It’s not every day you get a chance to visit Barry Callebaut’s Chicago Chocolate Academy — and when you do, you jump on it.
Having been there once before for the U.S. qualifying round of the World Chocolate Masters competition — sponsored by Cacao Barry — I was pleased to see the Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network (CFBN) planned to host a gathering there Feb. 1, which centered around innovating in chocolate.
Founded in 2017, the burgeoning CFBN aims to connect professionals from all sectors and levels of the food and beverage industry. And with its strong culinary and manufacturing traditions, Chicago is the perfect place for such an organization.
“(The food industry) is incredibly important to Chicagoland,” Executive Director Alan Reed told the group gathered in a Barry Callebaut conference room. “It’s one of the things we’re best at.” 
He also pointed to Chicago’s confectionery roots, citing heavyweights such as Mars Wrigley Confectionery, Ferrara Candy Co., Fannie May, Tootsie Roll and Frango Mints, purchased last year by Garrett Brands, maker of another Chicago staple, Garrett gourmet popcorn.
But the confectionery industry is only one piece of the puzzle. The CFBN strives to provide opportunities for collaboration and support among the whole food industry’s professionals in hopes of driving innovation and growth in the region.  
“We want to put interesting people together in places you probably haven’t been before,” Reed said.
Speaking at the Feb. 1 event — called “Chocolate Unwrapped: An Exploration into the Sweet Side of Innovation” — were Beau Netzer, v.p. of specialty & decorations, marketing & sales, for Barry Callebaut, and Katrina Markoff, founder of Vosges Haut-Chocolat.
Markoff gave an overview of her winding journey toward chocolate, starting in her Macedonian household with an Easy-Bake oven and moving through her studies at the Cordon Bleu in Paris; her work under Ferran Adrià at world-renowned restaurant elBulli; and a gastronomic voyage around the globe, where she discovered flavors and ingredients that would later inspire her chocolate creations.
Markoff said knowing the origins, histories and people behind the ingredients adds a dimension that endears her — and customers — just as much as the products themselves.
“It’s really about the love, the story,” she said. “The story always comes first for me.”
Netzer, meanwhile, gave CFBN members a look at Barry Callebaut’s innovation pipeline, which includes a network of chefs with ears to the ground for culinary trends.
However, curious audience members quickly turned the conversation toward Ruby chocolate, which Barry Callebaut has billed as the fourth type of chocolate behind dark, milk and white.
Made with red Ruby cocoa sourced from Ecuador, Brazil and the Ivory Coast, it’s supposed to have a fruity, berry-like flavor. So far, only Nestlé Japan has introduced a product with the rosy chocolate — KitKat Chocolatory Sublime Ruby. It’s only available in South Korea and Japan on a limited-edition basis.
“It’s creating quite a buzz,” Netzer said.
It’ll likely be awhile before we see any Ruby chocolate sweets from major manufacturers in the United States. Netzer said Barry Callebaut is undergoing the process to have it recognized as chocolate under the Food and Drug Administration’s standard of identity.
Though Netzer had no Ruby samples on hand, guests still had their fair share of chocolate. Vosges offered a rosé white chocolate heart and a coconut curry truffle. Barry Callebaut chef Russ Thayer offered a caramel bouchée and his take on Black Forest cake.
Reed noted the CFBN currently hosts four events a month, but it plans to expand that to six to eight. If they’re as sweet as this one, I won’t be the only one jumping to attend.