Many dream of opening a restaurant, or starting their own culinary-centric company, but few have the experience or knowledge to do so. This was not the case for Kjartan Gíslason, a chef-turned-chocolatier and co-owner of Omnom Chocolate; Iceland's newest bean-to-bar operation. Since September 2013, Gíslason and his three close friends (Óskar Þórðarson, Karl Viggó Vigfússon, André Úlfur Visage) have been running their startup out of a disused gas station—a small multistory building actually perfectly suited for such a pursuit. Here—in a modest kitchen (that CH got a rare peek inside) outfitted with steel shelving and counters custom made by another friend—they turn high-quality organic cacao beans from exotic locales like Madagascar, Papa New Guinea and the Dominican Republic into small batch bars of dark, light and blonde chocolates. And failing to mention the excellent packaging off the bat would be remiss.
As the first thing a consumer sees, the packaging is important to Gíslason—and he was keen to make sure it made a lasting impression while expressing the playful, positive vibe of the brand. This part of the project also offered the opportunity Gíslason to work with longtime friend André Úlfur Visage, a South African-born graphic designer and digital artist now based between Cape Town and Reykjavik. The vibrant designs center around a motif Visage has been playing with for years. The wolf icon is derived from the Icelandic word for wolf, Úlfur, which coincidently is Visage's middle name. And the name Omnom? "It's the sound the Cookie Monster makes. It's in the dictionary—'om nom nom,'" laughs Visage. "Though that was all Kjartan's idea."
As for what's under the attractive wrapping, the chocolate is made from carefully selected batches of beans from the Caribbean, South America, Asia and Africa—as one would expect regional supplies change with the seasons, making each batch Omnom produces different. While starting in his kitchen at home, Gíslason and his team now hand-sort, roast, crack, winnow and ground each batch at Omnom HQ to achieve a unique flavor, texture and consistency. "It's the flavors that really excite us—the different variation of beans and the regions and how you roast them, it's always evolving. Just like cheese or beer or wine, it's always changing," he says.
The very nature of the small batch process gives way to a perfectly inconsistent product. After the refining session, the chocolate is "punched," meaning it's just being moved around without any pressure. Here is where the flavors really begin to develop. "The bitterness and acidity is evaporating, so more of the flavors mature and become a bit more complex," explains Gíslason. After the chocolate has cooled, it's left to set for a few weeks before tempering. As time passes, the profile settles into its own. "By then, what you taste and what you tasted two weeks prior has evolved—there's something different. It's a little bit more complex. It's never the same. You find little differences, so that's the kind of stuff that excites me about working with chocolate," he continues. "I like the inconsistency—sometimes it's not as flavorful as it was the first week, but there's something else there. I think it will take a couple more years of experience to get everything together, but that's what I love about it."
There are currently six varieties in Omnom's selection, with an inside tip that more may be in the works. And of course, only raw cane sugar is added, bringing the ingredient list up to three: organic cacao beans, raw cane sugar, cacao butter. (Make that four, when Icelandic milk is added to milk chocolate varieties.) Visit the newly launched Omnom webstore where individual bars sell for 1,300 KR (roughly $12). Or if you're based in NYC, visit Omnom's sole North American stockist, Búdin coffee shop in Greenpoint. For a closer look behind the scenes see the slideshow.
Lead image courtesy of Omnom, all others by Graham Hiemstra