WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – MARIA MAHER, HEAD CHOCOLATIERE
Cocoa Atelier is a well-known and much-enjoyed chocolate brand in Ireland. I’ve had a few boxes myself in Ireland. It’s silly but I’ve always loved the shape their chocolates come in? That squary looking rectangle, it’s a delicate thing of beauty. It helps a lot that the chocolate is beautiful too, and crafted with much care. Cocoa Atelier currently produces chocolate for the Irish wholesale, retail & online markets and they are owned by La Rousse Foods.
The chocolates are handmade and artisanal but not much is known of the faces behind the brand, but here I am to rectify that. My pal, Maria Maher, is the Head Chocolatier (or Chocolatiere if you’re french). I have eaten her chocolates, her fudge, her marshmallow, and her sourdough, and let me tell you you all deserve to be more familiar with her.
With Easter coming, you should keep an eye out on Cocoa Atelier’s Instagram page for their luxury handmade Easter Egg range.
Maria is very much a behind the scene kind of woman, but I’m hoping to see her out and about, shouting about chocolate a bit more. The woman knows.
How did your career path bring you here?
My food journey began with a big family and my mom who instilled her love of good food in me and my siblings. While I grew up in a village in Cork, my mom hailed from the beautiful countryside of Southwest Kerry and we were all squeezed into the car to get on the road to Kerry any spare moment, weekend or day off. My childhood was filled with fresh apple tarts, brown bread & sunny days picking blackberries (sounds idyllic now that I think about it!).
Fast forward to university where I studied Food Science in UCC. I loved learning about food and finding out about how different food is made and processed. First & second year was a grounding in general science, I enjoyed third and fourth year the most because we started into more specific modules e.g. Dairy & Cheese Processing, New Product Development, Sensory Analysis & Food Packaging Technology.
After UCC, I moved to Dublin and worked in Food Product Development for several years. While I loved working in food and product development was very interesting, I realised I wanted to play a more integral part of the food making process and to move to a more artisan role.
I completed a certificate course to develop my culinary skills as any professional training to date had been mostly scientific. This allowed me to develop my cheffing skills and learn more about Ireland’s amazing food industry with smaller courses and supplier visits.
The rest as they say is history! I came across a fated tweet from Cocoa Atelier one evening about a job opportunity to begin in November 2015. I went to visit the chocolate lab and meet Anna Lynch (then Coffey!) who was head chocolatier at the time. The job was exactly what I was looking for – hands-on food production, product development, and food science opportunities all rolled into one. When Anna left in 2017, I took over as Head Chocolatier and have been there making and dreaming about chocolate ever since!
How does your career fulfill you?
I have gotten very used to doing something I love every day. I get to express myself creatively. There is also a huge satisfaction in production – setting targets and being able to review what you’ve achieved. Not to mention, making and working with such a delicious product as chocolate – something everyone loves and means so much to people. We get to be part of everyone’s best moments – celebrations, birthdays, Christmas, and it is truly very special.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Maria Maher?
I love all things chocolate. I love learning more about it and delving deeper into the chocolate world. I am hoping to continue my chocolate education this year, to learn about cocoa terroir & origins.
I love learning all I can about food, trying new things, and learning new skills which I endeavor to continue this year. I also plan to meet some of the suppliers behind some of the beautiful Irish produce I regularly use which hopefully will lead to new product/flavour inspiration and maybe some collaborations down the line.
Since the pandemic, I have done some work with the culinary apprentices of Crumlin College. I really enjoy passing on my knowledge and skills to their trainees & seeing what they come up with. I hope to continue working with Crumlin College on educating their chefs and I would like to work with other culinary institutes in the future to pass on skills and let them know about the job opportunities available to them through my own experience.
