An Interview with Thomas Schnetzler, Lindt’s Maître Chocolatier for Australia
Swiss-born and raised Thomas Schnetzler chose a patisserie and confectionery apprenticeship and after completing his mandatory Swiss army service a month shy of his twentieth birthday, found himself in Melbourne. Several years of working at the Hyatt with over 25 pastry chefs and talented staff from all over the world with notebooks full of shared recipes, he found himself offered a position at Lindt.
“Working with chocolate is particularly relaxing,” he says, smiling. “You’ll find that pastry and dessert chefs are calmer because our work is very intricate – like chemistry you have to get the balance and measures right – and it all requires patience.” At the Hyatt he would sometimes spend up to three hours of his own time carving chocolate sculptures and thinks that one is still in existence: a large chocolate hand holding an Easter egg.
He sees working with chocolate as the opportunity to do something creative which also provides him with many travel opportunities. As Lindt’s Master Chocolatier in Australia, he also fulfils the role of an educator. “How to taste it, getting the five senses involved, the history and manufacturing process from bean to plate, single origin chocolate, writing tasting notes, developing new recipes, matching it to wine and participating in key marketing campaigns.” He conducts a 90 minute tasting workshop at the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place and has cooked with the magic ingredient for people and events as diverse as the Swiss embassy, Canberra’s Floriade, the Brisbane Masterclass- one of Australia’s leading food events held at the Brisbane Hilton, cooking schools at the Essential Ingredient and meeting and greeting shoppers in suburban supermarkets.
Thomas laughs as he recalls his first work vehicle – a Smart Car painted gold with large Lindt Bunny Ears attached. “It was difficult to park with those ears and required careful calculation when entering car parks as the ears are really tall.” The golden bunny is now used for Easter promotions and Thomas isn’t clamoring to use the other form of transport – a gold Vespa (also with bunny ears) – too often either. “It would be difficult to cart around my cooking equipment!”
The ever-present Global Financial Crisis enters our conversation. “Easter might test out my theory that when times are tough, people stay home more and treat themselves to chocolate. I’m lucky in that in my job I get to concentrate on something happy because at the end of the day it brings joy to people.”
As for Thomas’ personal joy, he’s getting married in October and is responsible for the wedding cake. Chocolate will naturally be a key ingredient.
In The Hot (Chocolate) Seat:
- What chocolate do you eat when you’re home in your tracksuit pants lounging on the sofa?
- (Laughing) I’m not a tracksuit kind of guy! However, after cooking and talking about high cocoa percentage Lindt chocolate, I do love to have a few squares of Swiss Classic milk chocolate with roasted hazelnuts. But a Lindt Single Origin Madagascar is never far away.
- What does your fiancée want you to bring home?
- She adores all of the Lindt Excellence range in particular Pear Intense as well as the Swiss Classic Double Milk (with a white layer of chocolate) and is now heavily into the boxed chocolates like Lindt Swiss Tradition Deluxe. On Valentines Day her request was for my chocolate mousse, with Lindt Excellence 70% as the key ingredient, which we made together.
- What is your ideal meal?
- We had some superb black truffle gnocchi on the shores of Lac Léman in Montreaux, Switzerland overlooking the Mont Blanc last year that was unforgettable.
But just as important as the food is the company, so family gatherings are always special.
- Your ideal meal done quickly at home?
- Grated potato rösti is a Swiss classic and now available ready for the pan here in Australia. A serve of European-style sausage to accompany the rösti makes my day.
- You come from the land of fresh milk, great chocolate, brilliant pastries. What do you miss?
- My family, as well as cheese; cheese makes me a bit homesick! Also the little towns, green fields, Interlaken with views of the Alps and the sound of cow bells. And of course Euro Pop music.
- What do you dislike about Australian food?
- Mint sauce and over-cooked lamb. I can’t say I am a big fan of Trifle either. But honestly Australian food is incredibly diverse, fresh and creative you can’t really pigeon hole it. There are some great chefs doing amazing things here.
- What do you like about living in Melbourne?
- It’s been over eleven years now and it’s bustling and very European. Lots of cultures together, ideas and great lifestyle. It is undoubtedly the food Capital in Australia
- Who inspires you?
- The people you least expect. I had some delicious food at a grotto in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland near Como and the lovely old man who made the traditional cake made from stale bread, pine nuts and chocolate called torta di pane shared the recipe with me.
- Any famous chefs?
- Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. I’m definitely booked in to see him when he’s in town for the Food and Wine festival. He’s so creative in that he approaches food almost sideways; celebrating that weird can be wonderful. He also highlights that there is a great deal of chemistry and reactions involved in cooking.
- Tell us about your greatest food extravagance.
- Bread. Money is no object to finding and paying for really good bread. A childhood favourite afternoon tea is a piece of bread from the local farm shop and some dark chocolate.
I tend to eat only small amounts of meat during the week but splash out on some really good scotch fillet on the weekends.
- Favourite ingredient.
- Chocolate of course! It is so versatile and can be used in all forms of cooking.
And good butter, but it must be unsalted. I don’t understand why you’d want salt in it.
- How do you keep fit when dealing with chocolate all day?
- (laughs) You do have to watch it a little bit…! Everything in moderation, I say. I think with good quality chocolate you feel satisfied and have received your chocolate fix after a few squares. With sweet cheap chocolate you polish off a block before knowing it.
Apart from that a few beachside walks during the week and on the weekend are not only relaxing but good for you too. How does that saying go, don’t trust a too skinny chef.
- You mentioned that you also do classes that match wine with Lindt chocolate. What varieties do you recommend?
- A good, South Australian Coonawarra shiraz always goes well with dark Lindt. Big, solid and perfectly matched. Our new dark Excellence Ginger block matches well with moscato, and the Excellence Almond block has a double challenge of having the chocolate matching a Grenache and the actual almonds complementing a chardonnay. Maybe it should be eaten with both glasses at once?
- We’d love a Lindt Café here in Melbourne, but in the meantime, what do you recommend we try at Martin Place?
- Oh it’s all delicious. The first sign that a chocolatier is making good chocolate is to try their fresh truffles – one each of dark, milk and white. The Lindt Café’s are really delicious.
There are also delectable macaroons which we call delice, all filled with a flavoured chocolate ganache, ranging from gianduja, black currant, coffee, strawberry and cream and so on
- What’s your guilty foodie pleasure?
- My mother sends me some hazelnut chocolate batons called Branchli that were a childhood treat, covered in creamy, silky milk chocolate. I also love the butter chicken from the Indian Palace in Brighton and the Sunday night Chinese take-away we have at my in-laws’ has become a bit of a ritual.
Thomas will be participating in the TASTE of Sydney Festival, which takes place on March 12-15th, at Centennial Park with cooking demos on Saturday and Sunday and is the co-author (with the other global Lindt Maîtres Chocolatiers) of the divine cook book, ‘Lindt Chocolate Passion.’