As soon as people find out what Ann Czaja does for a living, she knows what'll come next: First, "Do you have chocolate with you?" And then, "How can I get your job?"
The job is master chocolatier with Lindt Chocolate, the world's leading producer of premium chocolate. "We are experts in the field of confectionary and chocolate," Czaja tells Glamour from her home in New Hampshire. "All of us who are master chocolatiers did classic apprenticeships as chocolatier pastry chefs. We honed our skills and have devoted our lives to chocolate," she says, adding that there are worse things to devote your life to. She's also the senior product developer in research and development for Lindt, as well as its brand spokesperson. "I get to create the chocolate, but I also get to teach about chocolate."
Growing up, Czaja didn't have much exposure to sweets. "It was a treat now and then," she remembers. But after moving to Switzerland, she fell for great chocolate. And now of course, she is more than an enthusiast. She's a pro. Because working with chocolate doesn't mean just having an obsessive love of chocolate—thought Czaja definitely does. It means having a refined palate as a product developer, she explains. "It's something I've been doing for a long time."
When we reach her—approximately a week into most cities' stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of coronavirus—Czaja says she's still going into Lindt's USA headquarters two times a week and senior management is assessing next steps. But before the crisis, Czaja would arrive at 7:30 a.m. and not leave until 6 p.m. "Usually, I'm in the lab making prototypes, or meeting with marketing, or teaching new hires and on-boarding them with chocolate knowledge," she says of a typical day.
The constant, she notes, is tasting chocolate. "The other day I probably ate a dozen truffles while making samples of new Lindor prototypes, but [otherwise] the secret is to spit," she reveals. "I have to spit. I used to do a lot of quality checks, and I'm on panels that taste the cocoa beans, plus other products, so I eat a lot of chocolate." (For the record, she is also a two-time triathlete. Isn't life all about balance?)
Her hard work has paid off. In fact, you've probably sampled it yourself. Some of her newest products include the Lindt Classic Recipe 45% and 55% milk chocolate bars, now on store shelves. For Czaja, the real perk of the job is seeing one of her ideas come to fruition—in signature packaging. "They're all my babies," she says.
Here, Czaja talks the road not taken, not getting into medical school, and the power of a midlife pivot.
Your “failures” often put you on the right path.
I decided to take the leap of faith to go to Switzerland with my boyfriend when I couldn’t get into medical school in the States. I don't think I worked hard enough as an undergraduate. I was a collegiate athlete on a rowing scholarship and put more time into athletics than I did into studying. But also, I just couldn't get past the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Along the way I became very disenchanted with the whole process. But still, all I ever wanted to do was be a doctor and go into emergency medicine. I grew up in a medical family; my mom was a registered nurse, and my dad was a firefighter. And my sister is a professional firefighter, and my brother is a nurse. But it just didn’t quite work out for me.
So when my boyfriend (who was a classical musician and half-Swiss) said we could go to Switzerland for a year, where his family had a gourmet grocery and catering business in a very affluent town, I was all in. However, because I couldn't speak Swiss German, they put me in the kitchen. I was a superhard worker, and the chef took pity on me, so he taught me how to make desserts, which is where I developed a passion for being in a professional kitchen.
Don’t fight that breakup.
I left my ex's family business after we broke up and had to figure out what I was going to do because I didn’t have the safety net of his family and their business. I had to step out into the world and make it on my own in Switzerland. And I did. I moved to Zurich, got a job. I had a lot of friends by then, and they were super supportive and helpful. I was in a good place, and I ended up meeting the now love of my life, who I’ve been married to for quite a while. He’s a master chef as well.
Don’t let age stop you. I was 37 when I went back to school.
I wanted to get my credentials as a chocolatier pastry chef, but there were a ton of roadblocks. Whenever I would go for a job interview, they would say, “You have experience, but you don’t have the credentials.” It didn’t matter that I had a university degree; I need those credentials. So at 37, I did an apprenticeship as a chocolatier pastry chef in Zurich at a trade school, called Berufsbildungsschule Winterthur. I was in school for three years and graduated when I was 40. The kids in school were obviously a lot younger than me, but they were super supportive and wonderful.
The important thing to remember is you don't have to stay in a profession or a job you're unhappy with. It’s so empowering to follow a dream, but that doesn’t mean it's easy. When I came home from my first day of school, I was so flustered, thinking, Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? This is hard. And everybody else is all younger than me. Then, later that day, my boyfriend, who's now my husband, called me and said, "Turn on the TV." I didn’t want to, because, as far as I was concerned, I had had the worst day ever. But he was insistent, so I did.
