Memphis’ King of Chocolates
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography by Creations Studios.
What Kate Spade did for handbags and Christian Louboutin for women’s shoes, designer chocolatier, Phillip Ashley Rix is doing for chocolate—liberating it from the confines of tradition. He has been named one of the Best Chocolatiers and Confectioners in America by TasteTV, donned the “Real Life Willy Wonka” by Forbes magazine, and Local Palate magazine calls him “Memphis’ King of Chocolate.”
With a portfolio of over 200 designer chocolates, corporate and celebrity clients such as FedEx, Disney, Stevie Wonder, Brad and Angelina Jolie Pitt and cooking at the esteemed James Beard House, Chef Phillip Ashley is a rising star in the culinary and business world. His delectable gems were the official chocolate of the 2016 Grammys Celebration and 2016 Oscars Salute. His designer collections are sold by national luxury retailers Neiman Marcus and Horchow.
A self-taught chocolatier, he is renowned for designing wildly imaginative chocolates with ingredients such as sweet potato, barbecue and bleu cheese. His passion for fanciful flavors and masterful attention to detail result in visually stunning decadent pieces of edible art.
Phillip Ashley is a sought after expert in branding, ideation, sales and marketing and small business development speaking in front of audiences from corporate executives to the United States Congress.
VIP: What attracted you to Memphis, Phillip?
Phillip Ashley: It was home and I wanted to work in the South. In the fall of 2009 I was beginning to develop in chocolate. I had spent a couple of years really learning, reading and studying chocolate. I had lived in Nashville; Baltimore and Columbia, MD. for about 12 years, and I have traveled a lot. By the time I moved back to Memphis in the fall of 2009 I was ready to start developing my vision of chocolate in terms of the flavors. I looked at Memphis from a market standpoint as a good place to start. There was nothing here at all like what I was doing. Memphis was a place where I could build something and have a support system and go from there. I have been a pioneer as a chocolatier in Memphis.
When I was researching and even now we are known for our flavor designs. We call it “designer chocolates.” We are putting combinations of ingredients together to craft new chocolates.
VIP: Talk about your national clients and national accolades.
PA: Neiman Marcus and Horchow found out about my work. I went after people who thought our chocolates would work well with them. I have been with both of these clients for over a year now. We had an opportunity to supply all of the chocolates for the Grammies last year. They learned about our chocolates from an event I did in L.A. a few years prior, and they contacted me. That was a very big deal! And we have done a number of other big events.
VIP: What is your background in the culinary arts? I read that you are self-taught.
PA: I spent several years studying food and ingredients and spices of all types-- all of the things that make a dining experience and food in general what it is. I studied peoples’ tastes and the zones of the palette and wines and liquors and distilled liquors. I wanted to be an encyclopedia of food and really take a research approach to how we develop and design chocolate, which is what allows us to create chocolate—to have these extraordinary combinations like collard greens and cornbread, which is one of our fall collections (It’s really good, too.) and then be able to pair them with wine, liquors and distilled beverages.
VIP: Tell me about your Valentine’s flavors this year.
PA: Each year we put out a new Valentine’s collection. This year it is all hearts. We will always go with that theme in some way. The cornerstone or the themed ingredient is burnt orange. We have a 12-piece box with four flavors. The white chocolate piece is blood orange and vanilla bean. The milk chocolate piece consists of blood orange, strawberry jam and cognac ganache. The dark chocolate piece is blood orange and balsamic vinegar and there’s a caramel, which is a blood orange caramel, which has pink peppercorn and pink salt. You get three of each of those in the box.
Seasonally going into March we will launch our spring and summer collection. Every season we put out a spring, summer, fall and winter collection.
VIP: Is your store in the Cooper-Young neighborhood of Memphis?
PA: We are in a retail building in this neighborhood. There is a beauty salon down the street from the restaurant called Beauty Shop and a take-out restaurant next to us with prepared foods, vegetarian and vegan.
Starting in February we will be open on Saturdays only. We will do something special on Saturday and feature a different chocolate very Saturday. We will be open from 10 am until 6 pm and serve champagne. The rest of the time we are producing chocolates for events and for our clients who are on retainer. Also, we really want to push our products online. We ship all over the country and to several other countries and we ship all week long. You don’t have to wait to come visit us. We can ship it to you any time.
VIP: What appealed to you initially about the world of chocolates and where did you train?
PA: I grew up at my grandmother’s. She cooked and I learned how to build. My grandfather owned a construction company and I learned how to use tools and power tools, woodworking and gardening and how to prepare food, cook and paint. Over time I became more and more fascinated with cooking. I had a natural knack for it. One day I woke up and said “chocolate!” I wanted to do something different. I did not want to be a restaurant chef. What could I do that would be fun and creative and something you don’t encounter all of the time? How cool would it be to say that I’m a chocolatier!
VIP: Do you attend the major food and chocolate events in the country?
PA: I go to some of the events. We competed in several events and won Gold Medals in big food and chocolate competitions. Outside of Memphis, Los Angeles is one of our biggest markets as are California, Texas, New York, Florida (a big state for us) and the Atlanta area. Our orders come from everywhere.
VIP: What is the biggest challenge of working with chocolate?
