma. I needed that piece of paper that said I was fit to bake. So I went to Paris to take the CAP training. In fact, it was a slightly accelerated version. It only lasted six months, but the exam was the same as the classical one.

Once you had your diploma, did you think about opening your own pastry shop?

"No, it was still too early. I wanted to gain more experience. I sent applications all over the world: South Africa, Australia and finally I went to Taiwan to work for a French chef for four months. And when I got back, I had only one idea: to get a job in France. So I was hired in Paris by Patrick Roger, one of the greatest chocolate makers in the world. But the experience didn't last long...

Why didn't it last long?

"Because it was far from what I imagined. I had in mind an 'artisanal' job, and I found myself in front of what looked like a factory to me. I have nothing to say about the quality of the chocolate produced, it is really excellent! But when you work there, your job is to load and unload machines, not to work the chocolate yourself. And that's what I was interested in. In short, it wasn't the job of a chocolate maker that I dreamed of. I don't know if you can imagine, but we produced between four and five tons of chocolate in four days, with a team of 16 people. I didn't mind as long as I felt I was learning something. But this was not the case...

And if there's been a silver lining to this health crisis for me, it's that the world's leading pastry chefs and chocolatiers have started giving online master classes.
Lola Valerius

Lola ValeriusBusiness Owner & Chocolatier

And had the time come to open your own establishment...

"Yes. I started looking for a place and... the Covid-19 crisis came up! So I set up a small lab in my grandparents' kitchen instead. And I made chocolate. A lot of chocolate! Practically day and night. Just so I wouldn't have to think about the pandemic that was affecting us. This allowed me to develop, to discover certain techniques. And if there was, for me, a good side to this health crisis, it's that the greatest pastry chefs around the world have started to give online master classes. Instead of doing them in person at their homes, they opened up via the internet. That was pretty awesome for me.

At what point did you decide you wanted to specialise in chocolate?

"In pastry, I didn't work much with chocolate. I don't even have a specific chocolate diploma. So it's really a passion that developed on the side, when I was at home. And it won me over little by little, until I said to myself: this is what I want to do! And not to open a pastry shop. Chocolate is really a very interesting material to work with.

And then I noticed that there was a lack in our country in this sector. Professionals generally do everything: bread, pastries, cakes, even a catering service... However, there are few shops that are really specialised in one area. In my opinion, there is a market to conquer in the area of chocolate.

You mentioned the lack of chocolate makers in Luxembourg, a market that has yet to be conquered. How do you explain this, when our Belgian and French neighbours are known for their "pralines" or "bonbons"?

"Quite simply because there is no chocolate maker training in Luxembourg. You can prepare for a DAP (Diplôme d'aptitude professionnelle, editor's note) in baking and pastry-making. This lasts three years, and you have a few courses dealing with the basics of chocolate scattered here and there. But nothing very specialised. If you want to improve your skills, you have to learn everything yourself, as I did, or else opt for studies abroad.

In our shop, you can see that people sometimes come from far away. They say so almost every time they walk through the door.
Lola Valerius

Lola ValeriusBusiness Owner & Chocolatier

And you feel that the market is important?

"Yes, the Luxembourg population loves chocolate. They usually buy it in lower quality, because they can't find anything better. It's not surprising to see foreign chocolate makers opening shops or stands here, like the Belgian Pierre Marcolini at the Cloche d'Or or at Smets in Strassen, for example. In my opinion, the potential is quite enormous. In our shop, we notice that people sometimes come from far away. They say so almost every time they walk through the door. There is also a desire to buy as much as possible locally. To buy Luxembourgish, if possible.

Do you have the feeling that you are on a market without any real competitors?

"As I said, we don't really make the same product as the others. And then, the big names in pastry have offered me their help more than anything else. This is the case with the Oberweis brothers, for example, but also with Gérard Cayotte, whom I see every day. And I can go to him for advice without worrying. He told me that he was happy to see me open my own shop, despite the competition it might cause him. That made me proud.

And this passion for chocolate, where does it come from?

"I don't know... We didn't eat much of it at home when I was little. And I think the first time someone put it in my mouth, when I was four, I said I didn't like it [laughs]. I have to tell you that I still don't eat a lot of them. What I love most is the ‘raw chocolate’ and everything that can be done with it.

A ingredient that also allows you to indulge another of your passions, that of graphics...

"That's true. But it's not just the aesthetics that count for me. I also wanted to innovate in terms of tastes and textures. So, of course, my sweets contain salted butter caramel, praline... because I don't want to merge everything either. But I have developed many other associations that came to mind. I even have a whole Excel spreadsheet that includes these.

