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Jonathan Grahm

Chocolatier, Los Angeles

Christmas. The season of gift-giving, Mariah-singing and most importantly, chocolate binging. Step in Jonathan Grahm, a modern day Willy Wonka, whose recent rejuvenation of classic Californian chocolate brand Compartés means every day can be Christmas Day.

A mainstay in the LA food scene and a favourite of the Hollywood elite, Jonathan’s handmade chocolates are designed to be both luxury goods and edible art. His chocolate bars, truffles and (brilliantly named) Love Nuts are all prepared from locally sourced ingredients and boxed in Compartés infamously quirky packaging (which Jonathan designs himself.)

We met the enterprising chocolatier at his home in the hills of West Hollywood – a classic LA pad outfitted to represent the varying styles of the city – to hear more about his path to sweet success.

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How long have you lived in Los Angeles? What’s your relationship with the city?

I’m a native Angeleno. I’ve lived here all my life, all 31 years of it. In my opinion, Los Angeles is the best city in the United States. I’d like to say ‘the best city on Earth’ but I haven’t been to every city! LA is an amazing melting pot and is quickly turning into a big cultural player. There’s so many things to do here and so many different industries to experience. The food is great. The weather is great. The vibe is unbeatable.

I sometimes think LA gets a bad wrap, often because people move here and behave in a way that perpetuates a stereotype. Obviously we have the entertainment industry in LA – which plays a big part in stereotyping the city – but not everyone here is a wannabe actor, including myself!

Tell us more about the history of Compartés and your involvement with its transformation.

I’ve been making chocolate ever since I was 15, but I’ve always been a foodie at heart! My parents own a winery in Santa Cruz called Bonny Doon Vineyards and my Grandma used to be a food salesperson; she used to pick me up from school and take me into the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in LA. I’d be tasting gourmet foods and experiencing the business first hand – that helped me acquire a palate and a love for food from an early age.

Compartés was founded in 1950, but I started working there in 2000, initially just helping with shipping. Whenever I could, I would play with recipes myself, experimenting with fudge flavours like rosemary and pine nut. It was at this point I created Love Nuts (hand-roasted nuts caramelised with Tahitian vanilla beans, sea salt and covered in Compartés chocolate and brut cocoa), which has now become one of my signature items. The range was featured in Food & Wine magazine as one of the top 99 foods in the country to try. As an 18 year old kid with no culinary school experience, that was a really big deal for me.

After this exposure, people started to take notice of Compartés and the chocolate we were creating. When I was 21, I became the official chocolatier for the brand and started making more and more of my recipes, aiming to modernise what was then a very traditional company.

At 24, I bought the business and opened seven stores in Japan, allowing me the capital to reinvest. The first year I rebranded. The second year I bought new tempering kettles. The third year I secured a new factory space. Every year I would take whatever profits I made from the business and use them to help it grow.

Why did you choose to open your first international stores in Japan?

It’s funny: I was invited to compete in a chocolate-tasting competition by Takashimaya, a prestigious department store in Japan, after they’d read about Compartés in a magazine. I was up against twenty four other chocolatiers in a blind taste test…and ended up winning!

It was a big shock that this young kid from LA had beaten twenty four well-known European chocolate makers. I was on TV and in Japanese newspapers – it was totally crazy! The demand quickly spiralled out of control, from one stockist, to fourteen, to fifty… I couldn’t handle it!

It was a big shock that this young kid from LA had beaten twenty four well-known European chocolate makers. I was on TV and in Japanese newspapers – it was totally crazy!

The Compartés brand is so visually interesting. How would you describe its aesthetic?

It’s a representation of me, 100%. It has evolved just like I have. The aesthetic when I was 21 is so different from when I was 25 and from what it is now.


And you design the packaging yourself? How do you decide on a theme for each bar?

Every time I design a new bar, I have an idea for how I want to make it look better than the last. There’s a poem on the back of every bar, which I write myself. I also like to include a personal reference where I can. The Campfire S’mores packaging, for example, has my dogs Samson and Rocco on the back of it. And, if you look really closely, you’ll spot me on the front of it, in the lake. That will be my legacy – in the lake on the S’mores packaging!

How would you describe the overlap between the aesthetics of your work life and home life?

I think my house is very “California,” or very “Los Angeles” to be more specific. It’s comfy and cosy, with a real sense of history. Compartés has that too, having been in Los Angeles for sixty five years. Both are very personal, yet my home is an escape from my day to day at Compartés. I sleep and dream of chocolate but I need my place to escape it.


How does your sexuality influence your work, if at all?

I absolutely think it does. There’s a Compartés bar called Biscuits & Honey which has remained somewhat under the radar because of its risqué packaging. It’s a white and blue toile pattern which looks like your grandmother’s tea set at first glance. But if you look closely, the toile depicts sexual acts between men – there’s a dude with a snake coming out of his penis and two statues giving each other head. The funny thing is, despite the graphics, there’s no nudity. The statues are arranged in a tasteful way so that you don’t actually see anything. In forty chocolate bars, I wanted to allow myself the space to be who I am. It’s not blatant. It doesn’t say that this is “a gay chocolate bar,” featuring hot, hot, hot men. You will only find it if you look closely.

What’s interesting is that when it went to print, of the fifty or sixty thousand boxes being printed with different designs, my printer refused to produce that bar.


Really?

Really. I was at the point of pulling all my bars from them. I should be able to have something gay out there! If it had shown tits, I don’t know if they would have been so upset. After a lot of angry phone calls back and forth, I ended up winning and changing their views altogether! They’ve since gone on to buy lots of those bars, a fact I’m really proud of.

If you look at other independant chocolate brands like Mast Brothers, (who are also famous for their packaging) you’ll notice their aesthetic is very masculine. Compartés is neither masculine nor feminine, it just is. It doesn’t need to be defined.

How would you describe the gay scene in LA?

I think the LA gay scene sucks! Besides the fact that I love the weather and I’m a native, I sometime think I’d rather be in New York or San Francisco. Their gay scenes are much better and I feel like I’d fit in better there. It’s a lot more creative. Here, gay culture is driven by how big your muscle is…


Ha!

MUSCLES! I mean muscles!

It’s also dependant on who your sugar daddy is or what director you’re friends with. I may be stereotyping here but unfortunately there’s a reason for the stereotype.

Generally, I wish that there was a broader gay scene here in LA; I wish it wasn’t just concentrated in WeHo. Being a gay thirtysomething in Los Angeles is a very interesting place to be. The twenty year olds are all in WeHo, whilst the forty and fifty year olds are going to museums and food festivals. But where do the thirtysomethings go? I don’t know!

Being a gay thirtysomething in Los Angeles is a very interesting place to be. The twenty year olds are all in WeHo, whilst the forty and fifty year olds are going to museums and food festivals. But where do the thirtysomethings go?

What’s next for Compartés?

I’ve just finished a new collaboration with designer Kelly Wearstler. We started with four chocolate bars but soon there’ll be sixteen, including lots of limited edition bars debuting for the holidays like Fettiluxe and Zephyr, plus another four new ones coming in 2016! It’s a really fun process working with Kelly. We talk about colours and inspirations – it’s a real collaborative effort. She was one of my design idols growing up so to be working with her now is amazing.

We also have an Apple Pie bar and a Vegan Zen bar (dark chocolate and kale) launching soon. If we have to eat kale, we may as well make it a little sweet.

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