Robert Steinberg, doctor, chocolate aficionado, co-founder of Scharffen Berger chocolate, and a man of quick mind, boundless curiosity, and much passion, died on Wednesday. A sad day.
I met Robert in San Francisco in the mid-90s, shortly after he and business partner John Scharffenberger started their quirky little bean-to-bar chocolate company, Scharffen Berger Chocolate, with a space between the two words so customers wouldn't confuse it with the Scharffenberger winery, a sparkling-wine operation run by John's family up in the Anderson Valley. Robert was a doctor who'd left practice after being diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. A man of many passions, he decided what he really wanted to do was make chocolate. Really make it, from sourcing the beans to wrapping the bars. At the time, no one in the U.S. was doing this. Plenty of people were making fancy chocolates and even fancy bars, but they were all buying their chocolate elsewhere, usually from Europe, and then blending and flavoring it to suit their tastes. Robert and John, however, were going to go back to basics.
For equipment, they had to go to Germany, buying up old fire-engine-red, Willie-Wonka-ish machines from small family firms, then retrofitting them to run on American current. The flavor they were after was dramatic: smoky, fruity, smooth but forward. It evolved over time, but you still can't confuse SB with any other chocolate.
Robert was like that, too. He had a sardonic wit and lots of opinions, but unlike a lot of opinionated people, he wanted to know what you thought, too, and why. You couldn't get away with mindless conversational fluff; he really wanted to hear what you were doing, and what you thought about it. I first met him down at the company's original South San Francisco warehouse, and from then on we'd chat at various industry events and food deals. I'd run into him at the farmers' market, at the James Beard Awards, and always, he seemed to know everyone there. He was a man of taste, and dedication, who said what he believed. The evolution in chocolate that has occurred over the last 10 years was spurred in many ways by his dedication, curiosity, and passion.