MarieBelle: An Interview and History Lesson with Maribel Lieberman

Maribel Lieberman is the CEO and Founder of MarieBelle luxury chocolates, cacao bar and café. Ms. Lieberman hails from Honduras, has trained in fashion, and is immensely knowledgeable when it comes to chocolate. In fact, she has every reason to pride herself for creating a product that unites past and present whilst fusing cultures, one delicious bite at a time.

Can you tell us about your background and what brought you from Honduras to New York?

I was the “adventurer” in my family. My family all lived in the same town and never left. Slowly, I decided that I wanted to go to the United States, and I came here to go to fashion school.

After I finished school, I worked for a year in the fashion industry. Even though I love fashion, I felt that was not my world. I never really thought of myself as a chef, but when I got married, I started getting interested in food and entertaining, not only because I like to eat, but because New York offers so much cultural diversity, and I love to go to different neighborhoods for ingredients. Eventually I collected about 300 cookbooks from which I started educating myself at home and cooking different fusion cuisines.

How did you approach starting your business?

When I get into something, I really have to go all the way into it. When I decided that I was going to get into chocolate, I researched the history of chocolate, and I learned that chocolate did not come from Belgium or France, but that it actually came from Latin America. [Being from there], I decided I am destined to bring the credit back to Americans.

Cacao beans were used as currency by the Mayans and Toltecs. They would roast it and grind them to make a bitter drink. It wasn’t really used with sugar, but they used spices. Mayans used a lot of vanilla and cinnamon. The Aztecs used hot pepper. They used to celebrate weddings with a cacao drink. They used to drink it in a gold cup, indicating that chocolate was very special to them.

I was one of the first ones, really, to give knowledge to the mainstream customer that chocolate is actually cacao, and about this tradition and how the Europeans managed to process it very well. That set the tone of my company. I wasn’t really a formal chef; I saw food from a historic angle.

How did that historic knowledge inform your approach to product development?

When I fell in love with food, I read this book by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th century food critic. He used to predict the type of food a person would love based on their personality. One of the things very characteristic about people who love chocolate is that they are very happy people. To me that was very interesting.

I did a tour of France and London, and found that most of the chocolate flavors were the same. I wasn’t really impressed because once you see one, you’ve seen them all. That’s when I decided that I wanted to create something. I grew up in a tropical country. I’ve been exposed to tropical fruits, and I’ve been exposed to hot foods like the Aztecs. I decided that I’m going to make chocolate based on my background. My ten first flavors were based on tropical fruits. I wanted to introduce these ingredients through chocolate, which is something that had not been seen before.

I also used some of my [artist] husband’s designs, which are very colorful, on the chocolate. The colors were a bit more brilliant than what is traditional, and that set my brand as a very modern style. I wanted to combine something modern with tradition.

Can you discuss your signature ganache jewels?

When you open a box of MarieBelle chocolates, it is like opening a piece of artwork. It is very festive, colorful. It makes you smile. Then of course once you taste it, that’s what you will remember. I am an artist, a designer, a creative person. I think chocolate has a beautiful color, but if we have the chance to admire it before we eat, take your time and actually admire what you’re going to eat, it creates a better experience.

I was also very careful about size. Most Belgian chocolates are very big. The French are a bit smaller, and in Italy they are somewhere in between. I wanted to create a ganache that was 10 or 12 grams max because that is enough to satisfy. Of course I want to sell more, and sugar invites you to eat more, but that’s not what I’m selling. I’m selling chocolate.

Are most of your ingredients from other countries?

Almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, vanilla are all imported, but I buy them through a local distributor. We do not use extract, we use the real thing. Extract gives you a stronger taste, but not necessarily the feeling that you’re eating the real fruit because it’s too strong. Take the mint as an example. I make infusions with the fresh mint. I don’t use any extract, as most companies do. But, when you’re eating my mint, you feel like you’re in the field.

And MarieBelle also serves lunch?

Yes. I am a foodie. I’m not only about chocolate. All the sandwiches, salads, are all my recipes. We also do great desserts, and very soon we will be serving Francois Payard pastries.

What’s next for MarieBelle?

I am opening a store in Kyoto this April. The shop is going to be in an area like this, in what is like the Soho of Kyoto. I’ve also partnered with the best kimono designer in Japan, Tomita. He does amazing work. He not only makes the kimonos, but he even dyes the fabric. He is now creating kimonos by dying the threads with chocolate. We provided him with dark, white and milk chocolate that he is using to create kimonos that will be on display in the store. Most companies choose to start in Tokyo, but we chose Kyoto because Kyoto is sort of like a sanctuary for the Japanese people. It is a very old city with a lot of old architecture. We really want to become a brand that is a part of the Japanese culture. It’s not only about selling to the Japanese, but it’s about becoming a part of their culture.

MarieBelle additionally holds monthly chocolate tastings with resident chocolate connoisseur Rodolfo Espinal, who is well-versed in chocolate’s history and modern methods of production. Mr. Espinal leads groups with instructions as to how to apply all the senses for enjoying chocolate throughout the tasting, and includes a special pairing session whereby MarieBelle ganaches are matched with beverages to compliment their unique and extraordinary flavors.

MarieBelle New York is located at 484 Broome St. New York, NY 10013 (212) 925-6999. You can visit them at http://mariebelle.reachlocal.net/.

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About Jessica Stein

Jessica Stein is a writer and lawyer originally from Philadelphia, PA who has lived in New York City for the last six years. She has been a shortandsweetnyc contributor since 2008 for the books, health/beauty and food features (including restaurant reviews and chef profiles).
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