As we step into Marijn Coertjens and Christa Muyldermans’ new shop in Ghent (Belgium), the lighting fixtures are just being hung. Eye-catchers in shiny metal, designed by Marijn. This gives you an idea of what this master chocolatier & pastry chef has up his sleeve: creativity that is closely linked to fashion and design. We chat with him and his partner Christa about starting their own business and their ‘tandem’, the collection of pralines and the busy agenda that lies ahead of them this autumn.
After 5 years in Hong Kong, Marijn and Christa decided it was time to open their own business. Don’t you have to be crazy these days to start something new? “You can always wait for better days. But if the time is ripe, you have to go for it,” says Marijn. “Don’t be afraid, just do it!”, adds Christa.
From pop-up to start-up
So, your own business. Should it be LA, Antwerp or Ghent? The latter won out, after much consideration and discussion. As far back as ten years ago, Marijn had already thought of Ghent as a place to start his own business once the time came. Marijn: “You always have to look around carefully when choosing a location, but the first choice turned out to be the best.” The contrast with Hong Kong, a city that never sleeps, could not be greater. Ghent is small, but has a high concentration of talent per square metre.
They started one step at a time. The pop-up shop in the 17th-century building opened on 8 December 2016, just in time for the holiday season. After three months’ closure for renovations came the definitive opening. At the time of our conversation, the tasting area had just been finished. “Realizing our ideas, one step at a time, is the most important.”
From Waterloo to the world’s best
Marijn is no beginner. He developed an early admiration for Pierre Marcolini, for his renown and international reputation. After spending five years with Marc Ducobu in Waterloo, he spent five years working for the prestigious Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Elton John, David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton, Cindy Crawford, Hugh Jackman: all of them simply melted before Marijn’s chocolate. He also earned his spurs at international competitions. Twice Belgian champion in chocolate, two bronze medals at the world championship for pastry in 2011 and for chocolate in 2015.
A strong duo
Now he is facing the following challenge: getting his business up to cruising speed.
Marijn: “We sell not only chocolate, but pastries, bread and buns as well. A full assortment, in other words, for regular clients who keep on coming back. Not only for tourists. That is why we didn’t choose to locate right in the city centre.”
The sourdough bread is supplied by the social bakery Compaan. Marijn’s partner Christa, also a pastry chef & chocolatier, is an all-round presence in the business: finishing, producing, decorating, running the shop and much more. Marijn is the creative force, Christa brings structure to chaos and helps in the implementation. He comes up with ideas and concepts, which she puts into practice. In other words, they complement each other perfectly.
Christa: “This morning I have already finished pastries and baked bread and croissants before the first customers came in. I also try to remember what each customer usually buys. For now, that is still possible (laughs)”. Marijn emphasizes that it makes a difference that she serves the customers herself. “She is an owner, has the same passion as I do and knows the products thoroughly.”
From Debic demonstrations to Shanghai
The first employee has now started at the workshop. When we visit, there is also an intern at work, a young woman from El Celler de Can Roca, the famous restaurant in Girona (Spain). She got to know Marijn and Christa in Hong Kong, and was keen on spending some time working with them. No problem. He enjoys coaching others. Giving demonstrations is something he often does, as well. Not only for Debic in Belgium and the Netherlands. This autumn he is also going to Shanghai, Tokyo, Las Vegas and Moscow. “It’s enjoyable, the travelling, but tiring as well.” When he is on the road, Christa runs both the bakery and the shop. Christa: “The first time, it was tough going, but after that you become more focused and disciplined.”
How disciplined is Marijn in his creations? Does he experiment regularly, or just when he feels like it?
Marijn: “Creation takes time. At this point, it’s mainly about producing and keeping the business going. Before that, I had a very creative period. Putting together a collection of pralines and perfecting a technique: airbrush. We transfer images onto chocolate using stencils we design together. Christa puts them on the computer. This technique also gives you some relief.”
Chocolate with a story
Marijn Coertjens’ pralines have a distinctive style all their own. A clean design, creative printing, balanced flavours. We taste some dark chocolate with smokey Lapsang Souchong tea with lemon & basil and with apple pie.
“I strive for a lot of flavour and think about the why of different combinations. It must make sense. The praline with Chai tea from Northern India has a tiger print. Pecans in a Buddha cup is a no-go. Form and content must fit. That is how you give every praline a story.”
There is also a booklet that goes with the collection, describing each of the items. And a festive packaging in Coertjens purple with silver. Affordable luxury, that is what Marijn & Christa offer.
The bar is set high when it comes to the ingredients as well.
“We work only with quality ingredients. Real cream and butter are the basis of our products. The same goes for sugar, eggs and flour. Without those, it is impossible, if only for the sake of the flavour. Sugar is often under fire these days, but you need it in order to give volume to the flavour. If you remove it, everything becomes dull. You’ll never see me using Stevia. What about lighter creams? OK, as long as it’s not at the expense of the mouth feel and taste. Our chocolate and pastries are not something you eat every day. They are a special treat. And so they have to be really good."
What advice do Marijn and Christa have for someone thinking of starting their own business?
- Invest enough time in your business plan. Put down in detail on paper what you want to do and how, know your costs and set your prices, calculate everything. This will form the basis of your business before you’ve even baked your first eclair. You can always make adjustments afterwards.
- Take the time for the right location. If you have a choice of where to establish your business, do your homework. Research and compare the location and the neighbourhood, the local residents, rental costs, the state of the building, set-up costs and so on. Make sure you know the market value per m2 in every city and district. Start with facts and figures, but listen to your gut feeling as well. After all, you'll be spending a lot of time there.
- Don’t be afraid to take the leap. Some people do it at age 24, others, like us, make our name somewhere else first. But when the time is ripe, you have to go for it. Don’t be afraid of running your own business.
Another chocolate artist is Jean-Pierre Wybauw. Read more about his book 'Perfecte pralines' and discover an exquisite chocolate recipe.