Food & Drink How Wonka’s magical chocolate creations were really made

How Wonka’s magical chocolate creations were really made


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Cugno made 900 hoverchocs for Wonka, the latest film from Paddingtondirector Paul King, which is set to win the battle to be number one in the box office at cinemas around the world this Christmas. Every single piece of chocolate in the film – a prequel to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, featuring a young, bright-eyed Wonka who dreams of opening a chocolate shop – was made by Cugno, a chocolate artist from Cardiff. Where the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale relied heavily on fakes (Gene Wilder bit into a tea cup made of wax, and the children fell into a river of dirty water dyed brown), and the 2005 Tim Burton version on CGI, all the chocolate in Wonkais entirely real.

Cugno had never worked on a movie before she got an email out of the blue inviting her to a meeting with a film company. She soon realised she was being courted for the chocolate film to end all chocolate films – but initially assumed she’d be asked to cater for the crew. “As the emails went by, I found out it was Wonka and that they wanted me to do the chocolates for the film.”

A Zoom call with the propmaster followed, then the delivery of the script, which Cugno pored over, growing accustomed to every one of its chocolate creations, from “hoverchocs” (which, upon eating, enable the devourer to fly) to “silver linings” (helping the eater to find light in moments of darkness or defeat). She loved the 1971 iteration as a child and watched it again for inspiration. “I really wanted to capture who Wonka is as a character, and who he is as a chocolatier.”

Cugno recalls vividly how “literal” Wilder’s Wonka was when creating a new chocolate. “With one of the chocolates, he was like, ‘Ooh this needs a kick,’ and he put a trainer in the mix. Then he said it needs to be warmer, so he put a coat in the mix. It was all very literal.” She took the same approach to her own creations: “If it’s [a chocolate] called ‘silver linings’ it has to have a really bold silver lining and represent what [Timothée Chamalet’s Wonka] is describing.”

Design “always came first”, says Cugno. “In the back of my mind, [I said] it has to be made out of chocolate, but I thought that can always be figured out after. The design is the priority. These have to be the most magical chocolates in the world, and I took that responsibility seriously.”

But there was no escaping the challenges of working with an ingredient that can turn from solid to liquid in a matter of degrees. How warm are Chalamet’s hands? How to make a flower out of chocolate that is delicate but just sturdy enough it won’t break if you wave it around? And how – with the success of a multimillion-pound blockbuster riding on you – do you go about making a chocolate teacup? These are just some of the conundrums Cugno had to grapple with. (The answers to which are: unconfirmed; by constructing lots of tiny, light petals – a whopping 250-300 per flower; by plucking out the inside of a rose and using it as a mould for a cup, more on which below).

She considered every angle, not least what the confectionery might tell the viewer about a character. “If [the character] was evil I’d look at using blacks and reds, but in more kind and friendly scenes it would be colourful – pinks, yellows, turquoises and greens, and definitely gold.” Gold leaf became very helpful for “Wonkafying” things, she says. She also had to craft something the cast wouldn’t get sick of eating take after take.

Presenting her ideas to King was nerve-racking. “I’d watched the Paddington films and tried to understand what Paul is all about, what his films are like, what his humour is like, before meeting him.”

Cugno designed 10 chocolates for his consideration, making five subtly different versions of each one. “I’d have one wacky version and one quite soft gentle version, and [everything] in between.”

King was thrilled with her creations and arranged for two kitchens to be built at the Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, so she could make every chocolate flower right there on set. Cugno worked mostly as a team of one, getting through 330lb of chocolate and only drafting in a couple of helpers from the props department when it came to decorating.

She soon realised her work was central to what King was trying to create. One day, he turned to her on set with an idea. “‘Gabriella, could you make me a cup for Wonka to take a bite out of?’ And I was like, yeah, fine, no worries. When do you need it?” The answer came: ‘two hours’. We can do lots of things, but in my mind I’m like, right, how is this going to work?”

There was no time for props to make her a mould with their 3D printer. So she ran back to her kitchen and looked around for inspiration, her eyes falling on a bunch of roses she’d been using to make chocolate petals. “If I take the middle out of that flower, that would be a vessel,” she thought. “But then I also had to make the handle and thought, gosh, if Timothee’s got hot hands, the handle could just melt and break, and if the cup is too heavy, that could just break off the handle.”

She returned to King two hours later with a perfect blue chocolate teacup. “He was like, ‘Oh, I love it!’ Then I went back to my kitchen and made five more.”

If not then, Cugno must have questioned how on Earth she’d ended up in such a position on the day she had to stand by on set keeping a vat of liquid chocolate just warm enough that it wouldn’t solidify but not so hot that it risked burning Chalamet, who was about to go for a swim in it. The little girl who grew up poring over her Roald Dahl cookbook would, however, have been thrilled. King’s Wonka – full of hope and childlike inspiration – resonates with Cugno, 30, who first fell in love with the idea of becoming a chocolatier when gazing through the windows of chocolate shops on childhood holidays in France. “I had this overwhelming feeling of, oh wow – I want that.”

She worked in restaurants from the age of 15 alongside school and moved to London at 19 to do an apprenticeship at a chocolaterie, before working in the pastry sections of five-star hotels. “At the hotels we didn’t do much chocolate, so in my free time after work, and before work, I would just create what I could out of chocolate just because I absolutely loved it.”

She eventually struck out on her own and in the past few years has made a living crafting chocolate sculptures and paintings for events in her Cardiff production kitchen. “I did a wedding in India for a famous family out there. I was doing afternoon tea and chocolate treats for lots of guests. Beyoncé performed at it, it was crazy.”

Cugno counts Wonkaas her luckiest job yet. One of her most treasured memories from filming was a day spent with Sally Hawkins, who plays Chalamet’s mother. “She really wanted to learn how to move and work with the chocolate herself, so she would come to my kitchen.”

Cugno saw part of her role as “feeding” the cast and crew. “There was always a lot of chocolate on set for everyone to eat.” She made several versions of each chocolate to account for dietary requirements, creating plant-based and gluten-free versions, taking care not to sacrifice taste in favour of design. “I was really aware that the actors were having to do maybe 20 takes and eat 20 chocolates, so I tried to do my best to balance the chocolates themselves, because after 20 you’ve probably had enough.” In the hoverchocs, for example, “there’s sharp raspberry in them to cut through the fat and the sweetness”.

My own hoverchocs get a final spritz of spray ice to firm up the join between the wings and the body. I take a bite – dark, bitter cocoa, tangy raspberry, and just the right amount of creamy sweetness. I think I could eat 20 without too much trouble.


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