The fantastic story behind Mirzam chocolate from Dubai
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2018)
Handmade bean-to-bar chocolate from Dubai is conquering the market not only in the Arabic region, but is entering the stage in other regions across the globe as well. The secret of Mirzam’s remarkable success not only lies in its transparent production, high-quality raw material, and elaborate craftsmanship. The company excels at creating and raising a real myth that is fuelled by beautifully designed wrappings and exciting flavours that immediately catch people’s attention and create curiosity. It’s not just simple chocolate, but artificial, tasty story-telling. Chief Chocolate Officer, Kathy Johnston, told us the story of Mirzam that is shaped by history, sustainable and natural production and, first and foremost, the people behind it.
Kathy, you have a truly unique job title. What does it take to become a Chief Chocolate Officer?
A combination of willingness to learn and complete obsession is required to keep pace with the ever-changing craft chocolate scene and the constantly innovating production process and machinery. And you must be prepared to travel a lot!
Speaking of travelling – what are the places, people or stories that inspired you the most?
There is a cocoa plantation in India where we source our single-origin India beans from, these are beans that all come from the same farm in India, and the owners and farmers are surrounded by other plantations where farmers haven’t been willing to change. I found their story so inspiring, a story of pushing the organic and sustainable farming agenda, and ultimately working super hard – which has found them much success.
You were preparing to move to Switzerland when you decided to stay in Dubai and join Mirzam. Why did you decide to cancel your initial plans? What was it that convinced you to stay in Dubai?
I was about to start my own bean-to-bar business in Switzerland when I was introduced to someone who happened to have exactly the same plans but for a factory in Dubai. I have spent 30 years in Dubai, growing up here with my family. I am very proud of how this city has developed. I was not sure whether dark chocolate would really attract many people in the region, but ultimately I was very excited to learn that people actually like it very much, and that I quickly found a group of people with the same obsession to work with. People here are very willing to change, which creates an exciting environment for new products. So it was not a difficult decision to stay here in Dubai and work together with like minds in the city I feel so connected with.
Could you please explain the concept of bean-to-bar and what makes your chocolate so special?
Making chocolate from bean to bar simply means that we are responsible for the entire production process, starting from sourcing the cocoa beans from plantations we have visited and processing these beans with our own machinery to wrapping them by hand before selling them to our customers. We do not buy any ready-made couverture, for example. I believe Mirzam’s chocolate is so special because of the genuine magic that has come from a few like minds coming together – the word ‘passion’ did not mean much to me until working here! We are following the historical stories of the Arabian dhow traders for inspiration, we are tracing the Spice Route and exploring ancient stars and sea monsters. There is so much history to explore! This is what makes our recipes and ideas so special and differentiates us from other chocolate brands.
What is the idea and story behind Mirzam’s branding? What inspired the artificial wrappings and the magical chocolate bar design?
For each of our collections, we work with a different illustrator or artist for the wrappers. I wanted the artwork to be all handmade – rather like the chocolate is – and work with regionally based artists who have some connection to the story of the project itself. So most recently, we shared our Emirati Collection – five chocolate bars inspired by very traditional local desserts. For this, we worked with Saeed Almadani, an Emirati artist and print maker, currently based in Great Britain where he is studying. His understanding of the cultural significance and nostalgia behind the recipes made the approach quite significant.
You started working at a craft chocolate factory from scratch, having a journalism and marketing background. What were the biggest challenges on this journey?
The biggest challenge was jumping in – taking the first step, the moment of big risk. Since then, it has been very hard work, but this was nothing new for me and it is totally worth it.
How did you select the chocolate bean farms for your production?
We source cocoa beans that have been grown on plantations that are located along the historical Spice Route. Basically, we search for cocoa plantations that are making exceptional efforts needed to grow fine quality cocoa anywhere between Dubai and Japan.
Natural and genuine chocolate taste is Mirzam’s signature. How long did it take to produce the optimally-tasting chocolate you decided was good enough to put on your shop shelves?
We were working on the recipes, testing and retesting our processes, finding the right machinery for nearly a year before we opened and started selling to the public. And before that, twenty years of obsession with chocolate that trained my taste buds!
Your production process is very transparent and open to the public. What is the intention behind this?
Dubai is a city with so many different nationalities, many different flavours and chocolate type preferences. Therefore, it made total sense for us using transparency as both a method of education and a tool to highlight the simplicity of the ingredients and production process to make real chocolate.
A strong regional focus is one of your main aspirations. How common or popular is the idea of regional production and business in Dubai?
This has been growing and growing in recent years. A few years ago, very little was being made locally, but today the community here is very proud of the quality that can be made in Dubai.
How can we get Mirzam chocolate here in Europe?
Outside the Arabic region, our chocolate bars are currently available in Switzerland, France and the UK from specialist craft chocolate retailers. Online orders can be placed across Europe through the team at CocoaRunners.com.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?
Certainly the people. The people I work alongside with all work exceptionally hard and it is such a reward to share Mirzam with them.
Which is your favourite chocolate?
I don’t play favourites with my children. There are a couple of chocolates we make that I am very proud of. However, I really love the one with fermented coconut from a single-origin India “micro-lot”, which indicates little, non-industrial and family-owned plantations.
New Zealander Kathy Johnston is the Chief Chocolate Officer at Mirzam Chocolate Makers in Dubai. With a previous working life spent in strategy, Kathy consulted different corporations while weighing up alternative dreams of making chocolate or being a professional alpine hiking guide.
Picture credit © Sue Johnston