The artist sits inside a walk-in fridge with a huge slab of chocolate between his knees. Having been frozen with liquid nitrogen, the chocolate feels like ceramic between his palms. As the blob starts to warm beneath his touch he begins to sculpt it, pressing the chocolate into an edible sculpture.
This is the job of Asher Toubkin, Israel's hottest chocolate sculptor.
Toubkin, along with his partner Osnat Saddan, are representing Israel at the Open de desserts de France (the International Pastry Awards) at the Porte de Versailles in Paris on March 26. Never having competed in the World Pastry Cup, Israel's best dessert makers will now get their first chance to qualify.
A brand new competition, the French Dessert Open, aims to give countries lacking international recognition for their desserts a chance to show off their sweet skills. The winning team will be invited to compete at the Eurexpo in Lyon for the 10th Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie (World Pastry Cup), to be held next January. Competitors at the French Dessert Open will include teams from Israel, Norway, Taiwan, Senegal, Finland and Mauritius.
The profession's flagship event, the World Pastry Cup was created in 1989 by Sirha, the International Hotel Catering and Food Trade Exhibition, which also established the International Caseus Award Cheese Contest and the Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine Contest.
Israel's team captain and a judge at the International Pastry Awards, Jack Hazan is confident that Israel will prevail.
"This is a very big competition for Israel," says Hazan, a master chef and member of the Association of Israeli Chefs, "but we've got a really great chance."
Each team must produce a showpiece from sugar, a showpiece from chocolate and six identical desserts (one for each judge, plus one for show) involving both fruit and chocolate - with all pieces somehow relating to the culture of the participating country.
Israeli duo Asher Toubkin and Osnat Saddan dub their chocolate showpiece entry "A Hand for Peace." It's a chocolate sculpture of two large hands, one with flags of different nations painted on its fingernails, the other with symbols of all religions painted on its fingernails. Together, the hands are positioned to protect an olive tree made completely of chocolate.
For their sugar showpiece, the team will blow a halved pomegranate shape completely out of sugar and fill it with pomegranate-flavored champagne bubble jelly, halva and rose mousse.
Their dessert is a Star of David-shaped plate divided in two by a glass chocolate biscuit and chocolate strings. One side will be decorated with white chocolate and lemongrass mousse; the other with confit of mandarin and dark chocolate mousse.
"Experimenting is the basis of creation," says Toubkin, who has a tattoo of a chef on his foot, alongside the acronym "BTC," which stands for "Born to Cook." The owner of Sweet-San Chocolates & Exotic Desserts in Hadera, Toubkin was selected by Hazan to participate in the competition because of his extraordinary chocolate sculpting skills.
HE'S BEEN honing them for the last 14 years. A 29-year-old graduate of the Ecole Gastronomique Bellouet Conseil in Paris, Toubkin was born in Britain but moved with his parents to Haifa when he was only two years old.
Prior to his sculpting studies in Paris, he worked at a wide range of restaurants across Europe, including a seafood restaurant in Barcelona and the Hyatt, the Rib Room and Oyster Bar and a restaurant owned by Robert DeNiro in London. But it wasn't until he started working as a pastry chef at Hakkasan, a Chinese restaurant in London, that he discovered his true passion: desserts.
"I was the only westerner among 41 Chinese chefs," he says. He spoke Hebrew to his colleagues, since most of them didn't understand English anyway. During his 18 months at the restaurant, he developed 57 different desserts. "It was the best experience of my life," he says.
Soon after he graduated from the program in France, Toubkin opened a small chocolate studio in Japan to conduct market research on Japanese snacks.
"I used to run after Japanese people in the street to get them to taste my chocolate so I could find out what they liked," he recalls, explaining that sweet snacks don't exist in Japan because the Japanese don't usually like sweets. "I wanted to find the right chocolate for the Japanese palate."
From there, he traveled to Australia, where he opened a chocolate sculpting company called TCM: Taste Cocoa Mass. But after seven years away from Israel, Toubkin missed home, so he returned in 2004 and opened Sweet-San.
"The objective with this business is to market and export my snacks and chocolates to the Japanese community," he says, explaining that he has developed a range of about 30 chocolates for the Japanese consumer, including bitter or white chocolate mixed with Asian flavors such as chili, sweet sake, ruby grapefruit and green tea, flavors which cut the sweetness out of the chocolate.
