Knam, the solo artist of chocolate
Upon entering Ernst Knam’s office in Via Anfossi in Milan, a few blocks from the pastry shop he opened in 1992, it is immediately apparent that he isn’t just the “king of chocolate” (the title of the 2012 television show featuring him); he is also very much a manager. The chef and mâitre chocolatier moves quickly and decisively from room to room giving orders to his employees with that unmistakable German accent. MAG met with him here to learn how he went from being a student of Gualtiero Marchesi to being a successful businessman today.
How has your business evolved over the years? Do you have partners?
I work with my wife. I take care of more of the pastry side of things, new recipes and research. But I know exactly what goes on inside, from the selection of ingredients to production and buying. When I started 25 years ago, I was alone. Now there are 18 of us, so I can also delegate to my employees, but I try to keep every area of the company under my direct supervision.
What is the turnover of your pastry shop?
Our turnover is about 2 million euros.
Today, does a chef need to be a business?
He should, but it’s not easy. Restaurants are a very specific industry, and if you haven’t trained in this industry, and don’t know its mechanisms, it is very difficult to be successful. You need to keep in mind that beyond just passion, there is a lot of work that goes into making sure that the business side is profitable on its own.
What do you think about the role of the chef today?
Today, chefs have so much exposure, even with television programs, and they’ve reached the height of notoriety. But all of this, like all phenomena, won’t last forever. Only those with a solid foundation who are known for the quality of their dishes and products will be able to prosper afterward.
What do you mean?
If we look at Milan over the last three years, restaurants have doubled from 4,000 to almost 8,000. The market is saturated. Many restaurants close after a short time, and this shows how little knowledge there is of the market and probably doesn’t reflect well on the product offered to the public.
What advice would you give to someone entering this industry?
First and foremost, you need to make a quality product at the right price, and you need the right amount of expertise. Then you need to put a lot of thought into choosing the location where you want to open. For example, in the center of the city or outside the city? There are other important factors like if it is easy to park nearby.
With your shows like Bake Off Italia and Che Diavolo di Pasticceria, how important is being on TV for your business?
It obviously gave me a big boost. Initially, I refused various offers, and then I got an offer that made me realize that I’d be able to enter into people’s homes, get my name out there, and, at the same time, do my work and let a wider audience see it. This would allow me to share a part of my passion and knowledge of this world with them. Today people come to Knam to perhaps take a picture then buy some chocolates or a cake…the shop is always full. But, at the same time, many people write to me to ask for advice or to compliment me on the techniques that they see on TV or to send me photos of their creations. That is when I realize that I’ve introduced many people to pastry making, and this is one of the greatest sources of satisfaction to come from my television activities.
What other activities do you have?
Years ago, I did a lot of catering. Now I do 50 banquets a year max. I also write books, and this year, I published one with Mondadori, Dolce Dentro, and I’m working on a second. I am a spokesperson for Electrolux, but not many other companies. I don’t want my face plastered everywhere. In any case, pastry is my main business and other businesses come after. It’s like a cake with a lot of slices, which follows market demand.
Who helps you with the legal side of things?
Lawyer Dante De Benedetti from the Mdba firm who helps me with contracts with companies and all legal aspects involving my business. He is also my best friend in Italy, and we see each other socially. In addition to being very qualified in his field, he’s an expert on fine dining.
Have you ever received offers from financial groups?
There is some interest from those that would like to invest, but we are currently in the evaluation stage. I have some things cooking, but let’s see how they turn out. I am someone who makes decisions very carefully.
I think the best companies are those with odd numbers fewer than three. My wife and I are one. It is better to have a solid foundation. It is difficult to take giant steps, and at times, it is better to say “no.”
Do you have other plans?
I don’t make plans. I achieve. I don’t like to talk about the future in a non-concrete way. Today, I prefer to focus on the present, work to reach my objectives and then, once I’ve arrived where I want to be, I can explain how I made that possible.
Is there something or some place you’d like to conquer?
I would like to open something in countries where it would be worth it, and places I’ve worked. Like in Asia, Japan, Singapore or Hong Kong. We are working on this to see if there are real opportunities.
You also have a past in savory foods…
Savory foods are all well and good, but I want to continue to focus on chocolate and pastry, my core business, with the highest level of quality.
Finally, could you tell us what you learned from Maestro Marchesi?
Marchesi always said that to make a good dish that you needed to take away and not add. In my time with him, he taught me a true philosophy of food that, more than 20 years later, I still rely on when I come up with my recipes.