Lola Valerius: "Colour is important for the eyes. So is the packaging. I don't understand why some people go to such lengths to create beautiful things and then pile them on top of each other in a box. It's a bit beyond me..." Andrés Lejona/Maison Moderne

Lola Valerius: "Colour is important for the eyes. So is the packaging. I don't understand why some people go to such lengths to create beautiful things and then pile them on top of each other in a box. It's a bit beyond me..." Andrés Lejona/Maison Moderne

Sometimes it all starts with a piece of fruit I see at the market, and then I ask myself what I could merge it with. Then I ask myself if it should be made into a ganache or a jelly... Taking care to respect the regional aspect but also the chronology of the seasons. All our fruit comes from Am Gaertchen, an association based near Diekirch that grows organically. And we create according to what they have harvested. So there is no question of offering strawberries in the middle of December. And with autumn on the horizon, we're going to change our collection. Our 'classics', i.e. the sweets that work best, will remain on the menu, but the rest will change.

Visually, your sweets are quite spectacular, with bright colour combinations that are rare in chocolate. How did this concept come about?

"I discovered this type of candy on Instagram. It intrigued me a bit and made me do some research. It's still a rare concept in Europe, but more developed on the American and Australian continents. It's not that easy to replicate... colour is important for the eyes, packaging too. I don't understand why some people go out of their way to create pretty things and then pile them on top of each other in a box. That's why I chose a box where each sweet can be looked at, neatly arranged, without touching the others. It has to be like a jewel in its box. And that the tasting should be felt as an exceptional moment. It must be an explosion in the mouth.

Each of your sweets must therefore be a surprise for the eyes as well as for the palate...

"That's exactly it! In fact, when we opened our shop, we only sold pre-composed boxes. So that people can taste all our products. Otherwise, people only take what they know and like. But I wanted them to give me a chance to introduce them to new flavours. Some of them came back to thank us. They had appreciated that we took them to worlds that were unknown to them. And that's really a great reward.

I still have thousands of ideas in my head but, with just the two of us in the lab that everyone can see at the back of the shop, we don't have enough hands to produce them...
Lola Valerius

Lola ValeriusBusiness Owner & Chocolatier

Do you produce your own chocolate?

"I buy from the French company Valrhona. The quality/price ratio is really excellent. Making your own chocolate is different from being a chocolatier. In fact, in this profession, we don't talk about 'chocolatier' but 'couverturier'. The latter produces the chocolate, which is used by the chocolatiers for their creations. Some do both. This is the case, for example, of the Oberweis company in Luxembourg. But producing chocolate is extremely expensive, both in terms of the beans that have to be imported and the equipment required for production. Not to mention the space needed to store all this. It's a really huge investment. All this for, in the end, a difference that few people really manage to notice.

What are your ambitions?

"First of all, to finish our little tasting room which is to be set up in our shop. So that people can come and sit down with us, drink a hot chocolate and eat some sweets.

After that, I want to continue to develop our range. I still have thousands of ideas in my head, but the two of us in the lab that everyone can see at the back of the shop don't have enough hands to produce them...

But it works well enough for you to think about moving on?

"Yes, in fact, I'm going to hire an extra person in the autumn. Our products are sold at the Luxembourg House, but I also have in mind the idea of setting up a second shop, this time in Luxembourg City.

Not as big as the one in Esch. A 30m2 would be enough for me. We're looking at it, but it's very expensive. We're talking about  €20,000 a month in rent in the Grand-Rue... But before that, I'll have to develop my network a bit more. And, if I look far ahead, I must admit that I would like to export one day. I've always loved travelling so much.

Do you have an example in mind of a great chocolate maker who exports that you would like to follow?

"No. Some have become too big and the quality of their products can suffer. Recently, for example, I was disappointed by what I ate from Pierre Marcolini. I don't want to become a Patrick Roger or a Pierre Marcolini. As I said, their production is too big. The artisanal side, the work with the hands, has disappeared. And I would miss that. I don't want everything to become automated, with machines everywhere. Even if what Patrick Roger does is still the best quality I've ever tasted. The goal of my career is not to become the biggest. Not in terms of production or volume, in any case.

We know that pastry and chocolate making are fields where international competitions are numerous and increasingly publicised. Are you interested in trying this out for yourself?

"For the moment, I'm not really thinking about it. I don't have the time. I have to work on production, as we work in a small team. But in the future, I would be tempted to do so. If we develop well enough, why not, in the future, free up some time to try some competitions...

I have just been asked to join the Sucrés du Lux, a group of pastry and chocolate makers from Luxembourg and the greater region. They meet a few times a year, and each one proposes a buffet on a given theme. I'm looking forward to it. It's the kind of thing that gets me quite excited. It's the first time I'm going to be able to measure myself against others..."

This article  in Paperjam. It has been translated and edited for Delano.