"Israelis also like it," he says. In addition to exporting his chocolates to Japan, he supplies a few local Italian cafes, sushi bars and caterers that are looking for "a different kind of dessert for their menu."
For Toubkin, the International Dessert Award represents the next hurdle in his chocolate career. He admits that he finds the long list of competition rules a bit daunting, including the five-hour time limit placed on creating the chocolate sculpture, the deduction of points for leftover ingredients and the strict weight restrictions on the dessert plates (70 to 100 grams each). He is nevertheless confident.
"When I touch food, I know exactly what to do," he says. "It's not something you can learn. It's something you just have or you don't."
TOUBKIN'S PARTICIPATION in the international competition follows a general expansion of Israel's chocolate industry. Oded Brenner, creator of the international chain of Max Brenner Chocolate Bars, says that in the last 10 years Israel has undergone a revolution in its desserts and other treats.
"It's not just chocolate," says Brenner, adding wine and coffee to the list of specialty items that have evolved. "In general, there has been a real revolution in Israel's gourmet market."
"Ten years ago, no one here knew about good coffee or good wine or fine chocolate," says Debby Yahav, who runs a chocolate boutique and personalized gifts agency called Le Marquis in Rishon Lezion. "But now, people in Israel can appreciate high quality products, and they realize that good things have a greater value."
Yahav attributes the market shift to increased travel abroad, which has allowed Israelis to come into contact with more fine products.
Brenner agrees, adding that most Israeli chefs study and do apprenticeships in Europe, thereafter returning to Israel with gourmet cooking skills. He himself did not go to school at all, but apprenticed for six years with various chefs in France before returning to Israel to start his first chocolate boutique in Ra'anana.
"We called that store Max Brenner - the first half of the name after my partner, and the second half after me,' explains Brenner, who admits that he is in fact bald, in keeping with his stores' tagline, "Chocolate By the Bald Man."
"We called [the company] Max Brenner because we didn't think Israelis would appreciate chocolate by Oded Brennerâ€š or by any Israeli. We wanted to create the illusion that the store was European," Brenner says. After three years in business in Israel, Brenner opened the first Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in Sydney, Australia. Since then, the business was bought by Strauss-Elite, which opened locations in Melbourne, London, Singapore, Manila and Tel Aviv.
Although he sees his chain as the only significant Israeli chocolate exporter, Brenner says the country's chocolate is far from under par. All in all, he estimates there are 20 to 25 fine chocolatiers in Israel, with more opening workshops all the time. There are also industrial chocolate makers like Elite, which produce higher-end products along with their regular chocolate. "In terms of small chocolate shops, Israel is relatively good," he says.
CHOCOLATE SCULPTING, however, is not widespread.
"There are a few people in Israel who know how to do sugar blowing and chocolate sculpting, but it's not very common. The market isn't big enough, and it's an expensive art, so it's not so developed here," says Brenner.
What is developing in Israel, says Brenner, is a unique chocolate culture. His store's slogan, "Creating a new chocolate culture in the world," is a testament to this unique Israeli development.
"Chocolate in Europe is very high quality, and there is a strong chocolate tradition, but there is no culture attached to it," he says, explaining that chocolate tasting there isn't any different from wine tasting or cigar tasting. "But chocolate is not just about taste, and the tasting experience in Europe does an injustice to chocolate's essence," he says. "Chocolate is emotional, it's sensual, it's romantic."
"My dream was to create a place where people could fulfill all of their chocolate fantasies - [where] they can lick it and pour it and drink it and see it in big slabs," he says. "Nowhere except in Max Brenner are people responding to chocolate in such a casual, happy way."
Young Israeli chocolatiers are creating a new culture of their own.
"There are lots of independent chocolate makers here who aren't afraid to try new things," says Yahav. "Israel is not yet valued in the world of chocolate, but it soon will be. There are lots of chocolatiers who are very experimental and very good."
Toubkin's Japanese chocolates are a case in point.
"What Toubkin brings to the market is an exceptional talent for combining different tastes," says Yahav. "It is great that he will be representing Israel at the International Dessert Award."
"Today the International Dessert Award, tomorrow the World Pastry Cup," says Toubkin. "I'm going there for the gold. But if I don't win, I'm hoping I'll get a Nobel Peace Prize instead."