We recently interviewed Léa Audet, founder of Choco de Léa, who shared her journey into chocolate making and her focus on vegan products. Léa’s trip to Ecuador in 2019 allowed her to learn more about cocoa, fine chocolate, and farmers’ realities, which have influenced her approach to products and supply chain. Accolades from the Mon entreprise competition and a MAPAQ grant have helped shape her business, while her self-taught skills in various fields allow her to manage different aspects of the company. Choco de Léa reflects Léa’s passions for chocolate, vegan pastries, and environmental and sociopolitical issues, all of which are incorporated into her products and overall vision. She continues to work towards the future growth of Choco de Léa. This enterprise is backed by Futurpreneur, the foremost non-profit organization in Canada that offers financial assistance and guidance to ambitious young entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 39.
From “Léa Chocolat” to Choco de Léa. From her early childhood, Léa was obsessed with chocolate. Originally from St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Léa has lived in England, Finland, and travelled all over the world. After several years of nomadism and university study, she was torn between the idea of continuing her graduate studies in sociology or leaving all of that behind and becoming a chocolate maker.
Luckily, she made the (reasonable) decision to embark on her chocolate adventure. She obtained her diploma in professional pastry at the ITHQ in 2016 and has specialized in vegan pastries and chocolate ever since. In the summer of 2019, Léa traveled to Ecuador to take a specialized course on cocoa and fine chocolate offered by the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. She took this opportunity to learn more about the lived realities of farmers by visiting several farms and participating in a reforestation project.
Léa’s entrepreneurial spirit also earned her accolades, winning the Mon entreprise competition hosted by the UQAM entrepreneurship centre and securing a grant from MAPAQ to represent Quebec at the New England Chocolate Festival in Boston. Her self-taught skills in accounting, design, food chemistry, and administration have also contributed to her success. With an unwavering commitment to excellence, Léa continually learns to lead and manage her team effectively and grow her business.
Choco de Léa is the amalgamation of her passions for chocolate, vegan pastries, and environmental and sociopolitical issues.
Can you share some highlights of your journey and the key factors that contributed to your decision to pursue a career in chocolate making?
In 2013, I was starting a master’s degree in sociology. However, there was something inside of me that was growing, telling me that I needed to pursue something more hands-on and concrete, instead of just studying abstract theoretical concepts. Often, we find ourselves doing what we are skilled at rather than pursuing our true passions.Spending hours in front of a computer screen every day was gradually taking a toll on me. I needed to work on something more tangible that would also have a positive impact on the world.
This may come across as clichéd, but I don’t believe I actively chose to pursue chocolate making – it was simply the only path that brought me genuine joy. When I made the decision to discontinue my master’s degree and enroll in a professional pastry course at ITHQ (Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec), I had no hesitation whatsoever – I knew it was the correct choice for me. This industry holds an abundance of opportunities for improvement and innovation.
What inspired your focus on vegan products, and how do you ensure they maintain the same quality and taste as traditional options?
At first, I started to be interested in vegan products because of the wide range of positive environmental and ethical impacts of veganism. But then I also realized how creative and precise you need to be to make a good vegan product. It became a sort of personal challenge for me to push my knowledge in food chemistry further, so I could make the best taste experiences for my customers.
To be honest, my objective is not to attain the same quality and taste as traditional non-vegan options, but rather to develop better tasting and better quality products. Why would you change your consumption habits if it’s not to upgrade them? My chocolate is not consumed only by vegan or lactose intolerant people, it’s aimed for everybody who enjoys chocolate as an experience.
Your trip to Ecuador in 2019 allowed you to learn more about cocoa and fine chocolate, as well as the lived realities of farmers. How have those experiences influenced your approach to Choco de Léa’s products and supply chain?
For me, it’s always been important to make chocolate that is ethical and environmentally friendly. But these concepts can often be seen as very abstract and meaningless. We never really have the time to analyse how we tangibly understand and practically engage with them on an everyday level. I mean, it’s hard to feel emotionally involved when you can’t put a face on slavery or when you don’t know how easy it is to destroy the primary forest in the rainforest.
My trip to Ecuador, and the course from the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute I did while I was there, changed my perspective on how I wanted to promote my products. It’s pointless to try and convince people how they should never consume products that could encourage slavery or deforestation and how transparency is the only key factor that can really certify it. The truth is, we don’t know and we don’t have time. But what if, instead of guilt shaming consumers for not knowing what the industry is hiding from them, we offer a product that tastes even better than the traditional options and we are very transparent about how it’s made and where it’s sourced? If we cut all the middle men in the chain of chocolate and we know who is growing the cacao and how, we can humanize the process and make it more tangible what the difference is between buying our product or buying industrial/traditional chocolate.
Also, I realized that when we pay farmers and coops a decent price for their cacao, they are not just having a better quality of life (which is already a very good thing in itself), they also have time to learn more about the cacao and purchase better equipment for the fermentation, drying, analyses, etc . This leads to a much better cacao, thus better chocolate.
As a winner of the Mon entreprise competition and a recipient of a MAPAQ grant, how have these accolades helped shape your business and open up opportunities for Choco de Léa?
Winning the prize from Mon entreprise, which is organised by entrepreneurial center of UQAM, was a really great motivator and confidence builder because it involved people who study and teach entrepreneurship at the university level. At that point I was just starting the business and I had some imposter syndrome. Knowing that people with a wealth of knowledge and experience about entrepreneurship had confidence in my project and me was a huge boost.
As for the MAPAQ grant, the fact that a governmental institution were not only funding me to represent Québec at the New England chocolate festival but were also providing me with a whole range of additional support was a great sign that my business was developing a good level of national and international recognition.
With your self-taught skills in accounting, design, food chemistry, and administration, how do you manage the different aspects of your business while ensuring the quality of your products and the growth of Choco de Léa?
The best way to manage the growth of my business is to never be scared to ask questions and to find people that are better than me in the fields I’m still learning. You need to understand the basics before being able to delegate the task to someone else. Otherwise how can you communicate well and make sure everybody is rowing in the same direction?
Choco de Léa is a reflection of your passions for chocolate, vegan pastries, and environmental and sociopolitical issues. How do you incorporate these passions into your products and the overall vision of your business, and what plans do you have for the future growth of Choco de Léa?
For me, the various elements that you list here are always intersecting with each other and cannot be easily disentangled. The environmental and sociopolitical issues of chocolate production are ever-present, from the bean to the bar, and it is up to us in the industry to reshape it in ways that are more equitable and just. The future of Choco de Léa will always be driven by this motivation.
The idea is not to do a mass production of chocolate, but it’s to democratise the process and make people realise how special it is to consume chocolate. For centuries, cacao was considered the food of gods after all. We want to sell premium chocolate and create an experience for the consumers. And to ease this transition into a more ethical, equitable and thoughtful chocolate industry, why not create delicious products that will make the change taste sweeter (and better!).