R.I.P., Robert Steinberg

Dr. Robert Steinberg, cofounder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, died last Wednesday after a protracted battle with lymphatic cancer. He was 61.

Tributes to Steinberg have since been appearing all over the Web. A memorial page has been established that collects most of them. The reminiscences paint a picture of a passionate man who was dedicated to perfecting whatever he put his hand to. Trained as a medical doctor, Steinberg gave up his family medicine practice about 20 years ago after his cancer diagnosis. His sister, Nancy Steinberg, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “He thought about his life and re-evaluated his decisions because he realized he would be ill. He knew he wanted to do something with food because he had always loved cooking.” American chocolate had not yet undergone the renaissance then occurring with wine and coffee, and Steinberg thought the country was ready. He partnered with past patient and successful winemaker John Scharffenberger, and the company was born.

David Lebovitz reminisces about meeting Steinberg around the time he started experimenting with chocolate, in a “barren parking lot in a scruffy section of San Francisco,” and tasting “a small nugget of something dark, sticky, and melted” that Steinberg pulled out of his pocket. “When I stuck my finger in,” Lebovitz recalls, “then put it in my mouth, there was an explosion of flavor: dark and roasty, only slightly sweet, and very rich. It was pure chocolate, but unlike any other that I’d tasted before.”

Scharffen Berger chocolate proved to be a hit with home bakers, who were seeking a richer, more European taste for their desserts, writes Ed Levine at Serious Eats. Where Scharffen Berger went, more artisan chocolate makers followed.

After Hershey bought Scharffen Berger in 2005, Steinberg turned to helping cacao farmers in Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Honduras grow higher-quality beans and get a fair market price.

“If it wasn’t for Robert, the chocolate aisle in America would be a much sadder place than it is today,” Lebovitz writes.

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