Rick Mast ’99 says it on the floor of his chocolate factory in Brooklyn, N.Y. He says it in casual conversation with friends. He says it in business meetings. “Make everything delicious,” he says.
And when he says it, the word actually sounds delicious. It begins with a little bite, sloshes across the palate, and then finishes on the tongue, soft and sweet.
“Make everything delicious” has become the mantra for Mast, 37, and his younger brother, Michael. They are the unofficial poster boys for what some call slow food or craft food or the real food movement. Whatever you call it, their dark chocolate is redefining good chocolate, and their company, Mast Brothers Chocolate, is helping inspire a generation of foodies to pay more for high quality, natural ingredients, and artisanal production, from farm to table—or in the Masts’ case, from bean to bar.
The Mast Brothers Chocolate factory has become a tourist destination in Williamsburg, the heart of hipster Brooklyn, and the brothers have become media darlings on the Food Network and in dozens of foodie blogs and print publications. The New York Times said the Masts, with their lush beards, “look more like prairie settlers than urban food pioneers” but are “on the cutting edge of the craft food movement.” Rick Mast has even been parodied on The Simpsons, where he offered Mr. Burns tips on handmade nuclear power.
Opera obsession paved way to culinary life
The brothers are from tiny Primghar, Iowa—the only Primghar in the world, they note—but grew up in Iowa City with an older sister and their mother, a single mom who worked as an administrative assistant. Rick Mast was both a music geek and a jock at West High, but after a severe leg injury during a soccer game his junior year, he focused more on music. He played piano, sang, and composed.
Drawn by Luther’s renowned musical tradition, Mast never considered going to college anywhere else. In Decorah, he majored in music, ran Luther’s Student Activities Council, and became obsessed—his word—with popularizing new opera for the masses. “Opera was impenetrable to most people,” Mast says. “It was something that needed to be reintroduced.” Looking back, his obsession with opera paved the way for his devotion to the craft food movement. “I love the challenge of opening someone’s eyes,” he says.
A particularly important person to him at Luther was an adjunct professor, Jon Curtis Spong, an acclaimed choirmaster, opera accompanist, and composer of sacred music. Mast never had a class with Spong but sought him out for advice, and they had long discussions about a life in music. Mast says he owes a great debt to Luther and to Spong, who died in 2006. “The most important role of a mentor,” Mast says, “is making things seem possible.”
After graduation, Mast worked with opera companies in New York and California, then took a job in a Los Angeles record store that sold vinyl records only—again reintroducing people to a past culture, this time classic rock music. For fun, he helped friends prepare ambitious dinner parties, and found that he loved cooking. He moved to New York in 2005 to attend the Institute for Culinary Education, where he could lose himself for hours practicing simple knife skills. “I liked the feel of cooking,” he says. “It’s an escape from everything.”
In class, Mast showed early signs of being a good chocolatier—the person who transforms raw chocolate into recipes or presentations. “But I realized I didn’t even know how chocolate is made,” he says, surrounded by tons of chocolate he has made at the Mast Brothers factory.
After cooking school, Mast worked as a line cook in upscale Manhattan restaurants—Gramercy Tavern, Soho House—and shared a small apartment in Brooklyn with Michael, who had moved to New York to work in financial services. They often hosted dinner parties and shared their neighbors’ microbrewed beer, pickles, cheese, and homemade delicacies. The brothers decided to make their own chocolate the rustic way—using only organic cocoa beans and cane sugar.
They found a purveyor who delivered raw cocoa beans, and hefted the 150-pound bag up to their third-floor walkup. They knew the beans had to be roasted, so they tried an air popper, a sauté pan, a coffee bean roaster, and a wok. The coffee bean roaster worked best. They used a rolling pin to crush the roasted shells, a hair dryer to dry the crushed beans, and a juicer to liquefy them. “It was so good,” Rick Mast recalls. “So complex. It actually tasted like cocoa beans, with a vinegary, winey aroma, buttery, nutty, and a slight but appealing acidic finish. It was stimulation overload.”
Sailing the beans and wrapping by hand
Rick got a job in the chocolate boutique run by master pastry chef and chocolatier Jacques “Mr. Chocolate” Torres. The brothers kept experimenting with chocolate, serving it at dinner parties and swapping it for beer. They began hand-wrapping 2.5-ounce bars and selling them at flea markets for $7. The Masts realized that chocolate could be a business.
In 2007, they quit their jobs, maxed out their credit cards, and incorporated Mast Brothers Chocolate. They traded a small raft of chocolate for a used commercial oven. They rented a former woodworking shop in nearby Greenpoint, set up a tiny kitchen, and vowed not to shave until they sold 1,000 chocolate bars. When that happened very quickly, they agreed it would be bad luck to cut off their whiskers. The brothers soon expanded to North 3rd Street in a then-moribund, now-gentrifying area of Williamsburg, where the Mast Brothers complex has become a regular stop for tour buses.
During a recent private tour, Rick Mast’s reddish beard is touching his breastbone and he is wearing his favorite wool vest from a sheep farm on Martha’s Vineyard. Walking through the showroom, he nods toward the huge bags of cocoa beans marked Dominican Republic, Peru, Madagascar, Brazil, Venezuela, and Papua New Guinea.
