Raquel Choa, the woman behind three of the most successful, artisanal chocolate destinations in Cebu, namely Ralfe Gourmet, The Chocolate Chamber (TCC) and Casa de Cacao, refuses to be called a chocolatier.
“I am a tablea maker,” she graciously informs The Sunday Times Magazine at an exclusive interview this week at the VIP lounge of The Dusit Thani Manila in Makati City. All the same, there is a sense of pride in how she says these pair of words, and for very good reason too.
A tablea maker like her does not only whip up chocolates and other confectionaries as a chocolatier does, but also dries, roasts and grinds the cacao beans, thereafter molding them into those rich dark slabs that are generally more familiar to everyone else.
“To put it simply, the chocolatier sources his tableas from me,” adds the affable lady, who fondly reveals how she grew up surrounded by cacao trees in the town of Balamban in Cebu.
“I never imagined I would go into business with cacaos,” Choa shook her head, and yet she is known today as the “Chocolate Queen of Cebu.” Moreover, in the coming days she will even get the chance to serve the many wonderful ways to her tableas to world leaders, adding a literal dose of sweetness to the all important Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in the capital.
Choa’s participation in the 2015 APEC activities actually started in October in the Queen City of the South. It was then when she personally welcomed APEC ministers’ spouses at The Chocolate Chamber—her novelty restaurant serving artisanal chocolate creations and chocolate-infused food.
The tablea maker also made sure to give the dignitaries an authentic taste of Cebuano culture and heritage, personally preparing and pouring out sikwate, the Philippines very own hot chocolate drink, also known as the tsokolate batirol in Filipino.
Besides this, she was also tapped by different government agencies like the Departments of Foreign Affairs, of Tourism, and of Agriculture to supply Ralfe and The Chocolate Chamber (TCC) products as giveaways to participants of regional APEC activities.
Choosing only her best bets, she gave them boxes of Ralfe’s hand-rolled truffles that come in two varieties: the ganache sprinkled with cacao powder, and caramel topped with fermented cacao nibs; as well as tin cans of TCC’s chocolate chip cookies with dark chocolate, cacao nibs and nuts.
And again this week, Choa’s tableas will be made into hot chocolate drinks at The Manila Hotel, which serves as the official residence of two heads of state from November 16 to 20.
Asked how her involvement in the delicious side of APEC’s activities came about, the 39-year-old artisan and entrepreneur says she has former consul general Jose Maria Cariño to Madrid to thank.
“He was one of the organizers of an event called ‘The Coming of Age of Philippine Cacao’ in 2013, and I guess you can say it all started there,” Choa muses.
The Filipino envoy invited Choa to showcase her artisanal chocolates for the invited diplomats, which became such a hit that a more intimate chocolate tasting was organized for the ambassadors and their spouses. Since then, the Department of Foreign Affairs had always kept in touch with her.
Choa further shares how another highly placed fan of her chocolates, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, had gifted US President Barrack Obama with her hand-rolled Ralfe truffles during a meeting.
“As thank you, President Obama wrote a letter to the secretary. I haven’t seen the letter yet but the secretary told me that the US President loved our chocolate,” she chimes.
Excusing herself briefly from this interview to meet with prospective business partners, The Sunday Times Magazine observes a woman who takes on her venture not only with a clear vision but also with a burning passion.
Very regal in conducting her affairs, one may find it hard to believe that the fine looking “Chocolate Queen” was once a probinsyana (country girl) who had to cross seven rivers just to go to school.
“I grew up in the mountains, a very remote area, that’s why I it was that difficult to get to school,” Choa reminisces.
“My earliest memory of tablea was when I was seven years old. My grandmother would wake up every day at four in the morning to prepare sikwate, and it was our only breakfast before starting the day.”
Laughing she now admits, “Back then, it never even crossed my mind that cacao is the main ingredient of chocolates!”
What her grandmother instilled in her first and foremost about cacao was that it is food that sustained their hunger, thus a “valuable” resource. And of course, as Choa grew up, her grandmother also passed on the knowledge of making tablea from cacao beans and the traditional way of preparing sikwate.
