Amidst the bustling kitchen of a London hotel, I find myself delicately balancing a 1/16in metal tube above a hairdryer, a chocolate artisan's toolkit in hand. Intent on perfection, each move is a dance, and my fingertips are at stake. The heated tube, resembling a chocolate hole punch, hovers over six miniature chocolate wings, a mere thumbnail in size, each adorned in a dazzling turquoise hue. Gabriella Cugno, the maestro chocolatier, oversees my meticulous efforts, guiding me to pierce the wings with poised confidence.
With a thin paintbrush, I delicately dab powdered gold leaf around the edges of the chocolate cavities, creating an ethereal glow. Armed with a dotter tool, I dip into melted raw cocoa butter dyed Barbie pink, adorning the creation with tiny pink dots between the golden rings. To my surprise, in mere minutes, I've fashioned something reminiscent of a "hoverchoc." And if the term is unfamiliar, a delightful revelation awaits.
Cugno, the mastermind behind this sweet spectacle, meticulously crafted 900 hoverchocs for "Wonka," the upcoming prequel to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Set to claim the coveted top spot in global box offices this Christmas, the film's every chocolate piece is a tangible work of art. In a departure from the norm, where cinema relied on illusions (like Gene Wilder biting into a wax teacup), "Wonka" unfolds with all its chocolate magic authentically brought to life.
A Cardiff-based chocolate artist, Cugno, catapulted from her world of artisanal confections to the glitz of Hollywood after an unexpected email. From Zoom calls with prop masters to script deliveries, she immersed herself in Wonka's universe—every hoverchoc and silver lining intricately studied. Unlike its predecessors, relying on fakes or CGI, "Wonka" unveils a delectable world where reality meets fantasy, crafted by the hands of a chocolatier enchanted by Dahl's timeless tale.
In the intricate world of chocolate alchemy for "Wonka," Gabriella Cugno draws parallels between her creative process and the whimsical nature of Gene Wilder's Wonka. Recounting vivid moments, she recalls Wilder's "literal" approach, infusing chocolates with a kick by tossing in a trainer or adding warmth with a coat. Taking a cue from this, Cugno channels the essence of each chocolate's name into its design, ensuring that if it's called "silver linings," it must boast a bold silver lining, mirroring Timothée Chalamet's Wonka's descriptions.
For Cugno, design always took precedence; the mantra being, "These have to be the most magical chocolates in the world, and I took that responsibility seriously." The challenges of working with a temperamental ingredient like chocolate were ever-present. From pondering the warmth of Chalamet's hands to crafting delicate yet sturdy chocolate flowers, the conundrums were as diverse as they were demanding.
The confectionery not only had to be visually enchanting but also had to convey character traits. Cugno delved into color psychology, employing blacks and reds for characters with a darker disposition, and vibrant hues like pinks, yellows, turquoises, and greens for more amiable scenes. Gold leaf emerged as a key tool in the art of "Wonkafying" creations, adding a touch of opulence to the chocolates.
However, the challenges extended beyond aesthetics. Cugno had to ensure that the cast wouldn't tire of indulging in her delectable creations during numerous takes. Presenting her ideas to director Paul King was a nerve-wracking experience, as she meticulously designed 10 chocolates in five subtly different versions each. From wacky to soft and gentle, Cugno left no stone unturned in her quest to infuse the cinematic world of "Wonka" with an enchanting and delectable magic that goes beyond the silver screen.
In a cinematic confluence of creativity, director Paul King marveled at Gabriella Cugno's chocolate wonders, leading to the construction of two kitchens at Warner Bros Studios. There, in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, Cugno embarked on a solo journey, working tirelessly to bring her enchanting chocolate creations to life. Using a whopping 330lb of chocolate, she navigated the demanding process with occasional assistance from the props department during the decorating phase.