Inside the factory, rows of flour-grinding machines from India—they look like desktop cement mixers—heat and grind the raw beans, which are 50 percent butter once liquefied. The ground cocoa is cooled into bullion-sized, 30-pound bricks. Factory workers in white lab coats wrap the blocks in butcher paper and stack them in tall metal racks to age for 30 days. The room looks and smells like the Fort Knox of dark chocolate. After aging, the bulk chocolate is melted at 118 degrees, and ingredients such as chocolate nibs, coffee beans, chiles, and sea salt are stirred into the dark goo. The bars are molded, cooled, and hand-wrapped in colorful paper designed in-house. Each bar is numbered.
“Make everything delicious,” Rick Mast repeats. “Taste, of course. But pleasing to the eye, too. The packaging. Aroma. Mouthfeel. So much is in the mind, the idea of delicious.”
He likes to talk about the ethos of the company for its more than 50 workers. The Masts recruit and retrain experienced kitchen staff, pay above-market rates, and allow employees time at work for their own projects and ideas. In 2011 the brothers hired a 70-foot, three-masted wooden schooner, the Black Seal, to sail to the Dominican Republic and bring back 20 metric tons of raw cocoa beans. The Wall Street Journal reported it was the first cargo delivery by sailboat to New York Harbor since 1939. The Masts said the sailboat was not only environmentally friendly, but didn’t cost any more than a modern freighter delivery. “A big container ship,” Rick Mast notes, “is not delicious.”
The brothers are planning another Black Seal Caribbean trip this year. Michael Mast helped crew the boat in 2011; this time Rick is going. (When a brother is aboard, it’s a four-masted schooner.) They also sent a filmmaker on the Black Seal, and he is using space at the factory to produce a documentary.
Business sense balances all the sweet ideas
At one point during the tour, Michael Mast strolls past. Rick, a little taller and leaner, ribs his little brother about not attending Luther but instead staying close to home and going to the University of Iowa. The brothers, two and a half years apart, say Rick usually devises the creative strategies for sales—and, yes, sails—while Michael brings a practical approach to the business—the dollars and sense. “I wake up every morning with 1,000 new ideas,” Rick says. “My brother makes measured decisions. We balance each other. Sure, it can be tough sometimes working with family. But there’s no one who will fight harder with you, and no one who will fight harder for you.”
The tour ends back in the storefront showroom, where bars of Mast Brothers Chocolate are on sale. Remarkably, the bars are still priced at $7—but that’s wholesale. Upscale retailers typically charge up to $12, compared with $1 or less in supermarkets for similarly sized brand-name chocolate bars that list many more ingredients—soy, lecithin, emulsifiers, lactose, milk fat, various butters, artificial vanilla, and more. The big companies, Mast says, produce more chocolate in an afternoon than he does in a year.
The centerpiece of the showroom is a long tasting table piled high with free samples. Finally, it’s time to eat some chocolate. The first sample, made of beans from the Dominican Republic, is rich and intense—probably too bitter for supermarket
milk-chocolate fans. “Earthy,” Mast announces. He nibbles another sample made with Madagascar beans. “Hints of citrus first,” he says. “Then the finish—the big show, like wine.” He encourages the wine vocabulary to describe chocolate. “Chocolate,” Mast
declares, “is a culinary art form, not just a candy bar.”
The baby’s named for Bach
A few days later, and a few blocks away, the sun is setting softly over the Brooklyn waterfront as guests, many with beards and tattoos, gather at the Wythe Hotel. They drink cocktails and graze on appetizers labeled Cocoa-Rubbed Carpaccio, Candied Beet Puff Pastry, and Pecan Cocoa Nib Graham Crackers. Amid the cool crowd, a tall, slender, middle-aged woman’s Midwestern warmth stands. Caroline Mast is in from Iowa City to celebrate the publication of her sons’ $40 book, Mast Brothers Chocolate: A Family Cookbook. (See the wacky trailer: vimeo.com/76641274.)
“It’s all so exciting,” Mom Mast says. Now retired, she spends more time in Brooklyn since Ricky—to her he’s still Ricky—and his wife, Natasha, had their son, Sebastian (named after J. S. Bach) three years ago. Unprompted, she recalls her first hint that her eldest son had any interest in food; she was visiting Luther during Rick’s senior year, when he lived with 11 other guys in Vanaheim, just off campus. “They cooked up a feast,” she said. “I was so impressed.”
Rick Mast doesn’t remember that meal. “Vanaheim? It was probably a lot of meat,”
Staying ahead of the curve
After seven years, Mast Brothers Chocolate is no longer a startup. Rick Mast won’t talk about profits but says the business has grown 50 percent a year. The company is building a second, bigger factory in the old Brooklyn Navy Yards to meet demand beyond its current 600 retail outlets, mostly high-end specialty shops and restaurants, in eight countries.
“When we started in 2007, we were one of five or six companies in the world making chocolate this way,” Mast says. “Now there are probably 50 in the United States alone.” But he rejects the suggestion that other chocolate makers are catching up. “A lot of people are trying to do what we do, but we’re pretty far ahead of the curve,” he says. “We always want to stay on the forefront and be a couple of years ahead of everyone else. We don’t want to lose that feeling of exploration. We’re always looking for ways to make chocolate better—and make better chocolate.”
And that, he says, is what he will wake up thinking about tomorrow. He’ll have a cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate. And it will be delicious.
Timothy Harper, based at www.timharper.com, is a journalist, author, and editorial/publishing consultant.