Kristy Leissle, Chocolate Scholar


The Details

Occupation: Chocolate scholar and lifelong enjoyer, affiliate faculty of African Studies, University of Washington

Location: Accra, Ghana

Known For: Being the Doc of Chocolate! Razor-sharp analysis of the cocoa supply chain in her recent book Cocoa, and her general helpfulness to the bean-to-bar chocolate world


Can You Visit: Probably not, but Kristy speaks at chocolate festivals around the world!

Other Random Facts: Until recently Kristy lived in Seattle and taught at Bothell University. She’s also done some amazing research on the meaning of the word “artisan” to consumers (hint: no one agrees on what it means). Also, if you’ve enjoyed Dandelion’s Sierra Leone bar, you’re tasting some of Kristy’s work: She helped the cocoa co-op and Twin & Twin Trading get the beans up to snuff and exported to the U.S. I believe other brands are coming out with Sierra Leone bars soon, so look forward to tasting them too!

The Questions

Megan Giller: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Kristy Leissle: A marine biologist. I still think about that, and wonder if I could have made a contribution in some way to marine science. I was an avid scuba diver for many years and even got my PADI cold water divemaster certification, which I think was partly because of that childhood dream. I don't dive anymore, though -- it's too sad for me to see what we have done to the ocean.\

Megan: Why chocolate?

Kristy: Well, I have never loved any food or flavor more than chocolate and was obsessed with it as a child, so in that way making a career out of it makes sense for me. But it was never my intention to become a scholar of chocolate. You have to remember that chocolate being a serious thing to study -- that's still pretty new, at least in US academia, and from a sociocultural and political economic perspective, which is the approach I take.

People had been studying it from other perspectives, including horticultural and historical. If I had proposed studying chocolate for my PhD program when I applied, back in 2000 or something, I don't think I would have been accepted. Things have changed a lot now, and academics take food seriously, including chocolate. I did my PhD in Gender, Women, and Sexuality studies at the University of Washington, and it was hard enough as it was to get that degree taken seriously, or at least that's how I felt when I was a graduate student. So to add chocolate to that? I wouldn't have dared, as an applicant.

My serious studies of chocolate came only after I'd been in my PhD program for a few years, around 2003 or 2004, and I was able with the encouragement of my committee chair to pursue it as my doctoral topic. She believed in the academic potential of studying chocolate as a global commodity, and I am so grateful for her foresight. It changed everything for me ... as soon as I got the encouragement to do it, I knew that I would love the work. Chocolate encourages me to be interdisciplinary and use many methods and take different analytical approaches, so I never get bored and always find something new to learn.

Megan: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about chocolate?

Kristy: I wish people would stop asking me whether it is a health food. 

A tasting in Kenema, Sierra Leone

A tasting in Kenema, Sierra Leone

Megan: Do you think of yourself as a Woman (capital “W”) in the chocolate industry? Why or why not? And if yes, what does it mean to be a Woman in chocolate?

Kristy: Mostly I think of me as me, Kristy, doing the work that I love to do.

When I started this I didn't have much awareness of other scholar-writers working on chocolate, women or otherwise, so I didn't mature as a researcher thinking that there was any sort of group I could belong to. It's a little different, I think, for researchers than for chocolate makers, who have forums where they discuss their craft. Most of my work I do alone. I very rarely collaborate on my research or writing, so in the day to day, I don't have a sense of myself as being part of a community.

I do have a hyper-awareness of the masculinity of the cocoa and chocolate industries, from farms all the way to the conferences and business meetings and other sites at the chocolate-making and marketing end of things. In fact, investigating the masculinity of cocoa here in Ghana was a major piece of my PhD dissertation, and I continue to use gender as an analytical tool, whether I am explicit about it in my written works or not. When I'm in the field doing research, particularly in Africa, I have an awareness of myself as a woman, but my race and nationality are usually more forward for me at those times.

At the Cagemi fermentary in the Dominican Republic

At the Cagemi fermentary in the Dominican Republic

One big exception is when I'm at a conference or festival in the US or Europe: that is when I am most aware of myself as a woman working in chocolate. Men -- usually white men from Europe or North America, who are powerful and professionally respected -- tend to be at center stage at those events, and I do find it challenging to be a woman in that environment. There are moments when I feel an inappropriate sexist undercurrent that diminishes women, like at a conference in Europe last year when a man at the podium introduced two of the women who had helped to orchestrate the entire conference as "beautiful" and barely mentioned their professional contributions to the event. I felt so angry, I could hardly focus on the presentation after that.

I also feel like when I am at these things, when I am speaking with a man in the industry who does not know my work, the default assumption is that I must know far less than them. If I had a dime for every time I had the cocoa industry mansplained to me ... well, I could probably take my husband for a nice weekend away to the beaches of Sao Tome!

A depiction of an Aztec woman pouring a cacao drink to make lots of foam

A depiction of an Aztec woman pouring a cacao drink to make lots of foam

Megan: Why do you think women are associated so strongly with chocolate?

