Chocolate maker Mark Simpson has had a varied career and battled addiction. Catherine Scott reports.
When Mark Simpson’s dad couldn’t find his favourite rum and raisin chocolate Mark decided to make him some for him, not knowing it would be the start of an entirely new business.
Mark runs his chocolate business, Oh My Ganache, from the kitchen of his home in South Elmsall.
And he prides himself on the variety of his flavours which include a mincemeat one for Christmas and even bacon.
“I got the idea after doing a wedding fair and someone had a hog roast business and they said that I wouldn’t have a chocolate that would go with their product and so I thought about it,” says the 48-year-old.
“Bacon is salty and salt goes really well with dark chocolate and so I thought I’d give it a go. It is bacon flavouring so it’s vegetarian and people love it until you tell them what it is and then is messes with their heads.”
Mark is no stranger to doing things differently and chocolate-making is a big departure from his previous careers.
“We moved to Barnsley in 1978 and I suppose it was all a bit Billy Elliot as all I ever wanted to do was to be a dancer at a time when no boys went to dance class,” recalls Mark.
“I went with one of my sisters to ballet and karate. She ended up giving up ballet and I gave up karate.”
At 16 Mark attended the Northern Ballet School.
“I also got a place at two ballet schools in London and although Barnsley Council agreed to pay my fees they didn’t pay for my accommodation and there was no way my parents could afford to send me to London and so I travelled from Barnsley to Manchester six days a week on the train.”
After leaving ballet school Mark worked across Europe, before landing a job dancing on a cruise ship.
“I did 10 months and said never again, but when I got back another job came up on a cruise ship and I was off again.”
Mark did 15 tours on cruise ships in total and travelled all around the world. But he also developed an addiction to alcohol which saw him finish his cruise ship career.
“I knew I had to come home to get myself together, it was the worst time of my life. Ironically I ended up in hospitality working in hotels – even as a wine waiter, but I knew I had a 50:50 chance – it would either kill me or cure me.” That was 12 years ago and Mark has been sober since then.
“When I make a chocolate with alcohol in it I have to get someone else to taste it for me,” he says.
“People ask me how I did it, but it was will power, really. I knew if I didn’t stop I would die. It has been the biggest achievement of my life, the second biggest is setting up my own business. I have never been afraid of hard work. I have lost my job before and ended up working at Pizza Hut but when you have a mortgage to pay you will do anything.
“But I love being my own boss.”
Mark is a huge believer in networking and says the internet a and social media can never replace face-to-face interaction.
“I end up being centre stage wherever I go. It must be the performer in me,” says Mark who also does wedding planning and is a master of ceremonies.
He prefers to go to trade and wedding fairs and other events to promote his chocolate. Even that is unconventional.
“People ask me for a list of my flavours and although there a few on my website I have lost count. I like people to come up with an idea and then I can make it into a chocolate.”
Although he does admit that his first attempt at rum and raisin wasn’t a success.
“I liked to cook but I really didn’t know anything about making chocolate, so when my dad couldn’t get hold of his rum and raisin any more I got some chocolate melted it and added rum and raisins. I soon realised what happens when you add liquid to chocolate.”
He has come along way in the last two years since launching Oh My Ganache after demand from friends and family.
“I have quite an adventurous mind and wanted to create variety with interesting ingredients while keeping it affordable for people.
“I was sick of seeing the same old bars of chocolate in the supermarket and wanted to create something a lot less traditional. But I also a wanted a good free-from brand as my sister has allergies.” He set aside part of his kitchen which received a five-star environmental health rating and from where he makes his bars of chocolate and novelty shapes.
He is currently working on expanding his vegan range although he says it is a minefield.
“A lot of things such as herbs and spices that you would think should be vegan don’t say they are and I don’t want to get it wrong. So I am suggesting that vegans tell me what they want.” He is planning on having a stall at the Vegan Festival in Leeds in the summer.
But although business is going well Mark has a dream which doesn’t even involve chocolate.
“I still love to dance even though I am a big chap,” he says. “I am 6ft tall and people have always been surprised by how flexible I am.
“What I would love to do is move to Spain and set up a place where people can come and learn a wedding dance as well as a health and wellness centre.”
It all sounds rather at odds with his passion for chocolate.
“Not at all,” says Mark. “Chocolate is a treat and I am a believer in yin and yang in order to maintain balance in the world.”