Castlebar businessman and master chocolatier Dirk Schonkeren, who runs Helena Chocolates, the well known Castlebar café, has just been appointed as a World Chocolate Ambassador by the world’s biggest chocolate company, Barry Callebaut. The prestigious Chocolate Ambassador Club has just 70 members and Dirk is the first chocolatier in Ireland to receive the honour. He will attend a two-day seminar in Belgium and will then be called upon to share his master craft with other chocolatiers from around the globe. Dirk also plans to run some practical introduction to chocolate courses locally in the near future.
The Chocolate Ambassadors form a vibrant network bringing together chefs, pastry chefs, master bakers, and confectioners of international reputation. They share a common mission: To transfer know-how in chocolate and processing techniques to other craftsmen all over the world. Barry Callebaut is the world’s leading manufacturer of high-quality cocoa and chocolate with an astounding €3.1 billion in annual sales. The Zurich-based company has 40 plants in 26 countries and employs more than 7,000 people. Chocolate is big business.
After more than a quarter of a century Belgian-born Dirk Schonkeren is a naturalised Mayoman, and is a familiar sight around Castlebar. He is overwhelmed by the accolade, saying, “I just can’t believe I have been appointed as a Chocolate Ambassador. It is a huge honour and a big tribute to the work I have been doing in Helena Chocolates since 1985. I am the sole Chocolate Ambassador on the island of Ireland so this is a really prestigious appointment.” Schonkeren is in good company with chocolatiers such as Garry Hunter and Thierry du Mouchel in the UK.
Schonkeren has noticed a recent increase in the popularity of handmade chocolates and people are becoming very discerning about the quality. Visitors deliberately seek out Helena to get their ‘chocolate fix’ relaxing over delicious chocolate cakes or confectionary and a smooth coffee alongside. Sales of boxes or bags, each bearing the distinctive Helena logo, remain steady. Chocoholics are commonplace in Castlebar.
When Schonkeren and his wife Elaine opened the first Helena Chocolates shop back in 1987, it was a pioneering move. “Things were very different then,” he recalls. “We were just about the first shop to make and sell our own chocolates, most of the others just imported directly from Belgium or the UK.” Two years ago the enterprising pair decided the time was ripe for expansion into the café business and the Helena Chocolates Shop, Restaurant and Dessert Lounge on Cavendish Lane was born. This chocolate heaven not only offers handmade chocolates but also a wide range of cakes, pastries, and chocolate sculptures — all made by Schonkeren on the premises of course.
Schonkeren’s background is as a chef. He trained in Belgium and has worked in Antwerp, Brussels, and as executive head chef in both the Silver Springs Hotel in Cork and the Mount Brandon Hotel in Kerry. He also spent two years lecturing in culinary arts at Rockwell Catering College. He received Silver and Bronze medals at the Salon Culinaire in Dublin and also won the National Cheese Recipe Award run by the Dairy Council of Ireland in 1983.