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Wine & Dine
January 09, 2019

How A Computer-Science-Turned-Chocolatier Made Chocolate Guilt-Free With Her Ayurveda-Inspired Brand

Text by Sholeen Damarwala

We were in for a treat when we met entrepreneur Alak Vasa in New York where we were introduced to her brand Elements Truffles

At 33, Alak Vasa scored her first internship at a professional patisserie. A trained computer scientist from the University of Southern California, Vasa, who had been chasing big numbers on Wall Street for a decade, would spend Saturday mornings mopping the floor, breaking eggs or, if she was lucky, putting the finishing touches on delicate bakes at the popular Manhattan bakery, Financier Patisserie. “I was looking for a patisserie course and happened to ask the chef at my favourite New York City bakery for recommendations, and he told me to come work for him,” she says. “So I did.” When six months were up, Vasa went back to the safety net of a regular routine and healthy paycheck as an algorithmic trader.

Five years later, in 2015, she decided it was finally time to follow her heart. “I couldn’t suppress my inner voice any longer. It was so strong and it kept telling me that I was meant to be doing something else with my life,” she says. What that ‘something else’ was, Vasa didn’t know yet. What she did know, however, was her love for food. Especially of the sweet kind.

Vasa spent months tinkering in her tiny Jersey City kitchen, working with natural sweeteners such as raw honey, apricots and dates to create healthy versions of her favourite sweets. First, she experimented with ice-creams, a treat she often spent free weekends whipping up and selling to close friends and family, donating the proceeds to her favourite charity. But this was New York, a city where summers were short and sweet and the cravings for cold treats waned as soon as the temperatures dropped. Then came about an assortment of desserts like truffles and cacao balls made using spices conventionally reserved for savoury dishes. The experiments were a success with early testers — good friends and close family — convincing Vasa’s husband that she was ready to hit the market. He coerced his reluctant wife into setting up a stall at their local farmer’s market in Jersey City and selling a few of their favourite offerings — a variety of petit fours and a decadent chocolate truffle infused with dried raspberries. While Vasa’s use of natural sweeteners and healthy ingredients was much appreciated, she noticed that the chocolate truffles particularly were a ‘hit’.

Inspiration struck and Vasa stocked up on a bag of raw cacao and a jar of honey and decided to focus on making chocolates infused with ingredients she was well acquainted with. A strong proponent of the Ayurveda philosophy of using food to heal the body, Vasa reached for the jars in her spice rack, blending pungent and sharp flavours like turmeric, ginger, black pepper and clove with high-quality cacao to create unique flavour profiles. When looking for a name for her new venture, Vasa again turned to Ayurveda, and thus was born Elements Truffles, inspired by the five key elements — ether, air, fire, water and earth. She geared up to test her truffles at the two-day Artists & Fleas market in Williamsburg. “At the end of the first day, I was completely sold out,” she says. Dashing to the nearest Whole Foods, Vasa grabbed a fresh batch of ingredients and stayed up all night preparing for the second day, only to sell out again by mid-afternoon. “This was a moment of validation, and it pushed me to keep doing more markets, identifying a customer base and building a network of vendors,” she says.

That was almost two years ago. Today, Vasa has upgraded from her tiny kitchen to an industrial space in New Jersey. Here, her growing team of employees peacefully temper chocolate, pour smooth and shiny mixtures into custom-made moulds and wrap vegan bars in 100 per cent recyclable packaging to the background sounds of Vedic chants so that each bar is infused with subtle positivity and energy. Vasa’s artisanal chocolates also hold shelf space at most major grocery chains around the United States, with plans to ship to Canada in the works. The focus of her business has now shifted to chocolate bars, though she still produces a box of assorted truffles and Pantry Edition Bars of small chocolate squares that are cleverly used to test the market for new flavour combinations. Her roster of flavours has also grown — from four to nine. But her intention to sell guilt-free chocolates that are decadent yet good for the body hasn’t wavered. “Even though we have expanded, I am still committed to making healthy chocolates,” she says. And yes, the irony of using ‘chocolates’ and ‘health’ in the very same sentence isn’t lost on her.

“I use the word ‘healthy’ because when you eat a bite of the chocolate, you don’t experience an instant sugar rush,” she says. “There’s just raw honey, which is low glycaemic, so you don’t feel the immediate surge of sugar, and it gets absorbed in your bloodstream more evenly. But that does not mean you shouldn’t use your discretion.” To put it simply: indulge in moderation.

Her current bestseller happens to be one of the first flavours that she launched her business with: raspberry with a beetroot infusion. The bar has a lovely mild sweetness from the beetroot flavour while the freeze-dried raspberries add a touch of fruitiness. It has a fudgy texture that comes from the richness of the cacao that Vasa sources directly from farmers in Ecuador and Peru. Her personal favourite, though, is sea salt with turmeric infusion, which is made with turmeric sourced from India and a sprinkle of sea salt acquired from a family farm in Greece. While turmeric is the current superfood taking over lattes and sprinkled over dishes for good luck (and health), its use in chocolate is still largely unexplored. Vasa’s addition of sea salt goes a long way towards making the pungent property of turmeric more palatable. The flavour received such positive feedback from consumers that she even made a version for hot chocolate lovers. There is also a lemon-coriander flavoured bar that’s in line for production, but she worries that consumers may not be ready for it just yet. Is her choice of how to mix flavours unconventional, you wonder? “Ayurveda is a beautiful science and not enough people are aware of it, so I am using the medium of chocolate to introduce them to these different flavour profiles, which they can eventually integrate into their own lives,” she adds.

Vasa’s business model is deeply rooted in mindfulness — from the choice of ingredients to the decision to donate 25 per cent of the profits to charities that support the education of underprivileged children. “I am very determined to build a brand that is ethical, fair trade, and has a strong sense of purpose,” she says. “Otherwise we could very well turn into just another venture on Wall Street.” While Vasa hopes to eventually expand and go mainstream, she’s also working on slowly building her inventory with healthy versions of cookies, popcorn made using sorghum (jowar) seeds and desserts created with ghee. “I want to be like that lady in Chocolat (2000) and eventually open my own brick-and-mortar space, where people can indulge without worrying about whether we snuck in some nasty ingredient,” she says. “Our goal is to bring our products to people who have never heard of Ayurveda-inspired chocolate and spread the love, showing that you can have a business which gives back, does good and is still successful.”

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