I can always remember the first time I tasted something delicious. Food memories are the most powerful for me, especially when they’re tied to a moment that was positive (e.g., the first bite of a great piece of cake). I remember exactly where I was when I first had a piece of Sweeteeth Chocolate. A single bar was part of a care package sent to me by a friend and, not knowing the first bite would be filled with caramel, I ended up with the most deliciously rich surprise. If I wasn’t already sold with the incredible packaging (I was), that seriously dark amber caramel did it for me. I was an instant Sweeteeth fan. Cut to a year later and I’m meeting that chocolate bar’s maker, Eric “Johnny” Battles. I was overjoyed to find that he was just as delightful as the treats he makes.
In honor of one of today’s most commonly gifted treats, chocolates, I wanted to delve deeper into Johnny’s business, his workshop and the man behind the chocolate. From his start in 2008 selling bon bons on dessert menus around Charleston to the nationally stocked collection of chocolates and sauces he now makes in Sweeteeth’s kitchen, Johnny has managed to stay true to himself and his dedication to handcrafted treats with a twist. He was kind enough to treat us to a Truffle Recipe back in 2011, and today Johnny’s treating us to a studio tour, an interview and some great insights into the art of making truly great chocolate, failed chocolate flavors (garlic?) and his impressive collection of tattoos. Thanks so much to Johnny for taking the time to talk to us today! xo, grace
A big thank you to Olivia Rae James for taking the photographs for this story!
Johnny’s answer to the question, “What do you love most about your workspace?”
The full interview (and more photos) continues after the jump . . .
Design*Sponge: I’m always intrigued to see how someone’s hometown (or adopted hometown) affects their style or influences. How does Charleston shape who you are and what you do?
Johnny Battles: It’s like a real polished South. Pretty and lined up but with a drawl. Charleston makes it easy for me to feel comfortable with a little gluttony and eating for fun, hah! So many rich flavors, all buttery and delicious, made the idea of making candy seem like a no-brainer.
D*S: How did you get into making chocolate?
JB: It was almost a kind of demand and supply. I was working in pastry as a sous, and the chocolates were just a single part of the dessert lineup. They fit in well on the menu, so they became a staple at the restaurant. Soon after that, people who owned shops would eat there, have the chocolates and contact me about carrying them. Over five years later, it’s what I do every day.
D*S: How would you describe the type of chocolate you make?
JB: More recently, I’ve considered what I do more making flavors than making chocolate. Chocolate is the base medium and just makes life better in general, and it carries flavors of all kinds with little effort. I love food. I love to eat food. When I begin making ganache, it always starts like any great meal: butter, salt, raw ingredients and a hot pan. I’m always hoping to make great flavors when I’m in the shop. Making great chocolates just means using great chocolate, whether you source it or make it yourself. It’s the flavor you impress on the chocolate that makes it great . . . or not sometimes. [Smile]
D*S What was the first sweet/chocolate you made, and was it made for anyone in particular?
JB: Maple syrup dark chocolate truffles. I didn’t make them for anyone in particular, and it didn’t seem like anyone in particular ate more than one. Hah! It’s the mistakes that make way for progress, I think.
D*S: Have you had any chocolate-making/flavor-testing experiments that didn’t work out?
JB: Oh yes ma’am. Roasted garlic. Ew.
D*S: What is your favorite chocolate flavor combo/product that you make?
D*S: I make one that is mainly just a shop snack, and we all really love it. It’s peanut butter, honey and vanilla wafers. (You can see in one of Olivia’s pics all the boxes of Nilla Wafers. Toldja.)
D*S: What are your workroom/kitchen essentials? What sort of creative objects and/or work tools can you not live without?
JB: Silicone spatula, weight scale, apron. I would prefer not to live without a digital thermometer but could . . . just not like it.
D*S: What sorts of things are inspiring you right now? Where do you typically look for inspiration?
JB: Having a lil son has been inspiring in all sorts of ways. He takes me down a notch and helps me remember simple flavors and how good they are when they’re great. When I was little, it was so much easier to enjoy everything, and as I’ve grown old and worn in, I sometimes need help remembering the kid. I’m getting better by the day. I also look to my peers and try and feed off their energy. Not to play repeat, but seeing people do cool stuff that keeps the bar high keeps the fire hot. When I see people I admire doing things big, it keeps me pushing and moving my gears in search of that next level.
