Johnny Iuzzini has made desserts for many of the world’s rich and famous, including creating petit fours in a chocolate room he built at Manhattan’s celebrated Restaurant Jean Georges. As executive pastry chef at the Michelin-starred icon for nine years, he was twice nominated and once crowned the James Beard Foundation’s outstanding pastry chef. He has studied in France and worked for some of the biggest names in New York City’s restaurant industry, including Daniel Boulud. He has written two critically acclaimed cookbooks and been featured on most of the food shows you’ve heard of, including Bravo’s “Top Chef,” for which he serves at head judge of the “Just Desserts” version.
Now, at 40, the Ulster County native is ready to embrace the country life and turn a lifelong dream into a Catskills reality.
“I’ve been around the world, and I’ve been down in the city, in the urban environment, for a long time, and now my goal is to bring all that experience up here,” Iuzzini said yesterday from his home near Grahamsville. “My plan is to do a full-scale bean-to-bar chocolate factory and a coffee roastery.”
His new company, called 20 Degrees American Chocolate and Coffee Roasters, is currently raising capital and scouting potential sites in Sullivan County, including in and around Livingston Manor. Iuzzini is aiming to raise between $2 million to $3 million from public and private sources, including applying for a $500,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Development grant that will go toward equipment purchases.
The centerpiece of that equipment will be a Loring Smart Roaster, which can roast both coffee and cacao beans Iuzzini plans to import from the warmer regions of the world. (Both coffee and chocolate grow only within 20 degrees of the equator; hence the company name.) Those two key ingredients will be combined with locally sourced dairy, eggs, fruit and grains, as well as Catskill-grown maple sugar, Iuzzini said. His team includes chocolatier Damion Badalamenti and coffee director Jake Leonti, as well as Jason Casey, with whom he is currently testing recipes. In addition to producing coffee and chocolate products in a visitor-friendly environment, the plant will have a retail shop and cafe, as well as educational facilities for events such as classes for school children and professional development for chefs. The business plan calls for e-commerce, retail, wholesale and commercial markets, with eventual expansion to a global rollout for the brand.
Here are a few more details from Iuzzini’s business plan, which he shared with Catskill Eats:
- Product line: The factory’s output will include signature lines of global origin chocolate bars and roasted coffee; chocolate candy; coffee beverages; cacao nibs and cocoa powder; pastries and other desserts baked on site; gelato; and wholesale coffee and chocolate lines.
- Job creation: The company’s goal is to employ 29 staff directly, with an additional 22 jobs expected to be generated indirectly within its first three years.
- Retail expansion: Satellite retail shops are planned in various locations, beginning in the second year in operation. Target sites include New York City and the Montreign Resort Casino in Sullivan County.
Among his many pursuits in a career that began at 17, Iuzzini chose to build his project around coffee and chocolate for several reasons. For one, they each have their own allure.
“The idea is to combine those two cultures under one roof, and have it be chef-driven,” he said.
Secondly, Iuzzini wants to create products with long shelf lives that are accessible and attractive to a wide audience.
“I’ve worked in a lot of places in the high-level, fine-dining world, and you’re cooking for such a small percentage of the population,” he said. As his television career has blossomed in recent years, he’s reached a more diverse audience than the one that dines at Jean Georges or Daniel. “There are a lot of people in my fan base who don’t have access to my food, and people where I grew up who can’t afford those places.”
Iuzzini, who grew up in Wallkill, is clear that 20 Degrees is a long-term commitment to the Catskills region, and its growing artisan food scene.
“I want to be able to be where I want to be in my life — which is up here — and to be in my little bubble with my team and be creative,” he said. “This is not something I’m planning on developing and then flipping in a year or two. I plan on growing and growing and growing it.”