Everything had changed. It was September 11, 2001. It was a real realization. "You know what? Life is short. So get that diploma, write that book, paint that picture. Live your life."
The secret to success is asking yourself the hard questions.
I wish I could have told myself back then to take a deep breath. I would have said, "You're going to be okay. You're really smart, and you are a passionate person." You have to really pursue things that interest you. Don't listen to what people think you should do, because everybody's going to give you their two cents. You have to really follow not only your heart but your gut. Does this feel right for me? Is this I want to do? Try it. Maybe it won't work, but you won't know until you try. There are a lot of people that don't take those steps. I've met a lot of people who have regrets in life. I never want to be one of those people. I love trying new things and taking new adventures. I've worked hard, but I'm lucky.
Never choose a career based on the money.
Switzerland is so expensive, and I was always aware of the salary range for this type of job, especially there. Obviously this was more than 15 years ago when I started, so it’s not the same salary as it is today, but you don’t do this for the money. Back then I made about 4,200 Swiss francs a month, so that means I had about 100 Swiss francs left to spend after I paid all my bills. I had to have a roommate, because there’s no way to sustain any kind of lifestyle there living on your own on that salary. In fact, one of my former teachers told me that he noticed an overall decrease of people interested in the profession because it’s not very well paid. You have to be passionate about it, especially starting out.
Your dream career might be something you haven’t even heard of.
I had no idea there was even a job called a master chocolatier. What happened was, I went back to my job as the head pastry chef for a group of restaurants. I was not really happy, because I wasn't getting to work with chocolate. Then a job came up at the Zurich airport for a show chocolatier doing live demonstrations. I applied, but they kept the fact that it was for Lindt a secret. Then, out of 50 to 60 applicants, I was chosen along with one other person. That was the first time I had ever heard of the role—a Lindt master chocolatier. It was also the first time I put the uniform on, which feels super special. I felt very proud. And I’ve been wearing that uniform ever since. Oh, and here's a secret: It's actually a badge of honor not to get it covered in chocolate. If you do, it's a sign you're new to the profession. Chocolatiers aim to be pristine.
Don’t let the odds stop you.
Traditionally, this industry is very male-oriented. When I first moved to Switzerland and was working in that small business, all the chefs in the kitchen were men. They made it clear that they weren't too happy I was there. You'll hear this from a lot of female chefs, about how they really haze you, and they're rude. It's like, "Listen, I was also an athlete and grew up around firemen, so don't even bother." It didn't faze me, but the rudeness was bad. For so long it was ingrained in us that a woman’s place is in the kitchen—just not the professional kitchen. Switzerland is a very traditional society, and in the past, it was implied that when you had kids, you stayed home. Now you see more women interested [in leadership roles]. In fact, one of my teachers said he noticed that the classes used to be men, or boys. Then, over his 15 years of teaching, he saw an increase in females in the profession, so it's definitely changing. It's just been an uphill battle.
Don’t be afraid to make big moves once you’ve achieved success.
My husband and I got married, and we decided we wanted to explore our options in the United States. It just felt like it was time to come home after nearly 14 years. My husband was from outside of Zurich, but he was very excited about the move. We knew we could come back to Switzerland if we wanted to, but we took a leap of faith and we really love living in the States. And I was able to still work for Lindt, and in an incredible role.
Not every idea is a good idea.
Chocolate is an indulgence, so when you're creating new product ideas, it's important to have fun with it and be creative. It's all trial and error. A while back, wasabi was really big, as well as sriracha. I do trend presentations, so I gave one of the directors some chocolate-covered sriracha peas. I didn't read the label of the ingredient label on the peas, so I didn't know there was garlic and onion powder in them. It was really, really awful.
And above all, respect the chocolate.
Saying that all chocolate is the same is like saying all wine is the same or all beer is the same. We know that's not true. It has to be the best beans, the best cane sugar, the best roasted nuts. Your final product's only going to be as good as your ingredients—and your processing, of course. You have to treat chocolate like a diva. I cannot go in a lab if I'm not in a good mood because the chocolate will always fail, always. You have to take your time. Our old tagline was, "Life is too short for ordinary chocolate," and I kind of use a similar version as my life motto. Life is too short for ordinary anything. Never stop exploring what interests you.
Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor. You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14.
Originally Appeared on Glamour