"People eat chocolate to bring back their childhood"

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija) When Daniel Stubbe started his first job at a pastry shop in Germany and put on his apron for the first time, he thought to himself: “This feels like home!” Fast-forward 23 years, and we meet Daniel in his store at 653 Dupont Street, Toronto, to hear more about his business, his life, and his plans for the future. One thing is clear right from the start of our conversation: There are worse things than interviewing someone with the smell of chocolate in your nose. 

Daniel came to Canada in 1993 at the age of twenty one. While he grew up with his mother in the little town of Ibbenbüren near the university city Münster, his father Heinrich had already immigrated to Canada in the eighties. Although the Stubbe family has a long-held tradition of bakers and pastry-makers, Daniel’s first impulse after finishing high school was to go to university and study architecture. But fate took a different turn when Daniel decided to do an apprenticeship as a Confectioner. Cue the pastry shop and the apron – and a young man had found his calling.

Daniel, you came to Canada to follow into your Dad’s footsteps, but how did you end up here permanently?

My dad was already in Canada five years prior to my arrival. I thought to myself: “Let’s check what daddy is up to over there.” I had initially planned to stay for just one year or so, but thanks to my dad I obtained my permanent resident status upfront at arrival. And now I am still here – the sixth generation of Stubbe bakers and chocolatiers.

So you love it here?

Yeah, of course. For a brief time, I worked with my dad. We have another chocolate shop in Ottawa. And once I was 23, my dad asked me: “How about getting your own store?” Of course I was willing to do that.

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija)

How come you don’t sell bread?

First of all, you have to get up way too early. I don’t want to wake up at 4 a.m. to bake the bread and then spend the afternoon working on the chocolate. And also, here in Canada I have the possibility to choose my business model more freely. In Germany, it always lacks a little creativity. When I came to Canada first, I thought “I’m going to show them how it’s done!” – I fell flat on my face: successful businesses were already running. I didn’t invent anything new.

Still, there aren’t many chocolatiers in Toronto, so your business was sort of a novelty.

Yes, but the chocolate culture here is very different from Germany. In Germany people buy cake by the slice in the afternoon or on the weekend to go with their coffee or for a little get-together; here no one buys cake by the slice – you buy it as a whole and bring it to a dinner party. The whole shopping experience is different. People do give chocolate as a gift as well, just like in Germany but it’s not as common.

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija)

How do the cultural differences between Canadians and Germans manifest themselves in your customers?

The Canadian customer is very open to trying new things, whereas the Germans come back for what they know. Once they’ve found something they like, they will return for exactly that. Canadians meanwhile come in to see if we have anything new and are willing to try it. When it comes to taste, I also notice that there is a newfound interest in healthier food, which also means that the demand for dark chocolate is growing.

Would you say that the rising interest in clean eating, health and conscious consumption is a new Canadian trend?

There are a lot of organic supermarkets nowadays. If they have the option, people will buy organic. For Canada, this is still a novelty. But in Germany, these things have existed for a long time: Wochenmarkt (weekly market), Biomarkt (organic market) or just getting your veggies and dairy products from a local farm.

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija)

For someone who grew up with this food, the newly found interest is quite amusing. Take kale, for example. It’s such a big hit now, isn’t it?

But that’s the thing: When people rediscover what is renowned to us Germans, they completely reinvent it. In Germany, we know maybe two dishes with kale (Grünkohl mit Wurst! – kale with sausage) – here, there is such a big variety. And I see the same thing happening in the chocolate and pastry business. Our shop is more on the conservative side when it comes to flavours but we are still inspired by the multi-cultural environment. We’ve made curry chocolate, and chocolate with chili – that’s a classic by now. And it’s a lot of fun. But then I notice that there’s something German about me after all, because I do not want to keep up with all the trends. When it comes to chocolate, I like the traditions.

What German traditions do you try to keep up? What is important to you?

First of all, I really pay attention to the people who work in my shop. It is important that they know what they’re doing and have good work experience. I also want to keep up the tradition of pastry making and promote the job of a confectioner. All the people working with me know how to do cake fillings, pralines and chocolate bars.

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija)

The cocoa bean industry is a very large aspect of chocolate making. How important is it to you and your company to know where your chocolate comes from?

Oh yes, this is a very important issue. But we also have to keep in mind that chocolatiers don’t make their own chocolate, they just work with chocolate. We buy our chocolate mass from countries like Belgium, France and Switzerland which, in turn, get their beans from all over the world. So the chocolate is being processed in Europe. This issue is also tied to the new found interest in food we’ve touched upon before. People now have a demand in organic chocolate and want to know about its origin. In our store we have a couple of organic chocolates and also chocolate that is explicitly from Tanzania, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Trinidad, Ghana etc. In the chocolate industry, the organic label is very difficult to obtain because there is a particular fungus that can destroy the cocoa beans. Farmers use fertilizers or pesticides to fight it but people desire a more untouched product. Trying to grow organic is also a huge financial risk and many farmers simply cannot afford the utilities to grow organic. And since the chocolate business is based on taste alone, people are not willing to make too many compromises.

Have you ever been interested in making your own chocolate just to see the whole process and follow your chocolate all the way from the plantation to the shelf in your shop?

Me personally, I am not too interested in that because there are already so many very good chocolates. My dad, however, has started a new project with a co-op in Columbia that works closely with the farmers who bring their chocolate beans directly to the sellers. My dad travels there periodically to check whether everything is going alright. We are using Callebout and Cocoa Barry chocolate. About five years ago, both companies started sourcing their beans directly from local farms and co-ops as opposed to buying beans on the commodities market.

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija) As a chocolatier you surely have chocolates that inspire you or that you particularly love. Are there any German sweets between your favourites?

Definitely. Milka Trauben Nuss (Milka chocolate with grapes and nuts) is my absolute favourite, and also Hanuta (a cookie waffle filled with nougat cream and hazelnuts) which, unfortunately, I cannot find anywhere in Canada. Chocolate is different than most other foods because people eat it in the hope that it will bring them back to their childhood. I would never try to copy or remake Hanuta – that would be like copying my childhood. I rather get the original.

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija Enlarge image (© Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija) The title of our interview-series is “I am German”. Can you identify with that?

It seems so basic but it implies that there is a certain stereotype that makes me fundamentally different from the other Canadians, and I don’t feel that way. However, there are times when I realize that I am German after all, especially while raising my daughter. I like a particular sense of order and work ethic. But you also grow into things. I used to pay a lot of attention to punctuality but living in Canada made me more relaxed, and I notice this whenever I go to Germany. Overall I’d say that I am more easy-going now – maybe because of my Canadian experience.

Have you ever entertained the idea of returning to Germany?

(considers this for some time) No, I guess Canada is where I belong. Especially Toronto – I have traveled within Canada but I love Toronto and its multi-cultural living the most. I get a kick out of the fact that I was able to choose where to live.

Stubbe Chocolates is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Toronto this year.

Interview with Daniel Stubbe, Chocolatier

Stubbe Chocolates, photos by: Nancy Rahija

Daniel Stubbe, Chocolatier - Picture Gallery