CHOCOLATE ROAD: An Eye-Opening, Bean-to-Bar Narrative

­When you take a bite into a piece of chocolate, do you ever stop to think, “Where did this chocolate come from? Who made it? How was it made? What is chocolate, anyway?”

These questions went through filmmaker Tanya Chuturkova’s mind as she worked on the documentary Chocolate Road, which is available on Video On Demand platforms via Syndicado starting on Tuesday, November 16.

The Bulgarian-born, New York-based Chuturkova teamed up with producer Takayuki Yasuda to introduce audiences to three renowned chocolatiers—Susumu Koyama, Maribel Lieberman, and Mikkel Friis-Holm—who tell their personal and professional stories with chocolate. But it’s not just a film about how chocolate helped these three entrepreneurs achieve worldwide success. It’s an eye-opening, bean-to-bar narrative that will make you think about and appreciate the source of your sweets.

“Destiny Connects You”

“I had zero connection [to Japan] before this movie,” Chuturkova joked in a recent phone interview. Yasuda “found some of my work online and wanted to do something together, so we came up with the idea for the film.”

Tanya Chuturkova

Chuturkova has experience in many aspects of film and television as a producer, director, and editor of numerous award-winning commercials, TV shows, and short films. She serves as director, co-producer, writer, and editor of Chocolate Road.

Through his creative agency, which has offices in New York and Japan, Yasuda works with food industry professionals and focuses on sustainability. Chuturkova says Yasuda was the one who selected the chocolatiers, but he initially wanted to follow more than three.

“In the end we decided it’s probably best to center on three different people and not too many people, so then we could spend more time with them,” she says.

The filmmakers also spend considerable time with cacao farmers on their plantations in Central and South America, cacao exporters who discuss the future of the industry, and scientists who take us on a journey into the genetics of the beans. With the help of animated segments, we learn where the true chocolate road begins.

From left to right: Susumu Koyama, Mikkel Friis-Holm, and Maribel Lieberman

The Three Chocolatiers

Susumu Koyama

Born in Kyoto in 1964, Susumu Koyama opened Patissier eS koyama in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture, more than 15 years ago. After his first customer compared his chocolate to an inexpensive, run-of-the-mill Japanese brand found in supermarkets, Koyama rolled up his sleeves and dedicated himself to making the kind of craft chocolate that could be loved in Japan. He sources cacao beans from South America and has established a relationship with the farmers there.

Susumu Koyama reacting to spotting a cacao pod on the trunk of a tree / Peru, 2017 – Chocolate Road LLC

Chuturkova describes Koyama as the most introspective of the three chocolatiers, saying that he documents his daily life through photographs and notes. He creates plans for next year based on what inspired him throughout this year. Always innovating with flavors to create new tastes, Koyama blends non-traditional ingredients with cacao, such as blackcurrants, chrysanthemums, or Oaxaca peppers. His formula has worked; there are long lines outside of his store every day.

Maribel Lieberman

Maribel Lieberman tasting new chocolate bonbon flavors suggested by her former executive chef Chika Hanyu / MarieBelle New York factory, Brooklyn, New York, USA 2018 – Chocolate Road LLC

The founder of MarieBelle New York, Maribel Lieberman runs upscale chocolate gift shops with locations in New York, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Okinawa. The SoHo flagship, which Lieberman established in 2001, has a quiet café where customers can enjoy the authentic chocolate beverages she remembers from her childhood in Honduras.

“I wanted to really show the world that chocolate comes from Latin America, from my neighborhood, from Honduras, from the Mayan culture,” Lieberman says in Chocolate Road.

Mikkel Friis-Holm

Mikkel Friis-Holm setting the drying machine for a new batch of beans / Lejre, Denmark 2018 – Chocolate Road LLC

A trained chef, Mikkel Friis-Holm opened Friis-Holm Chokolade in Lejre, Denmark, in 2008.

“Mikkel is the most involved in the science behind the prime material,” says Chuturkova.

Working with cacao farmers in Nicaragua, Friis-Holm directly influences how his crop is grown based on how he wants his chocolate to taste. Following Friis-Holm’s specifications, farmers can create beans that are sweeter, more bitter, or more acidic.

Craft Chocolate

Top left: Spread of eS koyama chocolate bonbons at his Rozilla store / Sanda, Japan 2018; Top right: A selection of Friis-Holm chocolate bars / Lejre, Denmark 2017; Bottom: Spread of MarieBelle New York’s colorful chocolate bonbons / New York, USA 2018 – Chocolate Road LLC

The word “craft” gets thrown around a lot: craft beer, craft sake, craft wine.