D*S: What are your top five inspirations right now?
1. Liam (my son)
2. The South
3. All the young people grinding these days
4. Biscuits and gravy
5. Sandwiches. The way you stack and layer flavors in a good sandwich is similar to how you layer and stack flavors in a great dessert/candy/anything. Sandwiches are the keystone to all things edible.
D*S: When do you feel the most creative or inspired?
JB: After a great meal. Probably 60/40 inspiration to envy! I think the feeling after a great meal is a force to be reckoned with.
D*S: What do you do to keep yourself, your space and your time organized?
JB: Just constantly work at it. I love order in the shop, mise en place, but if you’ve ever spent much time in a candy shop, you can leave knowing one thing: It’s easy to make a mess. I just try to keep moving and set a daily focal point, whether that be a single job or several jobs for a single end. Half the time, I feel like I’m just herding cats.
D*S: How to you combat creative blocks?
JB: Not sure, just stop thinking about it maybe. I have a lot of folks who like adding ideas and throwing things out at me, and I pick around at a lot of them and just try putting this with that and seeing what happens. When I feel shut down, I just try to step back and remember that I’m making chocolate bars and stuff. When I start getting too serious is when I’ve veered off the path.
D*S: Today is Valentine’s Day. Do you give your special someone chocolate, or as a chocolate maker, do you try to do something different?
JB: Sadly, I always worry that a chocolate gift from a chocolate maker is just an easy out. Like a, “I just grabbed this as I was walking out . . .” kind of thing. Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s me that doesn’t want to eat the chocolate! Hah. This year I did Ink Meets Paper letterpress. They’re so cute and fun you won’t even remember the chocolate.
D*S: What is next for you with your work? What can we look forward to from Sweeteeth?
JB: Oh wow. Every year is so much different than the previous one that I never imagine knowing what lies ahead. Working closely with a great design team is going make the new bar ideas a ton of fun to imagine and create. We definitely have new families of bars on paper along with some more off to the side ideas that we think will add some fun to the mix, as well as candy. The horizon is still far away for me, with plenty of tasty miles to go, so I’ll just head that way a candy bar at a time.
D*S: Can I ask one non-chocolate question? You have so many great tattoos, and they’ve become a big part of what people discuss in your interviews. I’m a big fan of the work you’ve had done, so could you walk us through your three favorite tattoos and describe the significance they have for you?
JB: I really enjoy getting tattoo work and really appreciate the history and intensity of the art and how far it’s come in just the short 15-year span I’ve been getting them. I like to steer more toward visual appeal over any type of personal ethics or politics. The only tattoos I’ve grown to regret and end up covering are ones that I got when I was young and wanted to define some aspect of something. As I/we grow older, all those things are subject to potential change. At the end of the day, the tattoo will stay with or without the back story, but something that’s beautiful to look at can always stand the test of time. It’s not to say that my tattoos don’t hold symbolism, but it’s less obvious than say if I had “vegetarian” or a band name or some such something. Not hating on either of those tattoos, btw.
If I had to pick three favorites it would be:
1. The Tantric skull on my fist by Zack Spurlock. The idea behind the tantric skull and the old rituals have been inspiring to me since I was half the age I am now. The concept of life and death from the perspective of the living and the deceased is powerful in a world that moves fast and never sleeps.
2. Shin piece done by Andrew Johnson-Lally. It’s a wild-eyed wolf-deer, and I like to consider it to be my spirit animal. Plus it just looks so heavy!
3. My Liam kewpie doll also by Zack. I got it 17 weeks before he was born, and it’s so crazy how much he favored it when he was little. Same hair and everything!
The one we’re working on now is going to be one for the books, though, and covers such a huge chunk of body, but since it’s just in progress mode, I guess I can’t really choose it till next year. Dern. Even now I can’t stop thinking about it. Sounds silly, but it’s super exciting to wear, and I can’t stop thinking about what the finished product will be like.