PA: My biggest challenge is to constantly come up with things that are fresh and new. We have our core chocolate. We have over 200 plus flavors now. And we have a vegan collection. I’ve been working to have our top 50 and eventually grow it to our top 100. These will be the flavors we will always have. Then we will rotate through these flavors. This week we will feature 30 or so flavors. Next week we will feature another 30. We will have our standard signature collection like our gemstone caramels and our seasonal collections (4 seasons). Last year’s summer collection was real popular. We’re making choctails that celebrate different cocktails like Moscow Mules and margaritas. We use those ingredients with my chocolates. For example the Moscow Mule consists of ginger beer, vodka and lime. The margarita contains tequila and sour mix and we finish that chocolate with a lime sea salt.
That’s the thing that I like to do with chocolate—take things in the real world that we eat and drink and figure out a way to turn it into chocolate. We have Strawberry Cheesecake and a Key Lime Pie that is two layers so you get the filling and the crust.
VIP: What is the shelf life of your chocolate?
PA: Our chocolates will last 21 days or about a month, but it is best consumed within 7 to 10 days. We use no artificial preservative or sweeteners to prolong shelf life.
VIP: Just as The Peabody Hotel has as its point of difference, you are to be congratulated for carving for yourself a point of difference that sets you apart nationally and internationally. Your chocolates are works of art. Some describe them as Jackson Pollack art. They set you apart nationally and internationally.
PA: We like to call them edible chocolate art. The visual is just as important as the food. People say we eat with our eyes. But they’re not too pretty to eat. That’s what we want to achieve. We want to create the most meticulously fussed-over chocolates. That’s why our pricing is what it is. There is a lot of time and effort in our chocolates. We have chocolates that look like planet Earth. We really want them to be visually stunning!
VIP: You’ve been in Garden&Gun Magazine. How did that come about?
PA: Their art director discovered us first. He has had our chocolates and we were listed in their Top Five Chocolate Boutiques in the South.
VIP: Has it been a long road from your culinary beginnings to being a sought-after expert renowned for designing very imaginative chocolates such as sweet potato, barbecue and blue cheese. You have a passion for fanciful flavors and masterful attention to details, which is apparent when I look at your stunning edible art. The box of chocolates you sent me are gorgeous! They really are almost too pretty to eat, and they are decadently divine!
PA: I am passionate about chocolate and I try to break the mold of what’s been done, not just for the sake of shock value. Some people may be hesitant when we say ‘here’s a barbecue chocolate.’ A lot of time and effort are spent in developing it. It must taste like we say. (A lot of people love our barbecue chocolate because it tastes amazing. If we say it’s mango habanero you get the heat of the habanero. You get the burn and then it kind of goes away. We do white and dark chocolate.
VIP: What do you enjoy most about working with chocolate? Is it because you can utilize your art and food background?
PA: Art and food and having a sales background. What I enjoy about what I do is it allows me to connect with people. I always tell people that what we do is tell stories about chocolate and we have chocolates that are conversation pieces. Each chocolate has a name. The ingredients start conversation. When they taste them they talk about food or drink or places they know. We tell stories that taste like chocolates. Food in general has gone back to farm to table. The key ingredient that attracts people? The stories behind all of this. People want to know the story behind what they buy.
VIP: What is one of the most fun chocolate events in which you have participated?
PA: I haven’t done a ton of food-related events. I do a lot of events in general. One event that I like a lot is the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, which attracts over 10,000 people a year. I have a good time!...I have not spent time in Switzerland, but I am planning on going to the chocolate regions of France and Belgium. I also want to go down to Africa and South America and check out the cocoa farms where they grow the beans. That’s on my agenda for 2018.
VIP: Has it been a long road from being a self-taught chocolatier to selling your designer chocolates to places like Neiman Marcus and Horchow?
PA: Yes. A lot of times people say you’re doing so great so fast. From a surface standpoint it seems like it’s only been 3 or 4 years, but prior to that it was roughly 5 years getting everything going. I had to become a chocolatier. That was step 1 and to learn a very disciplined area of food and one in which it is not easy to find information. It has definitely been a long road but a good one. Looking back I remember reading and trying to find information and starting to play around and make the chocolate and wondering if people would like this and will they get it.
VIP: Did they get it?
PA: Yes, they did. One of the first events I did was in 2010, a full-fledged coming out at the Fed Ex Forum in Memphis. It was well received. People loved the chocolate. I have developed quite a bit since then in different skill sets, all the while working on ways to develop the chocolate.
VIP: You are also a sought-after expert in branding, ideation (ideas), sales and marketing and small business development, speaking to corporate executives and members of the United State Congress. What key points do you present at these sessions?
PA: A big point is developing creative ideas. March 30-April 1 there will be a big entrepreneurship master class at the FedEx Institute of Technology in Memphis, sponsored by FedEx. Approximately 200 businesses will participate and there will be a lot of great speakers. We talk about marketing, business development and business structuring. We even bring in therapists who deal with the emotional and psychological rigors that go with entrepreneurship. We want people to come away inspired, but we also put tangible information and resources in their hands. We want those who are building businesses to take their business to the next life.
What to Know
Phillip Ashley Chocolates
798 South Cooper Street,
Memphis, TN 38104
Instagram, Facebook & Twitter: @phillipashleyus
Store Hours: Starting in February the store will only be open on Saturdays from 10 am to 6 pm. The Virtual Chocolate Boutique is always available to customers. The store ships anywhere in the world.
In March this store will launch its 2017 Spring Collection and begin preparing for Easter. The store customizes chocolate gifting for business and family events.