Explaining how this term applies to the type of chocolates Koyama, Lieberman, and Friis-Holm produce, Chuturkova says, “They are not big factories. They’re not in thousands of places . . . They know the number of the batches and they know the number of beans . . . That makes it so that they can control it a lot more, and they can experiment a lot more with everything that they’re doing. It’s more of a personal touch.”

The personal touch is Friis-Holm tasting every chocolate that passes through his factory. The personal touch is the fact that each chocolatier featured in this film has face-to-face interactions with their cacao suppliers.

“There’s that connection from the beginning to the end, especially for Koyama because he doesn’t sell his chocolates anywhere apart from his store,” says Chuturkova.

“It’s All About the Discovery and Sharing”

Susumu Koyama, Mikkel Friis-Holm and Maribel Lieberman meeting during Salon du Chocolat / Paris, France 2017 – Chocolate Road LLC

In one scene in Chocolate Road, the three chocolatiers discuss what the public wants in chocolate and how to achieve it through their suppliers. But wait—aren’t they competitors?

“It is very competitive, of course,” says Chuturkova. “They all go to seek awards; they all have their brands. But it is also very collaborative, and it’s a very warm environment . . . There are all kinds of negative/positive competition in this industry, but I feel like especially between these three chocolatiers, they’re so different in their styles of making that there cannot be any worry, ‘Oh, he’s going to steal my recipe.’ It’s more about, ‘How did you discover this?’ They’re all so passionate about it they just want to share what they found out . . . It’s all about the discovery and sharing. I think the big thing that defines the three of them is that they each want to create the best thing, and they like the process of sharing it with the rest of the world.”

Behind Every Great Chocolatier Is a Great Cacao Farmer

Mikkel Friis-Holm and cacao farmer Juan Abraham Flores Palacios discussing the harvest prognosis / Farm “La Divina Providencia”, Bocay, Nicaragua 2018 – Chocolate Road LLC

Before the chocolatiers can create the “best thing,” they must have the best beans. Through the course of following the chocolatiers, the filmmakers discovered that the source is just as—if not more—important than the maker. The chocolatiers themselves wanted to put the cacao farmers in the spotlight.

“A lot of work goes into creating the confectionery, but so much more work goes—and long work—into planting the tree, waiting for it to grow, pruning it, waiting for the cacao beans to mature, and then the whole process of fermentation and all of the different steps that go into that,” says Chuturkova.

These chocolatiers are advocating for the farmers, and they are paying a premium to have the best cacao. The money goes directly to the farmers, cutting out the middleman and allowing the farmers to receive a larger cut. Also, the science of cacao is of particular interest for each chocolatier. They try to discover new kinds of beans and work to ensure better crops. For example, Lieberman is involved with the Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research and is dedicated to empowering females in the industry.

Maribel Lieberman posing with women cacao producers at FHIA’s base in La Masica / Honduras, 2018 – Chocolate Road LLC

I think the big thing that defines the three of them is that they each want to create the best thing, and they like the process of sharing it with the rest of the world.”
—Tanya Chuturkova
Director, Chocolate Road


Lasting Connections

Chuturkova has witnessed the chocolatiers building bridges together at the end of Chocolate Road. Koyama sent his son to study chocolate making in Denmark with Friis-Holm after the completion of the film. Friis-Holm created a chocolate bar called Don Alfonso, based on one of the cacao producers he met during the documentary.

As for Chuturkova, making Chocolate Road changed the way she thinks about chocolate.

“Before, I would consume a chocolate very fast—very sweet chocolate, the typical brand you buy from the supermarket,” she says. “I wouldn’t even think about the fact that I’m consuming mostly sugar and that the cacao is the minimum ingredient in all of this. So now I mainly eat the 60% and above chocolate where I can taste the cacao.”

Her relationship with consumption has extended beyond chocolate. She wants this to be the biggest takeaway for the viewers of Chocolate Road as well.

“I didn’t know anything about chocolate before I started this [film],” says Chuturkova, “and all the background of what I don’t know [about chocolate] made me question what I don’t know about all of the other things that I consume . . . We should all know the roots of the things we consume and not take them for granted,” she says. “Know and cherish the hard work of everybody that we take for granted every day . . . There’s a lot of work from different people from all around the world going to that little piece [of chocolate]. We have to acknowledge everybody who put their sweat and tears into our everyday comfort.”

How to Watch Chocolate Road

The documentary Chocolate Road will be available on VOD platforms in the U.S. starting on Tuesday, November 16.

Pre-order on Vimeo:

Watch on Apple TV: