My friend Dr. Robert Steinberg, whose co-founding of Scharffen Berger Chocolates foreshadowed the chocolate revolution in this country, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 61. Robert had been fighting lymphatic cancer for nearly twenty years. In fact, it was his initial diagnosis that provided the impetus he needed to leave medicine and co-found Scharffen Berger Chocolates (along with his friend John Scharffenberger) in 1996.
His flight from medicine to chocolate very much exemplified who Steinberg was—a lifelong searcher for meaning, truth, and relevance. I'm not sure that he ever found peace or fulfillment (searchers rarely do). But I can tell you with some certainty, after sharing quite a few meals with Robert over the years: he believed in the power of the pursuit of big ideas, passion, and perfection.
Even when he let me sample a piece of the latest Scharffen Berger creation, he would explain what he liked about it, what I should appreciate about it, and what he would like to improve about it.
It's hard to overestimate just how profound his influence has been on chocolate lovers in this country, particularly serious home bakers. Although Robert and John originally thought their target market would be restaurant pastry chefs, they turned out to be quite loyal to European brands like Vahlrona and Callebaut.
So it wasn't until they started selling Scharffen Berger Chocolate at Bay Area farmers' markets that they found their market sweet spot. Serious home bakers were hungering for chocolate to use in brownies and other chocolate desserts—a step up from Kraft brand Baker's cocoa and Hershey's, and they were willing to pay for the privilege. (How wonderfully ironic that Hershey's bought Scharffen Berger's in 2005.)
I met Robert in the late-Nineties while writing a story about him for Bon Appetit. He was one of the most fascinating subjects I have ever interviewed.
Robert was possessed of a fierce intellect and relentless intellectual curiosity. In the ensuing years, I spent a fair amount of time eating with and talking to Robert. We wandered around New York chocolate shops, and his take on them was always unsparingly honest and invariably spot-on—just as it was with any food he ate. He could talk passionately and knowledgeably about any aspect of chocolate-making and of course chocolate, and whoa the manufacturer or chocolatier who cut corners or tried to put one over on unsuspecting consumers.
Robert loved food in general and cooking just as much, or more, than chocolate. Actually, what Robert liked to do more than anything was talk. About life, politics, food, or anything he really cared about.
His chocolate—and the revolution it inspired—is his legacy to the world of serious eaters. The personal legacy he left even casual, business-related friends like me is equally clear: Spend your time doing things you love and believe in, with the people you love to be with.
Goodbye, my friend. You taught us well, about chocolate and life.