Recognizing the pivotal role her chocolates played in King's vision, Cugno found herself facing unexpected challenges. When King requested a chocolate cup for Wonka to bite into, the clock ticked mercilessly — a mere two hours to create culinary magic. Undeterred, Cugno improvised, drawing inspiration from a bunch of roses used to craft chocolate petals. With resourcefulness and ingenuity, she fashioned a blue chocolate teacup, impressing King and sparking the creation of five more.
Yet, the challenges did not cease. On set, Cugno stood guard over a vat of liquid chocolate, delicately balancing its temperature to prevent solidification while ensuring it remained safe for Timothée Chalamet's aquatic scene. The journey from a childhood fascination with Roald Dahl's cookbook to this pivotal moment was nothing short of surreal for the 30-year-old chocolatier.
Cugno's connection to King's Wonka, characterized by hope and childlike inspiration, echoes her own journey. Her passion for becoming a chocolatier blossomed during childhood holidays in France, gazing longingly into chocolate shop windows. Starting in restaurants at 15 and moving to London at 19 for a chocolaterie apprenticeship, she honed her craft in the pastry sections of five-star hotels. Her love for chocolate transcended the confines of her professional life, as she spent her free hours crafting delectable wonders, a testament to a lifelong devotion to the art of chocolate.
Embarking on an independent journey, Gabriella Cugno has transformed her passion for chocolate into a flourishing career. In her Cardiff production kitchen, she crafts chocolate sculptures and paintings, creating edible masterpieces for events around the globe. One standout memory involves catering a wedding in India for a renowned family, where Beyoncé graced the stage, making it an unforgettable experience.
While each project adds a unique chapter to Cugno's chocolatier story, her role in "Wonka" stands out as the luckiest venture yet. Amidst the magic of the film set, she shares cherished moments spent teaching Sally Hawkins, who portrays Timothée Chalamet's on-screen mother, the art of working with chocolate. Cugno's kitchen not only served as a creative space but also a hub for nourishing the cast and crew. "There was always a lot of chocolate on set for everyone to eat," she recalls, emphasizing her commitment to balance taste with design.
Her culinary expertise extended beyond aesthetics, with multiple versions of each chocolate tailored to accommodate various dietary needs. From plant-based to gluten-free, Cugno ensured that every indulgence maintained its delectable essence. For instance, the hoverchocs boasted a sharp raspberry kick to cut through the richness, making them a sensory delight.
In a moment of personal indulgence, Cugno's hoverchocs receive a final touch – a spritz of spray ice to perfect the union between wings and body. A bite into one reveals a harmonious blend of dark, bitter cocoa, tangy raspberry, and just the right amount of creamy sweetness. As she contemplates the prospect of consuming 20, one can't help but be enchanted by the magic woven into each of Cugno's chocolate creations.
In the delightful tapestry of Gabriella Cugno's chocolate odyssey, from the kitchens of Cardiff to the dazzling stages of Bollywood, each chapter tells a story of passion, creativity, and culinary mastery. Striking out on her own, Cugno has not only crafted chocolate sculptures for prestigious events but has also left her mark on the enchanting world of "Wonka."
From catering a wedding in India, graced by the presence of Beyoncé, to sharing chocolate-making moments with Sally Hawkins on the film set, Cugno's journey is a testament to the artistry of her craft. Her kitchen became a hub of creativity, not only feeding the cast and crew but also serving as a canvas for her edible masterpieces.
As she carefully balanced taste and design, accommodating various dietary needs with multiple versions of each chocolate, Cugno's dedication shone through. The hoverchocs, with their sharp raspberry twist, exemplify her commitment to creating not just visually stunning but also sensorially delightful treats.
In the final act of this chocolate symphony, a spritz of spray ice perfects the hoverchocs, embodying the meticulous attention to detail that defines Cugno's creations. With a bite, one experiences the harmonious interplay of flavors – dark cocoa, tangy raspberry, and a perfect touch of creamy sweetness.
As Cugno contemplates indulging in 20 hoverchocs, the conclusion of this chocolate tale is one of sweet success, a journey that transcends borders and flavors, leaving a delectable imprint on the palates and memories of those fortunate enough to savor her creations.