Kristy: Well, we are socialized into it, these days. I mean, the Aztec and Maya people did not associate women with cocoa drinks, unless it was with making those drinks, so it's not inherent. It's something that we invented, and I guess the association has worked well for both the companies who want to sell more chocolate and the women who are enjoying eating it, so it endures.

Megan: What’s your daily routine, starting with waking up and ending with bedtime?

Kristy: I like to start out as soon as I wake up with my core exercise routine, which is pretty yogic and clears my mind, puts me in touch with my body and what I'm feeling that day. Then I might fold laundry or unload the dishwasher, but often I head straight to my computer for two units.

When I'm at my desk I work in units, which for me are 45 minutes exactly -- I set a timer and when the bell goes off, I get up from my chair and do something non-computer for five or ten minutes. It's the most effective way I have found for keeping myself motivated and not screen-exhausted.

So I do one unit of reading cocoa/chocolate news from my Google alerts, then take a little break, and then another unit of catching up on emails and WhatsApp messages (the primary way of communicating here in Africa). Then I go to a 9 AM exercise class, either Zumba or TRX, which very conveniently are located downstairs in my apartment complex.

Sometimes after that I sit outside in the sunshine for a few minutes, lest I never see the sky, and then come back to my apartment, have breakfast, and settle in for four or five units of research and writing. That's the main part of my working day. If I have someone who wants a phone call with me, or student supervision, I usually do that from 4-6 PM, at the end of my working day. I time that deliberately so that I can get my own work done first, and living in GMT it works out for people in the US anyway, who are just starting their day or getting towards lunchtime.

Kristy is making her own chocolate at home, starting with cutting down the pods and fermenting the beans!

Then I make dinner, which I put a lot of thought into and find very grounding, finish up whatever household tasks I haven't done during the day, and make calls to my family in the US. I do most of the household work, and I love it. It's so nice to do something manageable that does not take years to finish, like folding a shirt or cooking a ham.

My husband usually gets home from work and a squash game around 7:30 PM, and the highlight of my day is when we sit down at the table to dinner, which we do every day when we are both at home. We catch up on the day and just have some quiet time together. If it's early enough, we watch an episode of Chopped, or Grand Designs, or Queer Eye -- those are the only TV programs I watch. Something about them makes me feel calm, and of course QE gives me hope for humanity. Then to bed.

Of course, this is for days when I'm working from my home office. When I'm in the field, I am doing research-y things, which at the moment can be anything from interviewing a chocolate maker in Accra to conducting a survey at an event to being in a rural area with cocoa farmers.

Megan: How do you find inspiration and creativity in your day-to-day work?

Kristy: There is so much to learn! A thousand lifetimes are not enough to experience all that this world has to offer. I am very grateful to my chocolate work for leading me down so many unusual paths, taking me to places I might not otherwise have seen, and meeting people I might not have met. I love learning, and chocolate gives me endless opportunities to learn and to experience new things.

Kristy’s new book! Click on the image to buy it now. You absolutely need it for your chocolate library.

Kristy’s new book! Click on the image to buy it now. You absolutely need it for your chocolate library.

Megan: What’s a challenge that keeps you up at night?

Another tasting in Kenema, Sierra Leone

Another tasting in Kenema, Sierra Leone

Kristy: Forever being so far away from my family and friends in the US. My chocolate research has taken me to many places, none of them New York. So I do think a lot about the fact that while my work has opened up a million doors for me, it comes at a cost of almost constantly being away from so many of my loved ones.

Megan: What are you most proud of in your business life?

Kristy: Simply doing what I do. I have to set myself goals in this type of work, because there is no boss or production schedule or target outcome -- it's me inventing research and writing projects and seeing them through to completion. This was always the case, but it's especially so now that I have moved out of my teaching role at UW and am a full-time researcher and writer. I have to just say to myself, “OK, I am going to do this piece of work,” and then sit down and work out a time frame for it, figure out where the funding will come from, reach out to the people I need to meet and research with, get myself to wherever they are, spend time collecting data, and then somehow make sense of all the data and write about it effectively. It's 100 percent down to my own motivation, and there is no rule book, no guide — just me and my own determination or whatever. So I'm most proud to get it done!

Megan: What would you tell yourself 10 or 20 years ago that you wish you knew then?

Kristy: That it's okay to be scared, that we aren't all born knowing exactly who we are and what we are capable of, that strength develops over time, with experience. I have made mistakes and wish I had said or done things differently at times in my working life, and have struggled to forgive myself or make sense of that, as if I should have known better. So I would tell myself not to be so hard on myself when I messed up or thought of a better way to do things long afterward. The important thing is to see it all as a process, and not to wish myself any further along in that process than I was at any moment.

Megan: Name a woman (or several women), past or present, whom you admire.

Kristy: Jane Austen, Tamora Pierce, Cat Cora, Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, and my mom.

Know a woman in chocolate you’d like to nominate to be part of my Q&A series? Have a question you’d like to ask as part of my Q&A series? Email me at!

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