Self-taught chocolatier Phillip Ashley Rix breaks new ground
Story by Tess Catlett
Food | Feburary 2015
Chef Phillip Ashley Rix isn’t interested in creating run-of-the-mill chocolates. Rather than craft the same tired collection of clusters and crèmes, the artisan chocolatier is after unlikely flavor combinations that invite a second look. Thai lemongrass, fig and pomegranate molasses, and French bleu cheese are among the imaginative pairings generating massive buzz for Rix.
Located in the heart of the Cooper Young District, Philip Ashley Chocolates aims to liberate chocolate from the confines of tradition. And what better way to do that than by ditching the desk to experiment in the kitchen. While employed by the likes of FedEx, UPS and Apple, Rix underwent two years of exhaustive research and sought advice from professionals in the field. “I spent my time immersing myself in everything chocolate, and then I began to let my imagination take over,” he says. “I didn’t wanna be in a restaurant, didn’t want to cater. It was really the entrepreneurial spirit that I was in,” he says. “The truth of it all is that chocolate just hit me. It was like lightning.”
The Memphis native says he really got going in 2009 when he started making chocolates of his own. “I was doing chocolate at night after work, or thinking about it on breaks or off days.” Rix had just started to get things off the ground when he found himself faced with a make-or-break moment. “The first big thing — the first real thing, it just happened to be a big thing — was Soup Sunday 2010,” he says, referring to the annual charity event hosted by FedEx. “I had to make several thousand pieces because I was doing the VIP area, and there were 400 to 500 people, plus everyone else that goes to Soup Sunday.” He had let people try pieces here and there, but this was his first chance to cater to an impartial audience. His inagural offering was the “Mama Jean,” a sweet potato-flavored dark chocolate ganache inspired by his grandmother. Now a signature piece, Rix says this was his opportunity to introduce a new ingredient and create a standout chocolate.
He went on to work with a number of corporations, including Lipscomb & Pitts Insurance, Gould’s Day Spa & Salon and Westin Hotels & Resorts, and made the switch to chocolate full-time. “2012 was when I really started marketing the product,” Rix says, adding that working with companies was his way of getting the chocolate out to a larger audience. “By the time the store came [in 2013], I was doing a lot behind the scenes,” such as pop-up stores and private tastings. “We were pairing chocolates with wine and cocktails, things like that. Those were really ways of getting people to be familiar with, ‘This is what we do at Phillip Ashley Chocolates. This is the product.’”
What sets Phillip Ashley Chocolates apart is that no two pieces are alike. “Several chocolates might have strawberry in the ingredient, but one’s a strawberry caramel and brie ganache, the other one’s a strawberry cheesecake white chocolate ganache with mascarpone and organic strawberry jam, then another one’s strawberry rhubarb with moonshine,” he says. “Everything has it’s own personality.”
“My whole goal was to create the largest portfolio of what I call designer chocolates,” he says. “Most places have 20-30, maybe 40, and we’re approaching 200.” Between two and three dozen are on display at any given moment, and the selection is always shifting. “The thing is, one, to keep people guessing, and then give them a reason to keep coming back in, above and beyond the chocolate just tasting good. You can come in at any time and see something brand new because we’re constantly switching up.” Chocolates like Mama Jean and Memphis BBQ are considered store staples, but after that? “You just never know.” Right now, Rix says he’s working to implement a feature on the website that would enable guests to build their own box based on what’s available in-store. One to watch for is “Kaleidoscope,” an upcoming lemon macadamia nut crunch chocolate.