Any kid who has seen Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory has had visions of dreamy chocolate desserts that only exist in a fantasy world. Turns out they’re now available in the real world too, right outside of Chicago in Geneva’s All Chocolate Kitchen. This spot is a certified wonderland, full of giant chocolate confections to gawk at (as well as smaller ones to eat, of course). Who is the Willy Wonka behind creations like a 52-foot-long candy cane, or an all-chocolate Blackhawks player? French-born chef Alain Roby, holder of three Guinness World Records, lover of Chicago craft beer, and one of the Windy City’s sweetest chefs.
After years working for clients and studying in Paris as a master chef of pastry and sugar artistry, Roby came to Chicago and opened the All Chocolate Kitchen. For those with a fondness for chocolate – and those involved in a full-on love affair – Roby has you covered, with advice full of culinary success and Chicago love.
What do you think continues to make chocolate such a fan favorite for desserts?
Chocolate has always been, since the 16th century when it came to Europe, one of the most favorite and popular foods in the world. It is a comfort food; it is a food that makes you feel good when you eat it. When you have something that makes you feel good, it always lasts for a long time.
I find unique ways to use chocolate by experimentation. I like to use new ingredients, for instance balsamic, olive oil, sea salt, different spices from all around the world from turmeric to chili powder to curry. These ingredients make chocolate taste a totally different way than what people are used to – it’s almost like finding a new type of chocolate.
What is your favorite dish at your restaurant?
Our one-foot-tall outrageous devil slice, which serves six people. We also love the 23-foot tall chocolate tree, which is located at the epicenter of the store.
What are unique ways people can use chocolate in at-home cooking?
You can do a lot with chocolate at home, but you have to be very careful with temperature in melting the chocolate and pick a good quality to have nice results. Melt it very slowly in a double boiler, and then you can do a lot – fondue with fruit, dip cookies, dip cakes, drizzle on foods.
As for your new home, what do you love most about the city of Chicago?
I love the diversity of Chicago. It is an amazing melting pot. Different people bring different foods, and Chicago is a melting pot of flavors and ideas and concepts. You have Greektown, Chinatown, Little Italy – covering so many amazing major food groups. While Chicago is not as busy as NYC, it is as intense as any other city in the world.
I also love the scenery. Chicago is a clean and beautiful city. With the lake and the boats, I sometimes feel like I’m in the Bahamas. On the beach, you’d never think you were in the Midwest. The abundance of amazing attractions are incredible, [such as] Navy Pier, the theaters, the museums.
What is magical is that at night, Chicago completely transforms itself. The Magnificent Mile, especially during the holidays, it’s a breathtaking place. Also the river in the middle of the city is incredible.
When you’re not at the restaurant, where do you like to hang out in the city?
I love strolling down Michigan Avenue and enjoying dinner with family and friends. After long work days, I do also enjoy a nice Chicago craft beer. The Pump Room restaurant in the Public Hotel is one of my new favorites. We always go different places and try new things.
What would you tell someone visiting the Windy City for the first time?
Walk down Michigan Avenue. Start from Grant Park and go down to Water Tower. If it’s cold, do the festival of the lights. If it’s warm, spend time at the beach. You have the most amazing stores, the most amazing buildings. Mostly, don’t only look at the windows at eye level. Lean back and look up – it’s a different world once you look up. A lot of people don’t do that. (But don’t look up and walk!)
How would you describe your personal cooking style?
My style is to use the best products out there – both local and seasonal. I don’t compromise. Always use the best butter, best chocolate, best of everything for my foundation. My style is also very much about improvisation. I love to use and explore exotic and different products to combine with chocolate. Finally, my style is to make sure my desserts are homey, comfortable, and very “Americana,” with a twist of elegance.
And what advice would you offer young people looking to follow in your career path?
I think the first thing I would ask, is “Do you like your medium? Are you passionate to look around, learn, experiment?”
Second: Be ready to be patient. You start as an apprentice, you learn, you learn, you learn, and this takes years – to just learn. Then you can expect things to move a little faster. Patience in learning helps to make sure you get your foundation. This is most important.
Enjoy what you are going to do, be passionate, have fun. Passion is the blood of your success – it will take you very far. This is the reason why I think I’ve always been happy. Don’t just be there only for the check.