Her real adventures with chocolate began much later after she married businessman Alfred Choa at the young age of 16. She first became a full-time housewife who “grew up” with her eight children—Michael Ray, Michelle Honey, Anthony, Jonathan, Hanna, Alfredo, Rose Angelie and John Paul—before she found time to explore the many possibilities of her native Balamban’s natural treasures.
Sweet to success
It was an Argentinean who wanted to go into business with Choa that made her realize the possibilities with the ever-important cacao of her childhood.
“This friend asked me, ‘What do you have here in the Philippines that you can export to Argentina?’ I had a very hard time answering her question, especially when she started bragging that they had good wine, cheese, meat and olive oil in her country.”
Thankfully, Choa had a eureka moment, and realized the answer was her grandmother’s traditional tablea.
“Even if that first brainstorming didn’t work out because I didn’t really know anything about putting up a business, it still led me to do something with my ‘hidden treasure’ and opened a ‘chocolate buffet’ in the garage of our former house,” Choa relates.
There she prepared not only the sikwate for her neighborhood customers but also savory dishes like pizza and pasta, all infused with chocolate.
Asked how she knew how to concoct such unique offerings, Choa replies with a smile, “I am a mother of eight. So for me, I needed to cook and be in the kitchen all the time.”
She simply coupled her extensive “kitchen experience” with “discovery and experimentation” and out came the menus and items she now serves and packages across her three chocolate businesses.
“It wasn’t easy,” she adds. “I went on to producing hundreds of kilos of tablea to offer as an ingredient to hotels in Cebu with the help of my partner Edu Pantino, who is officially my chocolate technician.”
As she remained steadfast in her goal of uplifting the local tablea by patiently explaining its world-class quality to anyone who would listen, all her hard work paid off as one hotel after another—including foreign hotel chains—started ordering her tablea, as well as carrying the range of Ralfe Artisanal Chocolates.
Today, Choa’s goods are also available in several Metro Manila hotels; her latest deal closed with the yet to open Shangri-La Plaza in Bonifacio Global City, whose Food & Beverage department has asked her to create chocolates exclusive to the hotel.
Meanwhile, back in Cebu, which remains as the headquarters of Ralfe Gourmet, Casa de Cacao and TCC, Choa’s ventures are now considered tourists attractions as well. Visitors usually go to the casa first, which is a chocolate museum that provides interesting information on the local chocolate industry; after which they move on to either TCC to savor what many describe as an “unforgettable culinary experience.”
Exporting the experience
With the international recognition local tablea is getting these days, Choa has high hopes for the chocolate industry in the Philippines more than ever. As she indicates, the country is still not identified as a major cacao grower in the world market, even with its abundance in so many parts across the nation.
“Did you know that we were the first country in Asia to grow cacao trees after receiving it from the Spaniards in 1670?” Choa further points out.
Her advocacy also pushed Choa to co-found the Cacao de Filipinas Association, a non-governmental organization, which works to support the livelihood of cacao farmers across the Philippines.
“I am a dreamer,” admits the 39-year-old mover. “I dream of making it known around the world that we Filipinos make excellent chocolate. And if I want to make my dream real, I need to get out of Cebu and bring our chocolate to the global market.”
Thus, her next venture is to export TCC products in select locations outside the Philippines, which she knows will value the traditions of tablea-making. Already, she is in with talks with the Consul General of Guam for the possibility of setting up shop over there.
“Through the help of the Consul General, I will meet with interested investors in December, and by March next year, I will also give a talk as part of their chocolate festival,” Choa shares.
“I decided that if I am to export products made from our cacao, I don’t just want to export a box of chocolate, but the whole Chocolate Chamber experience that carries the ‘Cacao de Filipinas’ icon.”
And of course, the Chocolate Queen of Cebu is optimistic that the local cacao’s moments in the 2015 APEC Summit in the Philippines will also yield more opportunities for this rich and delicious resource.
“All we Filipinos need to do is to realize the treasures we have to make it somewhere,” Raquel Choa imparts. “I found my treasure and I’ll never let it go.”