Lastly, I am also hoping for a nice early spring for the garden. My partner Max and I moved to the countryside during the pandemic and started our own small scale kitchen garden with a focus on natural gardening techniques. It would be nice to explore if we can go further with it one day but for now, it’s just nice to enjoy the fruits of our labour, to experiment with preserving & fermenting, and be able to share with family & friends.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Keeping it on theme here but it’s another Chocolate Enthusiast Anna Lynch of Braw. Braw is a Limerick based bakery and chocolatier. Anna is an inspiration. While the rest of us were losing our heads doing zoom quizzes & making banana bread during the pandemic, Anna was turning delicious baked care packages into a business. It’s no wonder as she had already perfected her banana bread recipe years ago! I’ve had the pleasure of working with Anna in Cocoa Atelier for a few years and while we started off as colleagues, we are now good friends. Even though you think she’d be up the walls running a business and being a mom – she’s always available for a friendly chat, advice or a recipe recommendation.
On the topic of chocolate, I would also love to shout out to Shobitha, the Chocolate Sommelier. I am currently doing one of her virtual immersive chocolate courses. She is very knowledgeable in all things chocolate, and it is so interesting to hear her speak on the topic. I’d encourage anyone to do one of her courses to learn about the world of chocolate.
In your opinion, what challenges face women in the Irish food industry?
Thankfully the food industry has changed a lot and only for the better, it’s becoming a lot more inclusive and diverse and we all have to promote that as much as possible. As a woman in the food industry, you have to own your own space. The food industry is such a big welcoming space that gives people so much joy and there is space for everyone. I think one large barrier that is still pretty prominent is the work/life balance and the late hours.
What do you think can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the industry?
I would love to see more events showcasing the amazing women of the food industry. There are so many amazing chefs, producers, bakers, chocolatiers, organisers, tour guides, cooks, photographers, teachers and writers in Ireland, it would be great to have a chance to get together.
Katia, of this fantastic blog, is also celebrating women at every chance she gets. She is a modern day Superwoman and I am honestly in awe of how she fits it all in – food writing, cook, social media, food business consultant, and cheerleader for all women – and that’s not even the day job!
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
It sounds small and I’m repeating myself but when you have someone tell you about the Easter egg they couldn’t eat because it was too beautiful or the marshmallows that were as fluffy as clouds or the box of chocolates they secreted away because they couldn’t possibly share, it is such a nice fulfilling sentiment to hear.
Although I will say, eat the chocolate! You eat with your eyes first, but honestly no matter how beautiful the chocolate or the product, trust me – every chocolatier, baker or chef wants their products to be eaten!
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be yourself and believe in yourself. I think we go through our younger years trying to figure out who you are, but the most important thing is to follow your own compass.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Multi-tasking & organisation is key. I’m the head chocolatier and manager of Cocoa Atelier so I am the wearer of many hats which I enjoy but it does mean there is a lot going on at once. You always need to think ahead to the next holiday, event or order and make sure you have all the resources necessary to achieve it.
I would say to anyone wanting to get into the food industry, it may seem daunting but the basic skills you need are enthusiasm and the ability to work as part of a team. If you have a willingness to learn and can work well with anybody, you can be taught any other skills necessary to work in food. I am very lucky at the moment to have a close knit team working with me in Cocoa Atelier, Jane & Paula are a pleasure to work with and a lot of love goes into every product we make.
Are you a savoury or sweet kinda person? Please tell us about a real treat?
Honestly, this is a tough one. Before starting at Cocoa Atelier, I would have said sweet all the way! But being surrounded by sweet ingredients & everyday definitely changes your palate.
I absolutely love cheese (and I’m learning more about it every day since the wonderful Avril Molloy has joined La Rousse Foods). I love freshly baked sourdough. I love fresh peas or raspberries from the garden. I love salt licorice which we always stock up on when we go to visit my partner’s family in Sweden. Most of all, I love chocolate which can be both sweet & savoury!
Two delicious treats I had last summer and that I’m still dreaming about was a Braw peanut butter caramel square and a ‘Salted Licorice Caramel’ chocolate bar from a Canadian chocolate producer called Soma. Both were exactly the flavours I love to eat and the perfect balance of sweet & savoury.
Congratulations Maria and every success to you in your business and life